Millennials in the Workplace: It’s OK to Feed the Gremlins

Dog is lying on back on the bed - selective focus


If there is one thing you can say about working on a traditional college campus, it’s that life is never boring. Every 4-to-6 six years you have a new set of friends who wander through your scope of influence, bringing with them new perspectives on life and what the future may hold. But for those of us who have “matured” beyond the traditional college 18-22 years of age, it’s easy to see where those fresh, new worldviews may differ from our personal perspectives.

That being said, I started thinking about Wayland Baptist University’s upcoming graduation (May 6, 2 p.m., Hutcherson Center). We will soon unleash a new crop of job-force recruits into the world. Yet with a premium being placed on college value, and job placement being a large part of this equation, I began to ponder how someone from Generation X, which is undoubtedly the standard for ideology by which all other generations are judged, would function as a boss/manager for a Millennial. There is plenty of research and opinion out there about generational personality traits and work ethic that shows the younger generation approaches the workplace a little differently than those of us who have been here for a few decades.

Much of what defines the Millennial is contradictory to those ideals held fast by Gen Xers; such as their desire for collaboration, teamwork, and job training. Like gremlins in the machine they are shaking up and tearing down the norms to which Gen Xers have become accustomed. It seems that while Gen X strives for personal achievement and success, Millennials want to make an immediate impact. They want to work not for someone, but with someone. They desire to be heard, to be validated, understood, and treated as though they bring substance to conference table – so to speak. And they don’t want to work their way up to that validation. They expect to be treated as equal when they start the job. After all, that is why you hired them, isn’t it?

They want to change the world and they want to change it immediately.

Gen Xers tend to be a little more individualistic. They work alone. As managers they don’t spend time hovering over their employees. They expect the employee to be self-motivated, to figure things out. They understand the corporate ladder and hierarchical structure of business, and they do what it takes to climb that ladder. They are hard-working, entrepreneurial, and cynical with a certain level of disdain for authority.

Do you see any potential conflict here?

So, naturally, being the cynical Gen Xer that I am, I wondered if this was true. I decided conduct an exceedingly unscientific poll of my student work force to determine what it is they expect in a future job or career. My vast student work force consists of two … so my findings were limited … but nonetheless interesting.

My two student workers are intelligent, talented and capable young women. (I’m throwing in the superlatives because Millennials thrive on that sort of thing.) One is a graphic designer; the other a photographer.

While one, an introverted middle child, enjoys working alone in a structured 9-5ish environment, she still craves the necessary job training and open communication that is common among the desires of Millennials. She understands the need to work her way up the corporate ladder, but also wants to feel as though her thoughts and ideas matter and that she has made a difference by communicating clearly through her artwork. She seems to straddle that generational line.

The other is decidedly more extroverted with grandiose Millennial aspirations to change the world – NOW!

Having not told her what I was up to, her immediate response when I asked what she expects from her future job/career was to say that she wants a friendly work environment where she can go straight in and get stuff done without having to work her way up the proverbial ladder — after proper training, of course. She wants to work in a team collaborative where the boss is not so much an authority figure, but more of team leader. She doesn’t want to mess with the tedious or trivial, and she is open to a less structured environment where the depth of work and commitment is not measured by a time clock, but by task completion. Not exactly the way a God-fearing, American-dream-chasing Gen Xer was taught to approach the workforce. But that doesn’t make her approach wrong.

Can she change the world? I hope so. Her desire is to join the State Department and work to stop human trafficking. No small dreams for this Millennial.

Together, the three of us concluded that personality type, family, and cultural environment obviously play a role in determining who we are as none of us are defined strictly by our generation’s characteristics. We also discovered that it is important to understand that within the job market, the only person one can change is herself/himself. And while I can try to be a better manager to those two with their strange Millennial ways, they should also know what to expect from a Gen X supervisor.

These gremlins have become the majority players in the market place. That growth trend will continue over the next few years, so it’s important to know what to expect if you hire one. Consider keeping them away from bright lights and not letting them go near water. But it is okay to feed them after midnight because you might want to transform their inner drive and see what they can accomplish in the right environment.

And if you just so happen to be in the market for a graphic designer or a photographer, give me a call. I know a couple of Millennials who are great to work with.


About the author: Jonathan Petty holds degrees in communications and management. He currently serves as the Director of Communications for Wayland Baptist University.