Last updateTue, 19 Feb 2019 5pm


Managing the Generation Gap: Much Ado About Nothing?

The baby boomer generation was the most populace and affluent generation the world has ever seen. They hold more control, power and wealth than anyone ever before. And according to Brent Robertson, Partner at Fathom, they could do so for a long time… but for the millennials. Millennials are more populace than boomers and will make up over 50% of the workforce by 2020.

As a result, there is competition for influence between the generations that got the world to its current somewhat questionable place, and the generation that is purpose-driven and is going to have to get the world through what the boomers created. According to Robertson, that is because what boomers created is not sustainable. “Innovation is our feeble attempt to keep up with our world,” he said. “Now we must take on challenges beyond what we know how to do, and it is the millennials who can create the ways to do that.”

But why is there so much conflict around the issue of millennials in the workplace? Robertson believes the reason rhetoric is so high right now is because it’s being used as a smokescreen to keep organizational leaders from doing what they need to do—which is create businesses where people want to work. If they were looking after this, the rhetoric wouldn’t be necessary.

According to Robertson, there are three overarching differences that distinguish millennials from the generations that came before, and managers can take steps to create a harmonious work space and attract millennials to your organization.

1. Time vs. Contribution: Baby boomers tend to equate value to the amount of time you spend “in the chair” or behind the bench at work. The key to advancement in those organizations is through tenure; the longer you’re there, the more experienced you are deemed to be. This is especially true in the engineering, accounting and legal fields. “Just by being there you become a part of the advanced group. But millennials feel it should be more about how much value they can create through their work; they feel you should do something valuable and be recognized for it.

This can be perceived as an entitled mindset by baby boomers. But Robertson says maybe it’s not such a bad idea to attribute more to the value of the work and not just reward longevity. “Maybe we need to change our point of view,” said Robertson. “Maybe we should recognize that it doesn’t matter so much about how long you’re doing something; instead, what positive outcomes are happening because of the efforts? As a manager, check on your orientation. Is it just about time, or are you checking in on what’s getting done around here?”

2. Hierarchy vs. Network: Robertson pointed out that the hierarchies of power utilized in many large corporations and organizations got their structure from the military complex. They were designed to enable incremental change and reliable results. “That was good for the companies of the past,” said Robertson, but those kinds of companies operate very slowly. They don’t allow for real-time reaction and tend to minimize the workforce.

Millennials, however, are more in tune with networks of resources that were built for quick reaction and versatile development. That is critical for today’s unpredictable economy. Millennials are looking for ways to get things done faster; relational networks help companies face challenges that they’ve never faced before. The answer could come from anywhere; insight can come from other places.

3. Having a Job vs. Having a Purpose: People very seldom stay with one organization for their whole career any more, and the company no longer looks after them. Millennials have witnessed the implosion of many large-scale corporations like banks, non-profits, manufacturers and even the stock markets, so they don’t trust or believe that staying focused and dedicated guarantees that you have a future.

As a result, they want a purpose and to work on things that are meaningful. Robertson poised the question: “Does that just apply to millennials? This could be true of any generation. It’s just being a human being.”

Creating a Place where Millennials Thrive

Robertson offered several suggestions for success.

Challenge Them: Provide millennials with an objective with little structure and a crazy deadline that they can run with. “If you give somebody with new thinking, something that looks impossible, you might be surprised,” said Robertson. “But give them room and let them attempt to reach the objective their own way with guidance.”

Guide Them: Check in regularly and be open to new ideas and ways of working, but guidance is still critical. You must come to an agreement about what success looks like, and what the millennial needs from you to support that journey. Let them know what you need and get an agreement as to what defines success.

Listen to Them: Millennials have expressed that they need to have a sense of being heard. Even though the experience you have might not be there, just listen because behind the words, there may be an idea that could make the difference.

One way to show you are listening is by asking a lot of questions; make sure you understand what they are talking about.

Let Them Use their Toolset: This is about technology especially. Millennials are not comfortable using the telephone for projects; they favor texting and other ways of messaging. According to Robertson, millennials need to have a platform in which they are comfortable engaging, to have real-time interchange around a project or challenge and have a place in cyberspace where all the info can live. They want access 24/7 so platforms like Scratch are effective at allowing folks to interact.

Push Idea Development: If a millennial wants to change how things get done in your facility, push them to develop the idea so that it is justifiable and can be funded and implemented by the organization.

Share What You Need: Don’t be afraid to share what you need in order to be successful as well as what they need to be successful. If you’re successful, you get permission to do more stuff, and that gives them more latitude as well.

In Conclusion

Robertson urges everyone to get past generational label with their associated assumptions, and the resulting arguments about old ways vs. new ways. “Let’s put our energy toward conversations that productively engage our teams and inspire them to deliver their best.”

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is senior editor of VALVE Magazine.  

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