More Millennial Misunderstandings

Raise your hand if you’re sick of hearing about Millennials. Scrutinizing this generation, from their tech habits, work style and buying power to their social attitudes and politics has become something of a national pastime. Are they really such strange creatures?

notebook-1064660_1920Millennials themselves will be the first ones to tell you they aren’t. It’s easy to scratch the surface and use words like “entitled”, “lazy”, “narcissistic”, etc. without thinking about the world today and its influence—or what might be really driving behavior. So before you read another article about how Millennials are so different, consider some of these Millennial stereotypes:

Looks like: Laziness
Really is: Seeking Flexibility

Perhaps more than any generation before them, Millennials are challenging traditional workplace rules. For the generation who grew up with technology, the line between “work” and “life” has always been blurred. To them, work is that which gets done—it’s not a geographic location or a specific time. They’re looking for organizations that support flexible work schedules, remote offices and technology use because that’s what they are accustomed to. For Millennials, these aren’t perks, they’re expectations.

The modern workplace is responding. Many organizations are adopting a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE model) in which employees are given high levels of flexibility and autonomy and employee performance is measured entirely on delivered results. In ROWE organizations, employees work when they want, where they want, and how they want. The ROWE model is fairly new and still evolving, and to do it successfully an organization needs to have a pretty kick-butt performance measurement process.

Looks like: Entitlement
Really is: Desire to Assimilate

I once worked on a team of very high performers, and as such, we were afforded a lot of freedom and autonomy over our schedules. Some of us started early to get out by 4 pm, others came in later to get kids on the bus, some of us took long lunches to exercise. It was understood that we were all in the office during core hours and would do what it took to get the work done.

When we brought a new college grad on to our team, she too started getting very flexible with her schedule right away. Entitled Millennial! was the outcry. Not so. No one told her that the level of flexibility we had was earned through good performance over time. She was just trying to fit in on the team. (PS—she was a rock star and got to our level very quickly.)

Looks like: Neediness
Really is: Collaborative Spirit

To pragmatic and self-sufficient GenX managers, it can look like Millennials struggle to work independently. Many Millennials want a much higher level of feedback than GenX-ers and Boomers are used to. Millennials came of age during a convergence of helicopter parenting styles and technology, and had strong feedback loops for nearly every aspect of their lives.

Raised in an era of team sports and activities, group projects and near-constant online connection reinforced the message to Millennials that collaboration was the best way to achieve a goal. They are used to group brainstorming, consensus building and team culture. For this generation, “teamwork makes the dream work” is how things get done.

We GenX-ers can relate to unfair characterization—remember we were labeled cynical, disengaged slackers. Looking back now, we were doing what every emerging generation did before us and what Millennials are doing now: simply reacting to the world around us (while confounding the generations who came before).

Stop Your Messing Around: Generation X and Money

In the Fall of 2016, Fidelity Investments launched an ad campaign about retirement planning using “A Message to You, Rudy” by The Specials for the music. I remember, because when I saw the commercial my jaw dropped. They’re using a ska band to talk about retirement, I thought. Ska. And retirement.

Even if you didn’t have The Specials on vinyl as a teenager (of course I did), a GenX-er can probably identify that familiar rocksteady horn line as at least a song from the 80s if not “A Message to You, Rudy”. Yep. No question as to the target market for this ad.

Me. Us. Generation X.

As a marketer, I thought it was savvy and successful. As a GenX-er I died a little inside. Growing up in the 80s, I remember ska being popular but certainly not mainstream. It was a close cousin to punk and had something of a dark reputation because of its association with Skinhead subculture. Ska was rebellious and different. Of course GenX loved it.

The thing is, the commercial worked on me. After getting over the shock of hearing edgy 80s music in a retirement commercial, reality set in. Yeah. I should be thinking more about retirement. Welcome to mid-life, Generation X.

Generation X’s relationship with money, generationally speaking, is…complicated. We’re the poster children for economic uncertainty.

time-1558037_640Generation X and debt

We might be the middle children of the workplace, but there’s one area where GenX comes out on top: debt. That’s right: among the three major generations, GenX carries the most debt. Overall, this debt includes everything from student loans and home mortgages to car loans and medical bills, but GenX also has the highest credit card debt of any generation. According to research by Experian, GenX-ers’ average credit card debt is $6,752, about $1,100 more than Baby Boomers and $3,300 more than Millennials.

The Sandwich Generation

GenX is definitely feeling the pinch of competing financial priorities as many care for both their children and aging parents. Managing day-to-day expenses and saving for their children’s educations while still potentially paying down their own student loan debt doesn’t leave a lot left over. It shows: GenX has the least amount of money in savings. The median amount of emergency cash among GenX-ers is $5,000. Financial experts recommend having six months of living expenses on hand for emergencies.

Retirement

Here’s where things get really ugly for Generation X. At about the time GenX-ers entered the workforce, many organizations began moving away from traditional pension retirement plans and toward defined contribution plans like 401(k)s. While participation rates in those plans are high among GenX, a couple of recessions—including a Great One—have done a number on GenX’s retirement funds. According to a study done by Pew Charitable trusts, GenX-ers lost nearly half of their wealth from 2007-2010, an average of about $33,000—more than any other generation.

But don’t count out good old-fashioned GenX pragmatism. In a Transamerica survey from 2016, 55% of GenX-ers believe they’ll work beyond age 65, and most plan to do some form of work during their retirement years. More than half expect their standard of living to decrease in retirement. We’re nothing if not realistic.

So take heed, my GenX brethren. “Stop your messing around. Better think of your future.” I’d love to know how many GenX-ers contacted their financial advisor after that campaign.

GenX Management In Action: Giving Feedback

Giving feedback can be one of the most daunting parts of any supervisor’s job. It’s also the most important. Good leaders know that it’s their responsibility to get the very best out of their people, and in order to do that, employees need to know how they’re performing.

meeting-1702638_1920It’s easy to think that GenX managers would have no trouble giving employee feedback. We’re the pragmatic problem-solvers, right? But for Generation X leaders, it’s important to know how generational perspectives can impact both the giving and receiving of feedback. If you lead a multigenerational team, you can’t take a one-size-fits-all-approach. Communication style (yours) communication preference (theirs) and motivators all come into play. Let’s break it down.

Baby Boomers

Communication Style/Preference: In comparison to other generations, Boomers prefer infrequent, formal feedback (e.g. standing progress meetings, performance evaluations, etc.) They also prefer to communicate face-to-face as well as by phone and see meetings as integral to moving projects along.

Motivated by: recognition—title, rank , etc., leadership roles (projects or teams), productivity, purpose

GenX Feedback Technique: Boomers have lots of life and work experience, and they are less likely to seek feedback. Be proactive. Resist the GenX urge to email and set some meetings on the calendar specifically dedicated to the topic of performance. If improvement is needed, position it as an opportunity for growth and a chance to make a greater impact. For your high-performing Boomer team members, find a way to recognize and publicize their achievements.

Generation X

Communication Style/Preference: Loves email, hates meetings. Texting is for family and friends. (But don’t worry—they’ve got their work email on their phone and check it incessantly.)

Motivated by: challenge, problem solving, empowerment, autonomy

GenX Feedback Technique: They’re GenX. Easy right? Not so fast. The intragenerational differences notwithstanding (we span birth years of 1965-80), there are pitfalls when it comes to similar communication styles and motivators. Performance feedback via email lacks tone, context, non-verbal communication and real-time dialog. Suck it up and set a meeting. It’s doesn’t have to be in the big conference room with the fancy table. Grab a coffee. If there are performance issues, lay out the problem as clearly as possible and give your employee the chance to design a solution that you both agree on. Got a rock star? Look for opportunities to have them lead projects and support them from the sidelines.

Millennials

Communication Style/Preference: Millennials value connectedness, whether in-person or online. Texting and social media are ok for work communication, and immediacy in response expected. They desire high levels of feedback in terms of volume, frequency and performance.

Motivated by: sense of purpose, being a valued member of a team, professional development, making an impact

GenX Feedback Technique: This generation grew up in constant communication with instant access to people and information. But as a boss, it’s ok to set some boundaries. Be clear about your availability to coach and collaborate versus when they are expected (empowered) to work independently. From a performance management perspective, make sure you communicate what they’re doing well in addition to what needs improvement. Demonstrate that you value them as a person and an employee. Taking the time to learn about their passions, interests and expertise—then finding ways to leverage those strengths—will make them feel engaged.

Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback doesn’t mean handing out “compliment sandwiches” (praise, criticism, praise). Constructive feedback is information-specific and based on observations. It’s not personal judgment. Be direct, but express appreciation (positive feedback) and concern (negative feedback). Starting statements with “I” (“I have noticed…”) instead of “you” helps focus on the issues.

Finally, use one of your greatest GenX superpowers: be authentic. Authentic leaders know their strengths, weaknesses and emotions. They care about people and lead with their heart. It’s your job to develop your employees to be the best they can be. Help them rise to the challenge.

The Management in Action series covers a variety of practical management topics that can help GenX managers strengthen their leadership skills. Got a topic you’d like to see explored? Leave a suggestion in the comments. 

Generation X Women and the rise of the She-ro

wwI was born in 1973, at the tail end of feminism’s Second Wave. As a young girl, I was raised to believe that men and women were equal, and that being female wouldn’t hold me back in any way from achieving my goals. Reinforcing that message was the rise of female superheroes on television during that time: the Bionic Woman, Isis, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (I might be the only one who remembers them), and of course—my favorite—Wonder Woman. Young girls everywhere twirled in their living rooms with the belief that they could save the day.

Bolstered by that thought, the girls of Generation X charged through the 80s and 90s. We entered college and earned degrees at a faster rate then our male counterparts. We became breadwinner wives. We deferred having children, if we chose to at all. We were going to have it all.

Those hard-charging GenX women entering the workforce caused a fundamental shift in the American workplace. We continued the fight of second-wave feminists for equal pay, and narrowed the gap from 68% in the late 1970’s to 82% in the early 2000s. We pushed for better work/life integration so we could care for our families and still do great work. We were Wonder Women.

In nearly every superhero story arc, there is a moment where our hero (or she-ro) questions if they are making a difference, if they are truly capable, and thinks about hanging up the cape. Indeed, the swords and shields of Generation X women grew heavy. We were not having it all. We were just doing it all. Our optimism turned to disillusionment. But hey—we’re GenX. That’s our jam.

The late 90s and early 2000s gave us both the Mommy Wars and feminism’s Third Wave (two seemingly opposite reactions) as women struggled to reconcile their belief that women could do anything with the very real barriers that existed. Like an alien who derives great power from a yellow sun, or a woman borne of Zeus, it felt like humanity was not ready for our kind.

As the girls of GenX watched their she-roes on TV, Millennial girls (and boys) watched this play out in real life. Check out what’s happening down the generational line.

According to recent census data, overall college degree attainment is pretty even among women and men, at 30.2% and 29.9% respectively. But in the 25-34 age group, 37.5% of women have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 29.5% of men. In 2015, women earned 83% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. For adults ages 25 to 34, the 2015 wage gap is smaller. Women in this group earned 90 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned.

Generation X female business leaders continue to exert their influence on the modern workplace. Even its critics agree that Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In restarted a stalled conversation about women’s leadership in the workplace. Of the female CEOs of the S&P 500 in 2017, nearly one-quarter are GenX.

While this type of change isn’t faster than a speeding bullet, it is progress. No question that this is a long road and there is more to do. But our younger generations no longer have to rely on works of fiction to find role models who inspire them to greater heights. We’re right in front of them. (Although it would be cool to have some superpowers. C’mon.)