It happens so quickly. One moment, you’re shaking your head at the “kids of today,” and the next, you find that those same kids are your employees, co-workers… and, perhaps, even your supervisors.
Millennials belong to the generation born between the early 80s and the mid-2000s—there isn’t an official start or end date. (It’s important to note that millennials are not people entering college now. Those are Generation Z—and they have a whole different set of priorities.) But millennials have different roles and expectations around their time, your time, and who to complain to when things go wrong.
“When twentysomethings are working in an environment with World War II, Korean and Vietnam veteran seventysomethings, along with the generations in between those ‘somethings,’ there are bound to be some differences in communication, work style and job/career ambition,” writes Ronald A. Berk, Professor Emeritus of Biostatistics and Measurement at The Johns Hopkins University, for The Journal of Higher Education Management.1
“They bring different experiences, expectations and perspectives to the workplace. There can be clashes in values, beliefs and attitudes rooted in those differences. Further, the use or nonuse of ever burgeoning technology has magnified the differences.”
Now that many have entered academia, with some on the tenure track, here are five different ways in which millennials differ from Generation X and the Boomers.
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1. “Always on”
What this looks like:
Twenty-four hour news and instant messaging, the harbingers of our on-demand, constantly awake society, were introduced while millennials were still children. Which means millennials’ brains have been wired differently from others—and their expectations about when work and other things get done are different, too.
Susan K. Gardner, interim dean in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine, explains this very well in the article ‘Mentoring the Millennial Faculty Member,’ from the journal The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators. “It is perhaps not surprising that these faculty members… expect relatively instantaneous feedback and quick turnaround time on decisions, and assume that if they are sending you emails and texts on the weekend that you should also be responding to them,” she says.
And that’s just the day job. You’ll likely find the average millennial faculty member to have several side gigs, too. According to office supplies firm Market Inspector, 35 percent of them have more than one job. Additionally, 69 percent routinely work after leaving the office.
Biggest benefit: Regular feedback and regular working means that you can usually rely on a millennial to get things done by a deadline.
Biggest challenge: If you’re collaborating closely with a millennial, you’ll need to draw boundaries around your time—if you’re not used to an “always on” mentality, you’ll quickly start feeling drained. Consider creating structured time in your calendar for feedback if you have millennial colleagues or hires.
2. Welcoming authority
What this looks like:
The generation before millennials, Generation X, is best characterized by their cynicism and mild contempt for authority figures and rules. (Citations: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the band Nirvana, etc.) All generations rebel against the last, so perhaps it’s not too much of a shock to learn that millennials embrace authority to a fault.
“Millennials are the Baby-on-Board generation,” says Gardner. “From their birth, they have been protected and nurtured at a level no previous generation has experienced. This sheltered nature often translates into a strong sense of commitment to authority figures (this is also the generation of intrusive helicopter parents), but can also lead to an overreliance on the rules and structure for expectations of behavior.”
However, just because millennials appreciate authority, it doesn’t mean they feel the same about bureaucracy. Many will have a tendency to go straight to the top (the provost, etc.) if they have an idea or a problem, causing conflict—particularly in a strictly hierarchical organization like an educational institution.
Biggest benefit: Hierarchy isn’t always a good thing—and the confidence to be able to approach leadership (within reason) affords valuable networking opportunities.
Biggest challenge: A millennial who skips the “proper” structure may make his or her colleagues feel undermined. But don’t take it personally—offer the advice from millennial workplace advisor and blogger Colleen Dilenschneider: “Abiding by a protocol is not compromising the integrity of our ideas—it is a smart tactic to ensure that our ideas gain the maximum traction in the eyes of leadership.”
What this looks like:
The millennial with the “participation award” rosette is the stock joke of all newspaper columnists—and it’s true that this generation is always striving for recognition and feedback.
“Praise is not only optional, it is almost a requirement for these individuals to feel they are valued and progressing successfully,” says Gardner, an attitude that can cause conflict and frustration when tenure, which traditionally takes about six years to achieve, is at stake.
But when you detach the need for praise from the need for feedback, you get to a much more useful place—the beginnings of a growth mindset.
Biggest benefit: Reward-seeking can be turned into a good thing, at least if it’s consistently used for self-improvement and not just comfort. But if you’re managing millennials, you can also inspire loyalty by continuing to encourage them—often to the extent that if they have enough support, they’re less likely to leave their position.2
Biggest challenge: This need for feedback can be viewed as attention-seeking, so anybody who works with a millennial either as a supervisor or an employee should think of ways to formalize giving feedback. Yearly employee reviews are no longer useful for millennials: they need to know where they’re succeeding (and where they can improve) on a much more regular basis.
What this looks like:
Team and group work is probably millennials’ collective superpower—and much of this is down to the development and application of newer teaching techniques such as active learning. Millennials have been taught in flipped classrooms, largely been assessed through collaborative work and group projects and thrive in collaborative work environments.
This “everyone together” attitude extends outside the workplace as well. One third of millennials say work social gatherings are important; but fewer than one percent of Boomers value them.
Biggest benefit: According to Gardner, millennials’ new ways of working can engender new types of scholarship. “Interdisciplinary scholarship could become the modus operandi for this generation of faculty,” she says. “How does interdisciplinary scholarship count? What about team-teaching and co-teaching? In what have been more traditionally solitary disciplines, how does collaborative scholarship count and how is it valued?”
Biggest challenge: The structure that teamwork offers—and the collective responsibility—can often mean that it’s hard for millennials to work either by themselves, or without guidelines to follow in unclear and difficult situations. 3
5. Natural technology adapters
What this looks like:
Collaboration, constant vigilance, immediate feedback and rewards: it’s easy to draw a line between these features of millennials and the use of technology to work and communicate. Instant messaging tools such as Slack are used by millennials to collaborate; they want their managers and workplaces to recognize and leverage their tech knowledge; and the ability to work from home (or the coffee shop) is important to them.
Where conflict can arise in a workplace is through expectations of how much tech is used. In survey data from a white paper by UK-based recruitment firm Robert Walters, 34 percent of millennials said that older workers did not understand new technology, and that this was the main cause of conflict. A further 33 percent were annoyed with using outdated tech in their workplace;
“[Millennials] and a large percentage of Gen-Xers grew up with technology,” writes Berk. “Boomers and traditionalists have been learning it on the fly and always seem to be playing catch-up.” But this is a situation, of course, where previous generations can learn, Berk adds. “‘Reverse-mentoring’ is an entirely valid strategy.”
Biggest benefit: New tools mean new ideas, new collaborations and more efficient ways of working—if millennials, are, of course, given the right technology to start with.
Biggest challenge: A reliance on tech can mean difficulties when talking to people who prefer different ways of communication. “Compared with people who didn’t grow up using computers and the internet, [millennials] may be slower to pick up on nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, tones of voice and body language,” writes John K. Mullen in the Harvard Business Review. If you don’t get the face-to-face reaction you were expecting, or if somebody seems rude, this could be why.
The best way forward is to take a leaf out of the millennials’ collaboration toolkit and see working with a different generation as enriching for everyone. Boomers and Generation X have wisdom: Millennials have knowledge. As millennial blogger Dilenschnieder puts it: “Do I think we’re a special generation? Kind of, yes. But what I’ve learned most is that boomers are, too.” And, if you’re a boomer who is still having trouble relating to millennials at your workplace, just remember: soon enough, the wheel will turn again and millennials will have to worry about the idiosyncracies of the generations that follow.
Additional research by Harleen Dhami
- Berk, Ronald A. . “Multigenerational Diversity in the Academic Workplace: Implications for Practice.” Journal of Higher Education Management 28 (1): 10–23.
- Murphy, Wendy Marcinkus. . “Reverse Mentoring at Work: Fostering Cross-Generational Learning and Developing Millennial Leaders.” Human Resource Management 51 (4): 549–74.
- Howe, Neil, and William Strauss. . Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.