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Managing Millennials

Updated on May 8, 2017

"The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverance. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything."

So is this a baby boomer talking about a millennial? Or a GenX'er talking about a millennial? Which do you think?

For those readers that do not know:

a Baby Boomer is somebody born between 1946 and 1964

a GenX'er (generation X) is somebody born between 1965 and the early 1980's

a Millennial is somebody born between the early 1980's and the late 1990's

If you said "Baby Boomer talking about Millennials" you were ... wrong.

If you said "GenX'er talking about Millenials" you were ... also wrong.

In fact, in both cases, you were wrong by almost 750 years. The quote actually comes from a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in 1274 AD. It's just one of many ancient quotes expressing remorse over the mores of the next generation. I have included more of these quotes at the end of this article.

Preconceived views of Millenials

The Baby Boomers and the GenX'ers tend to have a low opinion of the Millennials (and the Baby Boomers don't think too much of the GenX'ers either). Both generations see the Millennials possessing an "entitlement mindset."

The even before the Baby Boomers, their parents, the "Greatest Generation" that survived two world wars, saw the Baby Boomers themselves as "entitled" and expecting a free lunch.

But with the Millennials, the view of earlier generations has been taken to another level. This is in part due to the changes in society, particularly technological changes.

For example, to GenX'ers and earlier generations there are "cameras" and "digital cameras," because those generations grew up in the analogue camera era. But to Millennials, "camera" means "digital camera," there being no concept of "old-fashioned" cameras that used film.

As a second example, Millennials have no experience of life before the Internet. Being connected to everybody at all times is their "normal." For earlier generations, this is not the case at all. Baby Boomers will remember life before every house had a telephone (or "landline"). GenX'ers will remember dial-up bulletion board systems (BBSes) with analogue modems that sounded like cappuccino machines as they connected.

Millennials enter the workplace

Millennials being the first ubiquitous technology generation, brought many benefits as they entered the workplace. Technological change was a non-event - life as normal as far as they were concerned. No longer did employers require programs involving months and months of training, communications and coaching to introduce change. Millennials adopted new technology without a blink.

In fact, the greater challenge was that Millennials had expectations that employers' technology could not meet. And the stereotypical impatience of Millennials soon made an appearance.

Engagement and Retention

Millennials are not afraid of the "new economy" or the "gig economy." They do not expect a job for life. In fact, they are constantly looking for new challenges and opportunities, and are likely to want to move to new areas of responsibility at a faster rate than employers' talent development plans envisage.

But they expect more than variety.

Firstly, they expect their employer to have a purpose, a mission, beyond making profit (we're talking about the for-profit sector here). They want to make a difference and contribute to the wider and greater good.

Secondly, they don't possess their parents' and grandparents' preconceived notions of a job for life with one employer. They are prepared, in fact expect, to frequently move from one employer to another to gain the experience and variety that they want.

Attempting to retain Millennials may be fruitless when they want to move to another employer. But facilitating a friendly exit is very much in the employer's interest - Millennials may be back later, knocking on the door, looking for a new role at a former employer, but now equipped with a bundle of very valuable expertise and experience that has been gained elsewhere.

A checklist to manage Millennials effectively

Here are some ideas to help you improve how you manage Millennials:

  • Provide Purpose to their work. Support them in their desire to have an impact on the world. Acknowledge that money is only one factor in their decision to work for you. Paint a bigger picture in order to show them how their work and output contributes to a higher corporate goal (whcih must be more than maximizing profits).
  • Reward them as individuals. Every Millennials wants a slightly different baskets of benefits. It's not just about salary. So introduce options such as flexible working hours, flexible working locations, sabbaticals, time to pursue individual projects (with guidelines to ensure that the projects align with the employer's goals). Google, for example, initiated the "20% time" policy that allows staff to spend 20% of their time on personal projects (although staff have anonymously reported that the policy has been retired - for example, see here).
  • Increase variety. Nobody wants a mundane job, not least Millennials. Famous for their short attention spans, most Millennials will soon get turned off by a job that lacks variety. How to do this? Well moving Millennials from department to department, from location to location, and from country to country, may be the answer. It is certainly an approach adopted by many successful multinational corporations. And it provides the wide ranging experience required for senior and executive management roles. Supplement the role rotation by communications that explain how such experience will lead to senior responsibilities,
  • Clarity is king. Be very clear on expectations. Provide goals, both long-term and short-term, that the Millennials can strive for. Include stretch targets. Ensure that goals are chunked into sufficiently small increments to align with the Millennial's short attention span. And explain the bigger picture - how the goals are aligned to and contribute to the wider corporate adjectives. There's nothing worse than telling a Millennials that he or she must do something "because the manager said so."
  • Introduce real-time feedback. The annual performance review is anathema to Millennials. On the job feedback is required. So eliminate the performance review and replace it by honest, timely feedback.
  • Provide access to senior and executive management. Feedback on performance from direct mangers just doesn't cut it with Millennials. They want to see that senior and executive management is aware of them and interested in their progression. So make sure that this happens. Change senior and executive management scorecards if necessary.
  • Provide a platform. Give the Millennials their fifteen minutes of fame (yes, Andy Warhol died before many Millennials were born, but he recognized a narcissistic streak in all humans - Millennials just exhibit this more than previous generations). Provide opportunities at status meetings where Millennials can share their latest achievements and gain recognition from their peers and superiors.
  • Provide flexibility. Measure outputs / targets, not process. Ensure that Millennials know what they are expected to produce, and by when. But don't mandate how this will be achieved. Let them work to their own schedule, when and where they want to. And don't be surprised to find them spending most of their working time in the coffee shop.
  • Provide up-to-date technology. Don't expect a Millennials weaned on an iPhone to work happily at a green screen computer terminal. Millennials are true digital natives. They grew up in a digital world, surrounded by devices. Removing this technology is like consigning them to live on a desert island. Don't do it. And also involve Millennials, or representatives thereof, in technology decisions. Don't assume that the "experienced" GenX'er or Baby Boomer can make the right decision on the technology that an employer should adopt. (Also see graphic below.)
  • Mentor, don't manage. Companies these days are introducing "new ways of working" based on "agile"principles. A key aspect is that management is reduced, even eliminated, and replaced by coaching. Also provide the structure to encourage Millennial-to-Millennial mentoring relationships to develop.
  • Don't snuff out the flame. Millennials have an entrepreneurial spirit. But a stuffy corporate culture can extinguish it. Don't let that happen. Encourage entrepreneurial thinking and risk taking. Where do you expect the company's next stream of income to come from ?
  • Expect resignations. Millennials want to move around. Don't try to stop this because you will not be able to. Instead, maintain contact and warm relations so that the Millennials has no qualms about knocking on the door and returning for a second, or third or fourth, stint, at an employer.

More ancient quotes

As promised, here are some more ancient quotes about how one generation disapproves of the behavior of the next generation:

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers." (Attributed to Socrates, 469-399 BC, by Plato, 428-348 BC, according to William L. Patty and Louise S. Johnson, Personality and Adjustment, p. 277, 1953, see But there is some debate about whether Socrates is the original author. For example, the Library of Congress only confers that this quote is "attributed to Socrates by Plato." And when the quote was included in a Forbes magazine editorial, the research staff were unable to definitively find the source. They did contact Gijsbert van Hall, the mayor of Amsterdam at the time, who had attributed the quote to Socrates and repeated it in 1966 after a street demonstration. He said that he recalled reading the quote in a Dutch book but could not remember the title thereof. Eventually the Forbes staff members stated that "we suspect that Socrates never did make those cracks about Athenian youth.")

There is also speculation that the above quote is just a rephrasing of the following taken from Plato's Republic Book IV where Socrates is quoted: "I mean such things as these: when the young are to be silent before their elders; how they are to show respect to them by standing and making them sit; what honor is due to parents; what garments or shoes are to be worn; the mode of dressing the hair; deportment and manners in general. You would agree with me? Yes."

Another theory states that the quote comes from Kenneth John Freeman who included it in his Cambridge dissertation of 1907. He didn't attribute the statement to any ancient person but only offered it as a summary of the sorts of complaints made in ancient times about youth. Perhaps the analysis at will lay to rest any further questions about the source?

Plato also has sentiments of his own: The Greek philosopher Plato studied under Socrates. Plato complained about the youth of the day, also. "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

Another quote comes from Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in the 8th century BC: "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint"

Aristotle (Plato's student) said: "They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things -- and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning -- all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything -- they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else."

More recently, G.K.Chesterton has stated: "I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid."

And finally, this is the full quote from Peter the Hermit: “The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”


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