These Kids Today….Managing Millennials

I was recently asked to lead a presentation on the topic of multiple generations in the workplace. I’ve heard several speakers present on this topic and the punchline is generally something like this:
– kids today are selfish and lazy
– baby boomers must adapt their behavior to accommodate them

I have a slighly different take on the subject. Here are some thoughts:

1. Prevailing beliefs about the differences in the generations are mostly bunk.
No one would ever lead a seminar called, How to Get the Most out of Your ___ Workforce (insert Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Gay, Female or the subgroup of your choice). Most of us recognize that each of those groups is made up of individual human beings and that everyone in a given group doesn’t behave the same way nor is motivated by the same things. Yet, many consultants are perfectly happy lumping all millennials or Gen Xers into the same bucket, employing stereotypes based on age that are no more universally true than racial or gender stereotypes are. I’m convinced that they do this simply because stereotyping millennials plays well to audiences of full of boomers. We love to hear, these kids today….” (reinforcing to us that we were so much better…)

2. Kids today are as individually diverse as ever.
I teach at the university level. I have bright students who study hard and give the discretionary effort necessary to achieve academic excellence as well as students who do the minimum necessary to pass my course. I have extroverts and I have loners. I have mature 19 year-olds and I have immature 23 year-olds. My classmates in the 1980s were very much the same. As were my parents’ classmates in the 1950s and my grandparents’ in the 1930s.

3. The “Technology” thing is overblown.
Younger people in the 1920s embraced the automobile and the radio at a faster rate than their parents and grandparents, many of whom preferred to stick with the horse and carriage and were hesitant to bring electricity into their homes. I was the family “tech genius” in 1987 because I could program a VCR when my dad couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. 30 years from now articles will be written that the younger generation is better with emerging technology than the aging millennials who prefer to stick with what they know. Always has been true, always will be. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of older workers who are early adopters and technologically adept. Assuming a 22 year-old candidate will be a whiz at technology is no different than assuming an Asian candidate will be better at math. It’s a stereotype.

4. Experiences differ but motivators don’t.
Yes, some millennials may have experienced a different type of parenting than many of us did. We love to talk about helicopter moms, bicycle helmets and how everyone gets a trophy. But when millennials join your organization, they are really looking for the same things that pervious generations were looking for. They want interesting, challenging work in an environment that is safe, positive and rewarding. The six primary categories of motivators that determine whether a job is “interesting” to an individual haven’t changed and these motivators can be measured in job candidates to ensure a good fit for your organization. Those motivators are:

  • Utilitarian – is this individual motivated by money?
  • Individualistic – is this individual motivated by the pursuit of power and influence?
  • Theoretical – is this individual motivated by a natural pursuit of knowledge?
  • Traditional – is this individual motivated by the desire to maintain unity, order and tradition?
  • Aesthetic – is this individual motivated by the pursuit of form, harmony and symmetry?
  • Social/Altruistic – is this individual motivated by an inherent love of people and helping others?

Rather than focus on what they need to do to attract and retain millennials based on age-based stereotypes, organizations should focus on simply building a great organizational culture. They should hire people whose motivators align with the position for which they are hiring them and the culture that they wish to reinforce. If an organization is built on trust, mutual respect, managerial credibility, opportunity and fairness, it will attract and retain great workers of all ages.

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