Years ago, I attended a presentation about multiple generations working together. Given by generational expert Meagan Johnson, it was thought-provoking and funny. Johnson asked a room filled mostly with baby boomers to shout out adjectives that came to mind when thinking about millennials: Narcissistic, lazy, irresponsible, unreliable, rude, selfish marched the responses. She nodded, smiled and revealed her own list on a giant screen. It mimicked our collective list. Then she quietly said, “Only my list isn’t mine; it’s from a 1968 Life Magazine article called ‘The Generation Gap.’ It’s about you.”
Amnesia — isn’t it great? We forget who we were when we were young. Remember the saying, “Never trust anyone over 30,” invented by the older cohort of boomers? By the time I was 15, they were rounding 30 and that saying started to disappear. Hmmm. Yep, that was said by people now turning 70.
What I remember is begging for an 8 track and ogling over an electric typewriter with a screen that showed what you typed, one sentence at a time. Fax machines freed us from those annoying blue print papers. Sony Walkmans and microwaves gave us options, and in my late 20s we were buying home computers and gigantic cell phones. Ensuing years brought laptops, smaller cell phones, iPods and more.
What I also remember is that hardly anyone, young or old, ever said “No!” to any of these new technologies. Like our great-grandparents before us, who shunned horses to get into cars, no one said, “No, I don’t want a car, a fax, a computer, a laptop or a cell phone.” Instead, they could not buy the stuff fast enough. Entire industries dedicated to technology erupted, others disappeared. Show me people who have rejected the latest inventions and I will show you fascinating, anthropological documentaries on people we call the Amish.
So the millennial generation comes along, named for coming of age at the turn of the century. There is no name for the generation that came of age in the previous turn of the century, mostly because marketing hadn’t really been invented yet. But millennials were born into the laptop and video game world; the iPod to them was the 8 track to me. Yet this generation is demonized for their love and ubiquitous use of technology, like how dare they use the tools we have given them since birth so darned effectively. Perhaps we envy a group of people who inherently understand something that takes us older folks a whole lot longer.
Johnson says that what defines a generation are the “generational signposts” that emotionally engage them. For my parents, it was the Depression and World War II; for my generation, it was Vietnam and Civil Rights; for our kids, it has been the World Trade Center, LGTB rights and technology.
People will inevitably adapt to the demands that new technologies bring. They say that children born today will never have to learn to drive a car. Instead, they will learn to do things no adult generation today can yet imagine. It has always been this way, since the first caveman discovered fire and invented tools. Each preceding generation has something to do with the inventions that are passed on to the next.
So why all the intergenerational demonization?
If you really talk with millennials, you will find an optimistic bunch ready to change the world. They are more tolerant than previous generations and they work hard, especially when their work is meaningful. They too want to be seen and heard. If an older person is interested in them, millennials will add them to their trusted circle. If they feel like they have to work their tails off for shrinking pay or inauthentic appreciation, they will move on. Millennials are now the largest group of workers out there; companies whose futures depend on technologically skilled workers will create environments that attract and keep them.
And yes, millennials do use their cell phones all the time, and it can be really annoying! But their skill with those things is remarkable; they use them to create work and to invent new tools. Had you been born when they were, you’d be just like them.
And millennials, it is wise to remember that no one stays young forever (see comment about people over 30). Reaching across the divide to learn what people older and wiser are thinking is valuable; years of living brings some wisdom. They were once young and idealistic too. They invented those tools you love so much and helped to make the world a bit more tolerant. You are a product of the world they helped to create, and so it will go with the next generation and what you create for them. Locking them out of your organizations is sending a message that says they don’t matter, which can lead to lost trust. One day, sooner than you think, you millennials will be old and have to share the workforce with an even younger, more technologically advanced generation. Then, you too will start to say things like, “When I was young…”
Generations are thrown together in the workforce today like no time in history. We will spend a growing number of years working together; it seems that our time can be better spent appreciating each other for our contributions and focusing on building trust within our teams. If you are a boomer, criticize less and be open-minded about that late-afternoon text from a young employee. Millennials, pick up the phone and call (which older folks appreciate), even if it feels uncomfortable. Like any relationship, it’s important to think about others through their eyes, not only our own. What if today, you got curious about how generational signposts show up in your colleagues’ actions? How can that help to build a better dynamic at work? Nothing is gained by demonizing each other.