Missing the Millennial Mark

I was recently at a learning conference in San Francisco and, as has become the norm at these type of events, there was a speaker who was presenting on the topic of “The Millennial Mindset.” The speaker himself was in his mid to late-forties and he began with the usual tropes.

“Millennials are just different.” “Millennials are self-entitled.” “They’ve grown up in a different world.” “They have very little understanding of the corporate world.”

It was not a very engaging talk to listen to, but it was interesting to watch the different reactions across the audience. While several senior HR and Sales managers were nodding their heads in agreement with the presenter, “Oh, I’ve been there with my millennials,” nearly every millennial in the room tuned out of the presentation almost immediately. Two of them stood up and left the room, several pulled out their phones or laptops, and one sitting next to me leaned over and asked me, “Man, can you believe this crap?”  

It’s not my intention to bash the speaker, but rather to highlight the disconnect between how he and the more senior leaders in the audience viewed the topic of “The Millennial Mindset,” and how the actual millennials in the room (the very subjects being discussed!), disagreed. And this level of disconnect isn’t rare. Over the past few years I’ve listened to dozens of presentations about millennials (and even a few by millennials themselves), and each time the vast majority of the younger audience did not resonate with what the speaker was saying, and could not have been less interested in listening.

So why is that? Well, it would be easy to say that the disconnect is simply that millennials don’t like being told about themselves, particularly by someone not of the same generation. And based on many of the exasperated looks I’ve seen during some of these talks, that’s definitely a part of it. But beneath that initial discomfort, there’s a larger communication gap that’s increasingly common in the way senior leaders think about millennials.

In our previous post “Teamwork at Work?” we discussed how Gen-Y is much more synonymous with collaboration and shared working environments than previous generations. We even found that when most people visualize a millennial, they picture a group rather than an individual. And therein lies the disconnect as to why so many senior leaders and managers miss the mark when thinking about and planning for Gen-Y. While millennials want to collaborate and work as a team, they want to be evaluated and measured individually. And the truth is, not all millennials are the same!

Let’s take a quick look back at the presentation in San Francisco. I told you that there were millennials in the audience and chances are, you probably pictured folks who looked and acted quite similar. But millennials are a far more diverse crowd than most people realize. The two millennials who stood up and left the speech were in their early twenties and worked at tech start-ups; the one’s who pulled out their phones and laptops were in their late twenties and worked in the airline, media, and consulting industries; the one sitting next to me was in his mid-thirties and worked in finance.

That’s a pretty diverse crowd, but based on their age alone, they would all be classified as millennials. And that’s really the biggest hurdle to overcoming the generational gap described above. The presenter started his speech with broad strokes of “Millennials are this,” and “Millennials are that,” but who is he actually talking about? In that hotel ballroom he had folks born in the 1980s and folks born at the turn of the century, and the way he structured his remarks suggest that they’re one in the same. That’s grouping nearly 34% (Pew Research Center, 2016) of the workforce as a one personality!

That’s a pretty big miss when you stop to think about it. My sister is only three years younger than I am, and just the other day I had to explain to her who Carmen San Diego was, because she had no idea who I was talking about. Taking that idea a bit further, when Snapchat, a quintessential and stereotypical “millennial social media craze,” came out in 2011, some millennials were just graduating high school, while others already had several years of work experience under their belt. Those two employees may both be “millennials”, but they just simply aren’t the same kind of employee.

There’s a huge difference between 22 and 35, and there’s even the same difference between 22 and 26. It’s not a secret, millennials will tell you so themselves! Someone in their early twenties, fresh out of college may feel like who we all generally think about as a millennial, but I promise you that most 30 year-olds don’t think of themselves as millennials. To a 35 year-old, a 22 year-old engineer is an untrained newbie, someone not of the same mindset or past experiences, and to a 22 year-old, a 35 year old manager is part of the company old-guard. So it’s not much of a surprise that when these two different millennials hear someone speak about their generation with broad strokes they both tune out immediately. Think about it this way: If you’re lumping an orange in with an apple and addressing them both only as fruits, then neither of them will really believe that you understand their needs.

As much as senior leaders and managers may wish, there is no magic millennial formula. If there was, I’d have only written a single post and been done with Base Camp in an afternoon. Instead, millennials really just want to know that you have a plan for them and that it’s one that they themselves can specifically buy into. Rather than have a cookie cutter approach of “Oh, you’ll love it here because we understand millennials (*wink),” leaders need to make a specific effort around addressing the norms, expectations and goals of their new employees every year.

Millennials are not a different species, we don’t have antlers or tails or (contrary to what your dad thinks), speak in gibberish. And when someone begins a discussion around Gen-Y employees with sweeping statements of “millennials do/act/behave like ______,” they’ve already lost a lot of legitimacy with the audience they’re trying to motivate. If walked into my old dorm today I’m sure that it feel like a completely different world to me. Those “kids” would seem so young to me, and I’m guessing that’s precisely what someone in their mid-thirties thinks of me every time I sit down across a conference room table from them.

The social and technological changes that created “the millennial” didn’t happen in a day, and so it would be foolish for us to assume that one day we can have an orientation on-boarding group of Type 1 Millennials. Norms change and what was a perfect mark for your 2011 hires, may be a complete miss for your 2018 hires. Just think about how different the culture of the first generation of Apple computer users is from the culture of Instagram wizards of today. And companies that acknowledge this and shift the way they think their early career workforce will be the ones that attract and retain “millennial” talent.

What do you think about the way your company approaches Gen-Y? What about this crazy new group of Gen-Z on the horizon? Head back to Base Camp to join the conversation!