One thing we hear about Millennials (adults under 40) is that they live in the moment. If you yourself fall into that age bracket, you’ll have an opinion about how much that’s true of you and your peers. But we can probably say that compared to, say, anyone over 60, there is a discernible difference. The over-60s arrived in the workplace at a time when loyalty and dedication to the employer, and the profession, were still highly valued and couldn’t be neglected.
And these days, a 60-year-old being made redundant after 15 years of employment is likely to feel that those years ought to count for something: I should have been kept on; I should get a good package; I deserve some sympathy. Younger people, however, might hear that and wonder if it wasn’t a mistake to stay at the same company for 15 years. They might also suspect that a lack of competence or ambition was what made this older person’s career stagnate for so long.
Just as the career pattern of the 60-year-old puzzles the Millennial, when the older person looks at the youngster, it’s easy for them to misunderstand what they see: someone new to the job market who wants to be instantly respected and listened to, given interesting work and then allowed to move on after eighteen months, just when they were able to repay some of the investment the company had made in them. And as for the idea that you might quit your job and ‘go travelling’ for six months? That would have been career suicide back in the day.
It’s unfortunate and a bit unfair that this impatience and enthusiasm to do it all now is often scorned. Young adults are accused of having no gumption or that they can’t concentrate on anything because they perceive the world through social media – or that they’ve got a sense of entitlement through having been mollycoddled by neurotic parents and progressive education.
The fact is that Millennials don’t have a lot of choice. In most companies there are relatively few benefits for long service. Not like the old days when you ‘paid your dues’. In those times, the way to progress in your career was to impress the boss and hang on till you got your turn. These days the best way to progress in your career is to get another job, working for someone else.
And economically, it’s not easy for Millennials to save money or buy property. Pensions aren’t the easy, natural, ticket to a comfortable retirement that they were for the Boomer generation. Why would planning for the future be appealing?
I suspect these simple economic changes go a long way to explaining differences in generational attitude (certainly more than the internet, 9/11, medals for participation or any of the other evils of modernity that are cited by grouchy oldsters). If that’s the case, then relating to a different generation, older or younger, will mean empathising with the implications of the environment they know.
Here are some ways that this can be done:
Try to make younger workers feel they’re getting something now and they’re developing within their role.
- Give them good quality professional development, stuff that broadens the mind, and is widely applicable – not just technical ‘how-to-do-this-job’ training.
- Let them have access to senior people to break down the feeling of hierarchy and distance.
- Explain that in a year’s time they won’t be doing the same job they’re doing today, even if the title and pay remain the same – and deliver on that.
- Allow them to influence the workplace and their own role, e.g. flexible hours and responsibilities, personalising the workspace.
All of the above are either free or much cheaper than the alternatives: higher pay to retain staff, disaffection, or higher staff turnover because ambitions aren’t met.
Try to make older workers feel you have stamina and stability
- Be curious about how things used to work and what got lost in the switch to new technology and methods – can it be preserved?
- Mention the future. If you want coaching or extra responsibility, talk about how it will accelerate you to better performance in the future, not how it will satisfy you now.
- If you want to take over more of your boss’s work, say: ‘I’d like to learn how you do this’ rather than something like ‘I think I could do this now’.
- Be aware that asking for things like more coffee machines, table football, or pets-under-the-desk looks like a lack of seriousness. You might feel these things help you to be present at work. To older people they look like distractions from work.