Stop Reading About Millennials. Talk To Them.

June 10, 2016
Person sitting at a desk in their home office with a laptop, phone, and keyboard on it.

Millennials have now become the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. More and more established professionals are interacting with young adults whose daily habits, ideological framework, and purported enthusiasm for hoverboards and vaping, may drastically differ from their own.

It’s a clash of cultures, one the internet can’t stop collectively obsessing over. A new millennial “how to” piece garners huge traffic seemingly every day. No doubt you’ve seen them in your feed, with titles like:

“How To Understand Your Millennial Employees”

“How To Effectively Motivate the Entitlement Generation”  

“How To Carry On  A Serious Conversation With Your Kid Coworker Whose Weekend Hobby Is Binge Drinking With Other Rambunctious Twenty Somethings Instead Of Playing A Friendly Game Of Catch With The Children He Doesn’t Have In The Backyard He Doesn’t Own Because He’s A Millennial And Millennials Aren’t Interested In Settling Down And Having Kids, Only In Watching Girls Reruns On Their Apple Watches”

The surging millennial induced workplace anxiety many baby boomers and genXers suffer from doesn’t appear to be subsiding any time soon. As a result, bloggers stay busy bringing their best, hottest takes on cultivating millennial relationships and understanding the complex language of 18-34 year olds. It’s gotten to the point where entire career niches have been carved out by individuals promising to decode the “secrets of millennials” to their befuddled workplace elders.

Unfortunately, most of this ceaseless conversation around millennials grossly mishandles the generation’s defining characteristic. More than any other factor, even more than their fiery passions for social justice and Beyonce, millennials have been molded by the very mechanism that can’t quite seem to put its finger on them: unending online chatter.

It’s easy for cultural commentators to draw grand conclusions from the fact that most millennials grew up with Google. But unfortunately, acknowledging millennials’ historically unmatched access to information is usually a component of simplistic, polarized rhetoric; it’s either deployed as a pejorative to explain the petulant millennial “know-it-all” complex, or it’s cited as the primary reason for millennial tech literacy and workplace utility. Rarely are the phenomenological effects of growing up with easy access to previously unfathomable amounts of information discussed in a nuanced, balanced manner.

The reality is, the information superhighway has done for millennials what it’s done for most people, only more so. It’s made millennials increasingly self aware and increasingly self conscious. Thanks to the internet, millennials have learned from a young age, not only how to ascend to higher planes of knowledge and success, but also how to contextualize their own knowledge and success in a global and historical fashion. Because of search engines and social networking, millennials are acutely aware of both their own abilities and their own limitations. They grew up in a globally connected, data rich world that offers them both empiricism based empowerment and a real sense of their own insignificance. They have grown up with the luxury of fact checking every single idea anyone has ever had against an incalculably vast pool of global resources. One of the most profound, pronounced effects of this phenomenon? Millennials have come to highly prize a value that you’ll find most working adults, regardless of age, tend to cherish deeply. Authenticity.

Our agency employs more millennials than any other generational demographic, so allow me to share some some experiential wisdom I have gleaned on this topic.

To those with millennial colleagues, dialogue with them as you would your own contemporaries and see what happens. Don’t be afraid of alienating your younger co workers by genuinely conveying your point of view. Being forced or artificial will only cause you problems. Chances are your millennial coworker will detect any aspects of your workplace persona that seem phony or unnatural, and they may justifiably resent you for the charade. If you are simply yourself, your younger co worker’s willingness to earnestly engage with you may surprise you. Try not to judge millennials too harshly for being so passionate about realness in even the most casual of relationships, they have, after all, grown up walking around with wi-fi enabled B.S. detectors in their pockets.

Supervisors, eschew extremes when communicating with your millennial employees. Be neither condescendingly explanatory in training or overly critical in correction. Deal with them in a fair and measured fashion, as you would any of your team members. Resist being unnecessarily didactic, even if it’s intended humorously. Treat them as you would their older colleagues and expect them to conduct themselves with commensurate levels of class and sophistication. Motivate them by setting the bar high, and ignore the misguided impulse you may have to micromanage them. No one, millennial or otherwise, enjoys being micromanaged, as it conveys a deep lack of trust. Set goals for your millennial employees and allow them the breathing room to deliver on them. This approach builds trust; they’ll appreciate the confidence you’ve shown in them, and conversely, you’ll quickly get a sense of their capabilities. Don’t feel like you need to baby anyone. Ultimately, any worker worth employing deserves and expects to be dealt with as a professional individual, not as an amalgamation of his or her demographic’s worst stereotypes.

So please, stop obsessively reading about millennials. Stop perusing the blogosphere for more pithy analysis of their unique deficiencies and skills. Stop gobbling up millennial think pieces (after this brilliantly incisive one, of course). Just be authentic. Talk to millennials like normal people. Close this page and start right now.

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