A Few Choice Words on Millennials From a Big Time Boomer Executive

As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, I have always been in the minority when it comes to dealing with Millennials in the workplace.

To me, managing is the ability to deal effectively with different types of people, and the challenge is in being able to bring all of those various personalities together effectively to accomplish the task at hand.

It’s what managers do, and what they have done as long as there have been managers. And it’s why the notion that Millennials – the younger generation that is now moving in large numbers into the workplace – need to somehow be managed differently, has always stuck me as a lot of BS.

No better or worse than any generation before

Here’s what I wrote about this back in 2009:

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The Millennial generation … is no better or worse than any other generation that came before. Yes, they have their own unique generational issues, but in my close experience with them, Millennials reflect what you find in other generations and society as a whole—some are good, some average, some clueless.

In my personal experience with the Millennial generation — I hate the nonsensical and meaningless Generation Y tag that some use to describe them — I have found that there is no one way to characterize or manage them. The three Millennials that I am closely related to are as different as any three people you would find on a street corner. And the classroom of Millennials that I teach writing to each semester at a local university follows this same pattern…

The notion that the Millennial generation is so unique and different from generations before them is nonsense. They are different, yes, but so is every other generation, and it’s something that managers have dealt with long before pricey leadership coaches came along and decided we needed their services.

To me, this is just another way to bash the Millennial generation and prey on insecure (or clueless) managers and executives in order to squeeze a few dollars out of them.”

Nothing that has happened since I wrote those words 18 months ago has changed my mind or made me reconsider any of that – and my TLNT colleague (and card-carrying Millennial) Lance Haun seems to agree.

A big time executive who “gets” Millennials

That’s why it was refreshing to read comments from a big time executive who finally acknowledged that, yes, managers and HR professionals need to make adjustments to Millennials just as they do every other generation and personality type.

The executive is Cathie Black, someone who has worked in a number of high-level positions including CEO of Hearst Publications and publisher of USA Today. As Ron Thomas noted in a TLNT post last week, Black was recently named by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to be the next New York City schools chief.

There’s a lot of controversy over Black’s appointment, but I was encouraged to read these comments from her concerning Millennials (although she doesn’t actually use that term) in The New York Times’ Corner Office column this past weekend. Here’s what she said:

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If you talk to a young person today, if they’ve had a job for 11 months, they’ll say, “Why haven’t I been promoted?” Or, “What’s next?” It’s really quite amazing. They want to be on a path for a new position.

We have to learn to take chances on people who are a little bit younger than we would have hired in the past. You’re always weighing experience versus enthusiasm. Are you willing to take a chance on someone who has all of the enthusiasm going for them, but perhaps they don’t have much experience? I think that’s particularly relevant in the digital space today.”

Maybe you noticed, like I did, that Black didn’t bash Millennials (younger people, as she describes them) for wanting to advance and get promoted in a time frame that seems pretty quick by Boomer standards. No, she instead made the point that managers and executives need to be willing to take more chances on younger and less experienced people.

An adjustment EVERY manager needs to make

That’s a pragmatic and reasonable point of view, the type of adjustment that any smart leader needs to be make – and flies in the face of what you hear from all-too-many Boomer managers.

But, Black also added this gentle and reasonable bit of generational advice:

When young people are weighing the pros and the cons of another job opportunity, I tell them to be careful about believing that the grass is always greener somewhere else. On the other hand, if it’s going to be a life-changer or a career-changer move, with some reasonable amount of security or success, then I think it’s worth a shot. I’ve always thought that if you’re passionate about something, then you should just be bold in your ambitions.”

I don’t know all the ins and outs of the controversy over Black’s nomination to be the next chancellor of the New York City school system, but someone with the degree of pragmatism, wisdom, and common sense management savvy she exhibits when talking about a certain segment of workers surely must carry over to how she would operate as head of the NYC schools.

Maybe I’m easily impressed, but I found her comments about Millennials to be refreshingly spot-on — and I don’t read, hear, or see much of that coming from many Baby Boomer managers today. Here’s hoping we all see a lot more of this, and, that we’ll soon quit talking about Millennials as if they’re visitors from Mars.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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6 Comments on “A Few Choice Words on Millennials From a Big Time Boomer Executive

  1. I totally agree that Millennials need to be treated just as any other young generation but, the frustration and conflict is there. As I talk to any business in my community and survey Gen Y on our local college campus and asked about young workers in their workplace, the response from people in business is “rolling eyes”, I’m done with trying to work with them, and it’s definitely a problem. And young workers are pretty much oblivious to what they will face in the way of ephebiphobia, the irrational fear of youth, as a recent Nielsen study mentioned, when they enter the workplace.

    1. I don’t understand how you’re working with companies if you actually believe that companies should treat young employees like every other generation. Most companies work with young employees just as they always have (if not significantly better in some cases). Is there a change in the level of frustration? Is that frustration due to employer action or is it more just a function of youth, inexperience and an economy that leaves young employees with fewer options?

      Personally, as a millennial myself, I am embarrassed for the few people in my generation that feel they need to be treated differently. Most of the people my age simply expect to be treated fairly in respect to their experience and value they bring to the organization.

      1. Amen Lance! My point exactly, and something I have been saying and writing about for several years. It amazes me that so many feel that Millennials are somehow so different than generations that came before them. Yes, they have their own unique perspective, outlook, and traits (if you can characterize 70 million plus people in that broad a manner), but so did every other generation before them. That’s why I don’t understand the notion of some “experts” that somehow Millennials are so totally different and need special handling then those who came before.

  2. Great perspective. As a Boomer whose clients tend to be Boomers and older, my perspective is that it’s incumbent upon “us” to successfully assimilate Gen X and Gen Y into our ranks. The burden of leadership development and talent management is ours. If as a leader you cannot figure out how to lead across generations you have a very serious problem. I shared more thoughts on cross generational leadership in this video: http://www.leadershipandinfluencesummit.com/summit/speaker/mike_myatt

  3. Great article, and great point of view. It’s true that managers tend to think that, because a candidate is of from Gen Y, they need to be treated in an ultra special way. But here at Come Recommended, we believe employers should learn about Gen Y and what they have to offer in order to utilize their full potential.

    I agree, they are not aliens from Mars, as you pointed out. But they are a generation that functions differently in some respects than previous ones. And that can add value to your company if they are treated right. There definitely are some differences between the boomers and Gen Y’ers (and even Gen X’ers) that needed to be addressed in order to create a positive work atmosphere.

    As you write in your article, their concept of time is a little different. They want things now rather than later. You also need to grab their attention faster than you would with another generation. At least create an awareness of these differences so they don’t become negative sentiments among your workforce.

  4. Hi again John,

    With regard to Black’s comment on learning to take a chance on younger candidates and switching the weight from experience to enthusiasm, I couldn’t agree more!

    Today’s 20- and 30-something job seekers (who are looking for a career, not a paycheck) really “want to be on a path for a new position” because of a passion to succeed, and they know how to go about it!

    Millennial job seekers are using social networks (like LinkedIn and Twitter) with two-way communication to brand themselves and seek opportunities that most Baby Boomers would pass up. Even social talent communities (like Cachinko) provide several forms of online communication, 2nd and 3rd level networking, and reference options that most Millennials will access long before Baby Boomers.

    Employers may miss out on one of today’s multi-talented job seekers if they keep focusing on the Generation Y label as a reason to NOT hire.

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