Boomers and Xers Are So Last Year – Millennials Are Where It’s At

Learn to Engage Them and All Else Will Follow

Millennials. They’re that new generation of employee that waltzes into your organization with all the answers, entitled to work-life balance by virtue of their birthdate (somewhere between 1981 and 1996), wanting to grow and advance at a pace never before entertained by most companies. They’re entering the workforce in droves, and they’re not very quiet about it.

So, what are you supposed to do? You’ve had a good thing going. You’ve been in business maybe since before they were even a glimmer in their parents’ eyes. You’ve trained and engaged many, many people before them – some old enough to be their grandparents – with lots of experience and good ideas and strong work ethics. Now, you’ve got them all under one roof – the boomers, the generation Xers, and the millennials (likely from different backgrounds, cultures, and demographics), ideally working toward the same goals, but with vastly different perspectives on how best to achieve them. With decades separating their professional and personal worldviews, it seems like a recipe for disaster, right?

Well, not necessarily.

“The characteristics that unite us are equally, if not more, important than our chronological or cultural differences. When we get people together, whether they’re 22 or 72, if we get them to be vulnerable and talk about the real issues, the goals, the obstacles, then the differences in age don’t matter as much. Our collective human need for empathy, transparency, and honesty transcends generations,” says Jim Haudan, CEO, Root Inc.

Focusing on Millennial Engagement Benefits Everyone – But Mostly Your Business

The Intelligence Group, a youth-focused, research-based consumer insights company, reports that:

  • 64% of millennials say it’s a priority for them to make the world a better place.
  • 72% would like to be their own boss. But if they do have to work for a boss, 79% of them would want that boss to serve more as a coach or mentor.
  • 88% prefer a collaborative work culture rather than a competitive one.
  • 74% want flexible work schedules.

Kind of sounds familiar, huh? Like those things may be what everyone wants. It seems silly to think that a boomer wouldn’t want to make the world a better place. Or that a gen Xer doesn’t want a boss who is both a coach and a mentor. And in 2015, we’re confident that pretty much everyone sees benefit in a collaborative work environment. So, when we put aside some of the judgments made about “kids these days,” it seems a little clearer that we may be more alike than we look.


But, for leaders, the job is a tough one. The youngest generation of workers is different. It’s not your imagination.

“Millennials’ expectations are requiring all of us to shift some long-standing assumptions in several areas. Millennials are more interested in well-being versus just wellness and much more interested in the employee experience than just employee benefits,” adds Haudan.

Millennials have a distinct perception of what they deserve at work, how often they should be recognized, and the role of their jobs in their lives. For the boomers and Xers, these things might seem silly, self-indulgent, or even annoying. Many view their younger colleagues as having inflated egos. But with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that millennials will make up about 30 percent of the workforce this year, and 75 percent in 2025, they’re certainly not going away. This is okay because we actually need the varied opinions, creativity, and knowledge that each group brings to the table in order to create successful organizations. Engaging them in the ways they respond to, creating an environment where they can grow, and embracing the new thinking they offer can actually help everyone.

For example, a leading retailer recently tweaked its existing lock-step promotion process to engage the millennials that had joined the organization. Instead of it taking two years and a ten-point increase in customer satisfaction ratings to achieve the next-level title and pay increase, they experimented with a one-year/five-point achievement level. Sure, the title jump wasn’t as big and the salary did not increase as much. But with a tangible goal in sight earlier in the process, more employees buckled down to get there and actually earned the promotion. And, it wasn’t just the millennials who did that – it was people from every age group! After all, people are people, regardless of age (and gender, ethnicity, and so on), and we all have a natural desire to feel appreciated. We all want our work to be validated, we want to be rewarded, we want to feel engaged in what we do and understand how it matters to the success of the whole. Funny how that works.

“What I’ve found through personal experience and in work with clients is that if you can do something effectively for the millennial generation, it will likely work for the other generations. While those of us in the boomer and generation X groups might feel a little shocked by something the younger generations wants or how they react to something we’ve done for years, once we take a moment to accept the change, it’s pretty easy to align everyone. If you can engage the younger generation the way they want to engage, it can be applied to everyone else, too, with really astounding results,” says Robin Woodall-Klein, senior vice president, Root Inc.

Leading Through the Change

To be truly engaged, people need four things:

  • They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
  • They want to feel a sense of belonging.
  • They want to go on a meaningful journey.
  • They want to know their contributions make an impact.

This goes for everyone, not just the youngsters. Not just the Americans. Not just the women.

“You can’t only think about the generational divide. We’re operating in more of a global marketplace than ever before. Not only do we have different-aged people in our organizations, but they come from different cultures, too, which means different practices, ideas, customs, and needs. Managers and leaders need to evolve and lead with this in mind,” says Gary Magenta, senior vice president, Root Inc.

Here’s how:

Be transparent. “See-through” is not office appropriate, except when it comes to leading. Share your vision, repeatedly. Be clear on what your brand is, what it isn’t, and why it’s compelling. Admit when you don’t have all the answers. Help your people find purpose in their work and always be really, really authentic. While people have appreciated honest, trusting bosses since the dawn of the cubicle, the outspoken millennials won’t be shy to raise a stink if they sense an imposter. Whether you’re leading one or thousands, you must be the real deal. All the time.

Ask the people. Believe in your people’s expertise and skills; they often have the best answers. Let’s stop pretending that no one has a life beyond the office. We know they do. Find out what they love, what moves them, and what inspires them. What do they want and need? What makes them tick? The insights you’ll gain from asking these questions can inform so many things about how you engage them. The best programs, rewards, and processes will be built around what gets THEM going – not what the closed-door meeting group came up with in the latest PowerPoint presentation.

Think like a millennial. In most cases, baby boomers love a big goal. They want to put up that bull’s-eye and march towards it. But to a millennial, that probably just seems like a lot of work with little reward. They need shorter sprints with more victories along the way – more frequent, albeit smaller, bumps in salary and title are embraced by millennials in a way their older counterparts never even considered wanting or needing. Leaders need to reimagine the “meaningful journey” and set more goals that will keep the younger generation (and everyone else as well) engaged. Make them feel like they’re making an impact and excited en route to being part of something bigger

Get in the business of life. The younger you are, the less you’re willing to make sacrifices in your personal life for your work. Young people don’t just want work/life balance, they want an integrated life. If work doesn’t integrate with their life, if what they do all day doesn’t resonate with their personal passions, then you’ve lost them. Empower your people to bring their personal passions to work – this is what’s going to gain you their discretionary effort.

Prepare for Boomer changes, too. It’s not just the millennials that are creating change in the workplace; the Baby Boomers are as well. Many boomers are choosing to stay in the workplace longer by making some shifts in how they work – like spending a little less time at the office or transitioning some responsibilities to a colleague. These employees are looking to reinvent their careers instead of simply giving them up because it’s time. Consider the individual needs and goals of each person so you get the most from everyone and keep them engaged along the way.

Regardless of age, culture, or point of view, people can only be truly engaged when they know the big picture and have the capabilities to be successful on their unique journey. As a leader or manager, you have a great opportunity to help people of all generations get engaged in your business. Harness the energy, imagination, and open-mindedness of the younger generation and combine them with the experience and proven track records of the more seasoned people. While one size certainly doesn’t fit all anymore, when you can effectively unite your people and their diverse perspectives, passions, and skills, everyone will find themselves on the fast track to success – including your business.