If you operate a business of any size, one of the realities that you will face is the employment of Millennial young adults. The complaints that I hear about Millennials daily is rather stark and absolute. Are they lazy, uninformed, and lacking in discipline as people suggest? Or, is the problem a clash of cultures which illustrates the cultural transition we are in?
I live in a community heavily populated by Millennials. I see a very different picture than what I often hear.
The Generational Context
Younger generations, like the Millennials, and now the just emerging, Generation Z, are products of two realities.
One is the historical moment in which they emerge into the workplace. Consider these significant changes that are occurring. They are the first digital natives. The emergence of personal technology means that their experience of every facet of life is going to be vastly different than older generations. As they have entered the workplace over the past decade, automation is widening its penetration into businesses large and small. The result is that there is a very different economic landscape compared to previous generations. The transition is moving beyond the world that my generation, the Baby Boomers, believe would always be what is normal and expected.
A second reality is that they have grown up in a time of significant global change; the war on terror, the growing conflict of violence between the political left and right, and, as I wrote in my book, Circle of Impact, the growing tensions between The Two Global Forces of centralization and decentralization. As a guy who knows many Millennials, I can attest that they feel these transitions. Seeing that there is no certain path to the future is a valid response to these transitions. It does not mean there is no path, but that path requires life skills and problem-solving models that typically were not given to them as they grew up.
Millennials are a persistent, residual culture?
Let’s think of the Millennials as ‘a persistent, residual culture.’ I describe a persistent, residual culture this way.
First, it is a culture that persists in spite of changes in society, leadership, strategy, or ownership. In this respect, the strength of the Millennial culture will be a driving force in global society throughout the remainder of the 21st century.
Second, it is a culture that primarily resides in the relationships of people. It lives there regardless of support or resistance. It is a culture of belief in certain values that define who people want to be together in the varied functioning of their jobs.
For Millennials, their value system does not just reside in their relationships with one another as it does in every generational cohort. Instead, relationships form the structure upon which both life and work are made meaningful. This outlook is different from older generations where they sought meaning in the institutional structures of faith, business, and community. For many Millennials, the transitions that have taken place during their formative years represent a closing of an era and the birth of a new one. It can be understood from the perspective of how the place of organizations in society is no longer what it used to be. For the Millennials, their local relationships to one another are the replacement for the institutions that no longer provide a connection to meaning and community.
Working with Millennials
Because Millennials represent a persistent, residual culture that is different than other generational groups, we need to understand better how to work with them. The perception is that they are not interested in following rules, working long hours, or chasing other people’s goals. I find this a simplistic excuse to ignore them. If it is accurate for some Millennials, then we need to listen to their reasons why.
In my interactions with Millennials, they convey a desire for opportunities that have a clear purpose for impact. They are more interested in work that demands creativity, learning, and collaboration. Their motivation is personal and social, not institutional. Nearly a third of the sales of my book has been to women and men in their twenties and thirties seeking guidance for their future life and work. They are concerned about the transitions taking place.
Millennials are also exposing a structural weakness in many businesses. This is one of the reasons that they are subject to such criticism. They show how the industrial mindset of the 19th and 20th century remains ‘a persistent, residual culture’ that members from older generations hold onto, even in the face of the transitions that I outlined above. This mindset is an understanding that the primary relation of people to an organization is through its institutional structure, not its people. In effect, people are defined by their role in an organization, rather than by the difference that they can make. How then do business leaders move an organization which is still a product on the old industrial mindset to adopt values and practices that can accommodate a Millennial culture? This is an important transition that the Circle of Impact addresses directly.
Where Accommodation Begins
There are five principles that define the Circle of Impact model of leadership. These five principles can act as a guide for discussion between people of different generations.
1 ALL leadership begins with a personal initiative to create impact.
2 We are ALL in transition – every one of us, all the time.
3 The greatest change we experience is in our self-understanding.
4 In taking personal initiative, start small, then grow big.
5 Act locally, then tell your story globally.
My suggestion is that a conversation within your organization is initiated to discuss these ideas. It is important to create an environment of asking and listening, rather than telling and reporting. This is where an accommodation between different generations can begin to happen.
If we allow ourselves to venture into this conversation, we can find that the persistent, residual culture of the Millennials shares many of the values and aims that older generations also have.
I believe that our future will not be a replication of the past. It will be something new, and quite different. This is the transition that I see. The Millennial generation brings qualities to this transition that if we are willing to listen and accommodate to their differences, together we can chart a path to the future. Let’s begin by treating one another with the respect that comes from listening and learning from our individual and shared experiences of transition.