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Millennials and Gen Xers: From contention to collaboration

By Sharon Aut and Lindsey Wopschall

Millennials now comprise the majority of the workforce, and most CEOs are Gen Xers. Learn how to leverage cross-generational virtues to create a powerful, future-oriented workplace.

Over half of today's workforce is now made up of people born between 1981 and 1997. And 68% of Inc 500 CEOs are Xers. They're different generations with different styles, values, and goals—but that doesn’t mean they have to be at odds. Like other kinds of diversity, generational diversity should be leveraged as a valuable asset.

That starts with the older generation of leaders taking the time to understand their younger counterparts. Workplace beer taps, ping-pong tables, and flexible work schedules are the outer trappings of the Millennial workplace. But what are their underlying values?

Let’s look at three distinct generational shifts and how they are impacting the workforce.

The three shifts

1. From exclusive to inclusive
Prior to Millennials taking center stage, exclusivity was a positive, status-enhancing quality. The fact that they wouldn’t let just anyone in increased the perceived value of resorts, country clubs and grand cruises. Now, we see a shift toward inclusion, and more inviting attitudes. The tagline of a recent Airbnb marketing campaigns was “Belong anywhere.”

We can see how inclusion is reflected in the modern workplace, with its collaborative office environments. Open concept workspaces have replaced the traditional "cube farms." Offices have also embraced inclusivity and literal transparency with the proliferation of glass walls, making it easy to see into meeting rooms and other spaces.

2. From perfect to unique
For decades, beauty has been portrayed in popular culture as tall, thin, white, blonde, and blue-eyed. The advent of social media has opened new channels of information and images, expanding popular ideals of beauty to include more body types and ethnicities. There is a new appreciation of the things that make us different. This is a dramatic 180 from the more homogeneous popular culture that Gen X grew up with. This push for uniqueness can be seen in the new premium placed on a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints. Being different from the “typical” worker is now seen as valuable.

3. From power to purpose
Generation Xers can likely recall being told things like “winning takes care of everything,” which fueled their desire for blue ribbons and corner offices. But today’s millennial-dominated world is less inspired by power than purpose. The success of companies that have a mission beyond making a profit are proof of this, like TOMS, a company dedicated to providing a pair of shoes for those in need with every purchase.

Implications of a knowledge society

In a Harvard Business Review article in 1992, the late Peter Drucker wrote: “Every few hundred years throughout Western history, a sharp transformation has occurred. In a matter of decades, society altogether rearranges itself—its worldview, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions. Fifty years later a new world exists. And the people born into that world cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. Our age is such a period of transformation.”

What Drucker was describing was the birth of the Internet, and the shift to a knowledge society. It’s this internet-fueled transformation that shaped the world Millennials grew up in, and gave rise to the major three shifts described above. For Gen Xers managing that Millennial workforce, understanding these shifts is essential. If these older managers are not attuned to them, they are bound to be disappointed and confused when, for example, a tried-and-true appeal to exclusivity falls flat with their workers and customers.

Millennial myths

The popular view of Millennial is fueled by misunderstandings and stereotypes. Among other things, they're dismissed as the “participation trophy” generation who expect to be patted on the back just for showing up. They are supposedly more self-absorbed than previous generations—even more than Baby Boomers, who were known for such slogans as “If it feels good, do it.” And are thought to have a worse work ethic, even by members of Gen X who came of age being maligned as “slackers.”

Here a large dose of empathy is in order. What can be perceived as a Millennial lack of commitment to the traditional workplace can at least partly be attributed to changing economic realities. While Gen Xers may have heard of the college debt crisis among Millennials, they may have a hard time fully absorbing how different it's been for their younger counterparts post college. The class of 2019 will have three times more debt than the class of 1993. And tuition has skyrocketed since Gen X went to college, increasing eight times faster than wages. So it’s not that Millennials have abandoned the system so much as they may feel abandoned by it.

Millennial tips

That said, Millennials are resilient, and have made the most of technology to liberate themselves from traditional structures. In managing them, it helps to understand that the usual 9-to-5 doesn’t make as much sense to them because technology means they're always on. It’s a misconception that they don’t want to be held accountable—it’s just that they want to work on their own clock. Given this, Gen X managers should try focusing more on outcomes than their own perceptions of Millennial work attitudes. Be open to virtual work environments and give Millennials space, and they are likely to reward you with loyalty.  

Another lesson is that Millennials want to be part of companies that are about more than the bottom line. They want a higher purpose. Certified B Corporations—a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit, known for being social and environmentally friendly—are also on the rise. As of June 2019, there are just under 2,750 of these types of certified companies. Such strong social values are a recruiting draw for many Millennials. Employees may even choose a job with a lesser paycheck, if it means working for a company that has values that align with their own.

The always-on nature of the information society also means managers should try to give feedback more often. Remember, this is the generation that has been raised off of instant feedback. As soon as they post something on Instagram, Facebook, or any other social media, they instantly receive feedback through likes, comments, and shares. 

Generational differences as an asset

One of the challenges of a multi-generational workforce is getting each generation to acknowledge and respect the attributes of the others. That’s compounded by the fact that many people resist being categorized by generation at all. Which is understandable. Individuals are complex and diverse. But in the course of guiding workshops on this topic, we often find that initial “that’s not me!” reactions give way to a recognition of basic generational differences by the end of the session. The key is to embrace those differences as strengths and opportunities—not threats. For Gen Xers, this means understanding the world that shaped Millennials and their values.