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A field guide to millennials

Sitting in the lobby of a large, prestigious Maryland organization where I’m waiting to meet with a client, I’m struck, no, I’m stunned, to see several young men walk in for a meeting wearing cargo shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts. It’s clear they’re from an outside organization coming in for a meeting or presentation. They look like they are in their late 20s and also look like they just rolled out of bed.

Over the course of my career I’ve learned the importance of observing while withholding judgment and not stereotyping people before getting to know them. But, really, in this case I’m either a dinosaur or these guys were inappropriately attired for their audience. (The culture of this organization is casual dress at most levels but senior management is always in formal business wear.)

My reaction was tempered a bit by a conversation last weekend with my son who is an attorney and, at age 32, is on the leading edge of the “millennial” cohort. He described one of the benefits of his new job as “not having to shave everyday.” And then I reminded myself of how my appearance and behavior in my 20s may have looked to people who were then the age I am now.

In a meeting with a client yesterday (a fellow baby boomer) our discussion of generational differences in the workplace led to some stories of him interviewing people in their early 20s. He can’t understand why the first question one candidate asked him about the job was, “How much vacation do I get?” Clearly, many millennials have different priorities than “boomers” or “gen-Xers” had at their age. And a lot of these differences are good.

Why do these differences between age groups matter to the business owner? Besides the appearance and behavior of young people driving some of my “boomer” clients nuts, there are an estimated 80 million Americans falling into the age group dubbed “millennials” (born between 1981 and 2000). They are having a huge impact on workforce trends and consumer spending trends.

As an example, car companies used to think this was a prime target demographic until they figured out millennials aren’t nearly as interested in owning cars as previous generations. Their spending, working and lifestyle preferences are not only with us today, but will have outsized impact on our economy. Today’s business owner needs to understand how to market to them, how to employ them and how to work with them.

With the caveat that no set of characteristics is representative of each member of a generation, there are some key generational differences that seem to hold up in research studies that can be useful for the business owner. Whereas boomers tend to have come of age with a work style of “get it done, whatever it takes, including nights and weekends,” millennials are more inclined to work to deadlines and goals, not necessarily to schedules.

Boomers tend to have respect for power and accomplishment, while millennials value freedom and autonomy and many are less inclined to pursue leadership positions. Communication for boomers is somewhat formal through structured networks, using a mix of electronic and face-to-face interchanges. Millennials are fast, casual, direct, high-tech and rely on texting far more than email.

For many boomers, work came first, and for millennials at the same career stage they value blending their personal and work lives. Boomers have lived through the shift of loyalty to the organization in prior generations to loyalty to our professions or the meaning of our work. Young people today are even more transitory with their employers and are more loyal to the people involved with their projects. Finally, while we boomers were more interested in career advancement, many millennials, while ambitious, are more interested in broadening their skills doing interesting work and being acknowledged for it.

So, some tips to bridge the differences. For millennials, you may have grown up wearing pajamas to school, but remember a lot of the people you want to influence in the work world did not. And for the boomers out there like me, appreciate what is exceptional about this generation. I love the worldliness, diversity, education, values and technological prowess of many millennials I’ve met.

Please just leave the flip-flops home.