Demystifying the Millennials

Mark L. Johnson

December 2008

Millennials are smart and have a strong sense of self. They’re team players who can fit in great on the job—if you know what makes them tick.

Earlier this year, after reading "InSync with the Millennial Generation” (AWCI’s Construction Dimensions, June 2008, page 23), the superintendent at a West Coast construction firm commented: "Dealing with this generation every day has become even harder than dealing with the poor leadership on the side of the GC.”

It sounds like he finds Millennials—the name for today’s bright but self-absorbed younger folk—somewhat of a chore to oversee. Just why would he feel that way?

"I am going to give you my ‘Dina Theory,’” says Dina Cipollaro, a generational expert and trainer at Fundamental Training Solutions, South Lake Tahoe, Calif. "Boomers have been working with Generation X for years, and Gen X is a very independent, ‘Tell me what to do, leave me alone, and I’m good’ generation. Well, all of a sudden, the Millennials come in needing a lot more communication and feedback than Gen X-ers, and I think that it’s kind of throwing the Boomers. They look at Millennials and say, ‘Why is it so much work to manage them?’”

Who Are the Millennials?
Millennials are the children of the Baby Boom generation, although a few are the children of Gen X-ers. They range in age from 6 to 26, Cipollaro says, and there are many of them—80 million versus 77 million Baby Boomers and 44 million Gen X-ers.

One thing making Millennials unique is their outlook. "They have been told, ‘You’re the most precious thing that has ever happened to this earth. The world celebrated on the day you were born,’” says Anna Liotta, a generational expert at Resultance Inc., Seattle, Wash.

Yes, Millennials have been coddled and stroked their whole lives. They are all the more confident and aspiring for it, but they need plenty of reassurance and words of encouragement. To managers, it can seem as if Millennials chafe at counsel and prefer to avoid it.

"It has become a task to give the constructive criticism needed in order to help them become better at their trade,” wrote the above superintendent. "I am constantly hearing this generation say that the foremen are disrespecting them and that they are working hard, when in reality, all we want is [for] them to be become the best at what they do.”

According to our experts, Millennials do work hard. They especially enjoy working with others in their age group, and they welcome direction from superiors. They just have strong points of view and are willing to assert them.

"A few years back, the [late] Peter Jennings did a special on ABC News. He was talking about this new generation, and he was calling them ‘Generation Y,’ the ‘Techno Generation,’ the ‘Next-ers,’ and the ‘Sunshine Generation,’” says Cipollaro. "After the newscast, thousands sent e-mails. ‘Dear Peter, We would rather our name be the Millennials. Love, Bob. Love, Sally.’” The term "Millennials” took root and so did the reputation of this generation as having a voice to be heard.

Four Generations, One Job Site
It’s important to note that generations don’t exist in vacuums. Rather, they are best understood in their relation to others. "Many people focus on the Millennials,” says Liotta, the keynote speaker at last April’s Northwest Wall & Ceiling Bureau’s Annual Convention & Trade Show in Carlsbad, Calif. "But, the real value comes by understanding not just one generation, but all of them—how they work together and where they clash.”

Let’s break it down. Knowing something about your own generation can help you better understand and work with Millennials.

Traditionalists lived through World War II. They are today’s company owners and mentors. Their leadership style reflects a disciplined approach gleaned from the military. Liotta says they follow a "chain of command” philosophy, which can put them at odds with Millennials, who think more in terms of collaboration than regimentation. Both groups, however, like the big picture and have been known to live for the good of the greater community.

Baby Boomers have an outlook forged by having been raised in times of economic prosperity. Their Traditionalist parents wanted to be sure they would never follow the likes of a Hitler, so they raised their kids to think freely. Thus, Boomers learned the art of self-expression and came to question authority. They follow what Liotta calls "the challenge command” premise. That is, Boomers like command structures, but they also like challenging the system.

Generation X-ers grew up in a different world altogether. Theirs was a time when split families and do-over families become numerous, turning Gen X-ers into survivalists. Many moved from traditional family units to blended family units, some moving into several blended family units. Thus, Gen X-ers learned to be self-reliant. They follow the "self command” work ethic, Liotta says.

Now, let’s contrast the points of view of the above generations with what we know to be the outlook of Millennials:

Millennials are peer-focused and ascribe to the work motto, "no command, collaborate,” says Liotta. That is, they like working with their peers, and they see their elders as team members more so than superiors.

Millennials also see job productivity in different terms than most of today’s managers. If they can use technology and multi-tasking skills to get the same output as others, they’d like to do so and be paid for their output (not for the time they put in).

"They just don’t get it,” many Millennials say. "The boss is so hung up on how much time I spend here. It takes me a quarter of the time to get the same thing done that they get done. Do I really have to stay for, you know, six hours, if I get it done in two?”

Managing the Millennials
Having established the context for each generation, let’s discuss some management techniques. There are several things you can do to get good results with Millennials. Here are three important points:

Always explain the reasons behind your policies and rules. Millennials are used to being given clear boundaries for work. They understand that rules are needed on the job site, but there’s a catch. Millennials follow company rules and policies best when they are told why doing so is important. You can’t just state the rules; you also have to state the reasons behind them. Since they were toddlers, Millennials have been allowed to ask questions. (Sound familiar? Their Baby Boomer parents also asked questions as kids.)

Therefore, when a Millennial comes to work for you, be clear about job-site regulations and protocols. Saying, "We don’t allow text messaging on the job,” won’t work for the Millennial. You have to say why the rule is important. Tell them a story, such as a time when text messaging almost lead to an accident.

Give Millennials constructive feedback. "Whether it’s positive or negative, it must be based on evidence apparent in their work or with their work ethic,” Cipollaro says. You can’t just make the statement, ‘You come to work every day with a negative attitude,’ because that does nothing. You need to give them evidence of why their attitude looks negative.”

In a similar vein, accusatory statements such as, "You’re doing an awful job,” or "You screwed up that project,” are counterproductive. A better approach shows Millennials the reasons for the counsel.

"You don’t have to walk on tiptoes. Don’t be scared,” Cipollaro says to job foremen and project superintendents. "Just know that this generation needs feedback based on evidence, and be very clear about your expectations.”

Example: "I need you to be on time for work every day.” While it may seem odd that you have to explain so much, "don’t even try to figure it out,” Cipollaro says. "Just tell them. It takes 15 seconds.”

Form crews that allow Millennials to work with their peers. Millennials love being around people. If a job site lacks a sense of community or a sense of peer connectedness, Millennials can feel isolated and may seek other work.

Do Millennials need to work with only other Millennials?

"They definitely like working with people their own age and people who have the same kind of momentum,” Liotta says. Earlier this year, Liotta placed a Millennial on a job. The 16-year-old said, "All the people are old,” to which Liotta replied, "What do you mean? There are people there in their 20s.” The youth said, "Yea, but they’re old.” Clearly, Millennials like working with their peers.

Seeing Big Picture
Finally, here are some of the top-of-mind questions about Millennials asked frequently of generational experts:

"Really? I have to communicate in their style? Can’t I just force them to do it the way I do it?” It depends on who’s doing the wooing, says Liotta. If you need the Millennial to be on your job site, then you have to adopt their style. By the same token, if they are interviewing with you, they should be trying to interview in your style. The burden lies on the person needing the other person to shift their generational approach.

"How do I give feedback without crushing their spirit?” Since Millennials have heard mostly positive kudos, Liotta suggests using the "sandwich approach.” Tell them something that they do well and then tell them what they need to correct. Finish with some encouragement.

When you have thought abut these points, step back and try to see the big picture. As a whole, Millennials are a hardworking, positive group to have around. They’ve had a different upbringing than have other generations, but at least they set their sets high.

"I really believe with all my heart that this generation wants to know they are helping. They want to make a difference,” says Cipollaro. "I work with college students, and I always talk to them because I find them intriguing. I ask them, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ Eight out of 10 times they will say, ‘I want to make a difference. I want something that has meaning. I just don’t want to work the rest of my life and die. I want to know that I made an impact.’”

With your help and guidance, they can.

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.

For More Information
To learn more about having four different generations on one job site, attend the "Mastering the Mix: Managing Four Generations in the Workplace” education session at AWCI’s 2009 annual convention in Nashville, Tenn. This session will be held March 28 from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Visit www.awci.org for more information.