Mastering Millennials

Young business professionals

Countless articles have been written in the past 10 years about the fascinating quirks, characteristics, and qualities that have come to define those born between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s. Known as Generation Y, the Echo Boomers, or, most commonly, the Millennials, this generation is just now beginning to have a significant impact on the workplace, and the words used to describe its members have led more than a few managers to shake their heads with confusion and concern. Entitled. Sheltered. Conventional. Special.

All true, to an extent, says Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs at Loyola University Maryland. A professor of mathematics who is also a noted expert on the nature of the Millennial generation, Snyder says that those who insist on viewing the Millennials as a nascent society of pampered kids coddled by helicopter parents are missing many even more deeply rooted aspects of their nature—and that business leaders who fail to capitalize on the potential of this distinctive generation are losing out on vast opportunities to advance their organizations and achieve their goals.

What are some of the key hallmarks of the Millennial Generation?

An important thing to understand is that generations, overall, tend to adopt a surprising number of characteristics of the generation that is departing—quite literally, those who are beginning to pass away. The Millennials are very much like the GI Generation, the ones Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation. They are comfortable with rules, with social order. I always find it interesting that year in and year out, the loudest, longest applause at Loyola’s Commencement is for the newly commissioned ROTC officers. By contrast, Generation X was all about blazing their own trail. Millennials are much more likely to say, “How can we come together to make things better?”, while their parents, the Baby Boomers, were more about achieving personal gain. The Millennials are so much more like the Greatest Generation, with a great sense of community, but one more committed to diversity, the earth, and the environment than that of the GIs.

How do these qualities manifest themselves in today’s society?

Neil Howe and William Strauss, renowned researchers on the nature of the Millennial generation, have identified their seven top characteristics as: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, high-achieving, pressured, and conventional. They have a powerful orientation toward groups and belonging. If you don’t believe this, try to get into the Loyola Fitness and Aquatic Center without an ID—that’s a challenge even for Fr. Linnane [Loyola’s president]!

What does this mean in terms of how Millennials operate in the workforce?

They very much want to know what is expected of them—and in detail. They want to know the algorithm for computing the quality of their performance. If they carry out expectations, what will be the consequences, and if they miss, what will those consequences be? These are people whose parents, the achievement-focused Baby Boomers, in many ways measure their own success by the success of their offspring. The Millennials, as they grow up, are constantly being quizzed and put through programs, whether it is soccer, musical instrument lessons, or even church groups. The greatest concern is that they haven’t been given the opportunity to create freely. The Xers did that—though they are frequently cast away as slackers, their “castaway” nature also makes them some of society’s top innovators. The Baby Boomers had heroes like Albert Einstein—inventiveness makes the individual famous, they learned. On the other hand, the Millennials have been told they should be able to fly through a hoop, edged with teeth, shrinking—and while it is on fire!—so they want very much to do a good job, but they still want the recipe for how they should do that.

Many employers seem to view these qualities as a detriment to professional success. But that’s not the case, is it?

Not at all. Once you accept the Millennials’ need for specific guidance not just in the evaluation process, but also in the execution of tasks, you can focus on their greatest strength—they have a very different way of being creative. They’re much more ready to be put in a room in an eight-person team and tasked with finding a solution to a problem, to help the company, and ultimately to help the world. With the last two prior generations, the desire to achieve was more based on the individual.

Millennials are going to be a growing, driving force in businesses for the next 10-20 years. How can companies make the most of their strengths?

Set clear goals. Create opportunities for collaboration. You can get Millennials in creative mode by putting them all together in a room and giving them a shared objective. And the goal shouldn’t be just to make your shareholders more money. If the immediate goal is to sell 100,000 more widgets or cars, the underlying motivation should be that your widgets and cars, by virtue of whatever is distinctive about them, will help make the world a better place. This generation really does have a deeper sense of purpose. They were exposed to social issues and the concept of service-learning much earlier in their lives. It’s a part of their world, and their world has indeed encompassed “things global” since they were tykes. The number one rule in learning to respond to and work with a new generation is not to honor the urge to judge negatively one generation because it’s different from yours. Look for ways to take advantage of the social norms that define the generation.