Who is the Problem: Your Millennials or You?

Balaji’s Food For Thought - Jul 18, 2017

Balaji Krishnamurthy
Leadership & Culture

Millennials seem entitled, don’t they? In an attempt to be individualistic, they appear self-centered. Coddled as kids and reassured that they are the best by their parents, they have seemingly developed unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve, how quickly they can do so and how much they have to work to get it. Their commitment to work and loyalty to their employer seems to take a back seat to their need to enjoy life today. To top it off, they seem to have little respect for experience or authority and think they can figure it all out themselves.

That is our — baby boomers’ — perception of millennials in our workforce. Think about it, baby boomers: by the time you were 30, how many times had you splurged on a craft beer or on a mojito or cosmo? How many times had you gone to a spa for a massage or to the Caribbean for a vacation? How often did you argue for a promotion or raise you felt you deserved? How many times did you change jobs before finding a good fit? And finally, how many times had you told your boss that they were wrong and didn’t know what they were talking about?

Given that background, is our perception of millennials misplaced?

Let me offer their view. Millennials feel that we, baby boomers, are still living in a world of riding horses, keeping stables and stoking the fire to heat the house. Automobiles and electricity, which they call computers and communication, have changed their lives, and they feel we are still holding on to our horses. They claim that they respect authority, but not what authority stands for. They respect our experience, but feel our knowledge is outdated. In fact, they would argue that it is the baby boomers that stand in the way of a company’s progress. So, Mr. or Ms. CEO, the problem might be YOU!

Alternatively stated, there are three views of the millennials in your company:

  1. The CEO is frustrated that the older workers are stuck in the mud and won’t adopt the new ideas of the millennials, and that the millennials lack patience and respect and are a spoiled and entitled bunch.
  2. The older workers bemoan that the millennials want immediate satisfaction and are unwilling to learn from their knowledge and experience.
  3. The millennials complain that the knowledge of those older workers is outdated and feel that they have a greater capacity to find knowledge and information on any subject they need.

This triangle of views creates tension in the workforce. So, what should you do?

We suggest that you be able to clearly articulate those different viewpoints to start a conversation. To get you started, we will pose three questions — listed below — whose answers may present some level of dissonance between generations.

Whenever a society harbors multiple points of view, an important step towards progress is for people with one perspective to be able to articulate that of the other side. In the spirit of this technique, called coaching through advocacy, we offer different points of view on each of these three questions, expressing differing opinions between the older generations and the millennials.

But first, for sake of transparency, I should admit that, born in 1953, I am a fair-and-square baby boomer. I have two millennial sons. All but one other person in my office is a millennial. Approximately 59% of our company’s staff is made up of millennials. So, I am surrounded by millennials. That said, I have to confess that I cringe when millennials around me don’t know some basic history or geography and quickly pull out their phones to Google the item. That bias established, I will try to be as even-minded as I can in the remainder of this article.

1. Is knowledge and experience overrated?

The old adage, “good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment,” suggests that we need experience to build the knowledge that allows us to make good judgments. But what if the world is changing so fast that the experience of yesterday has little bearing on the events of today?

Of course, the world isn’t changing on a daily basis, but it is changing at an ever-increasing pace. To cite a few examples from my experience in the technology industry:

  • Ken Olsen, having successfully rocked IBM’s room-size mainframe computer business with DEC’s refrigerator size mini-computers, failed to learn from that experience and predicted that there would be no need for a computer in the home.
  • Bill Gates didn’t see the impact of internet until Marc Andreessen’s Netscape browser changed the world.
  • All the experience of the smartest computer scientists at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (the lab credited with the inventions of the mouse, windows and user paradigm that we all know and love) could not harvest their inventions; it took a young dropout from Reed College, Steve Jobs, to understand its real value.

From these examples, might one surmise that in industries that move fast and change quickly, experience might not be as valuable, and in fact, might be a hindrance? Millennials have watched people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg create companies precisely because they were not dragged down by experience. It is not surprising that they associate less equity to knowledge and experience.

Another way to approach this question is to examine your sense of worth: Why do you think your employer values you and your services? For baby boomers, it’s usually a sense of knowledge and experience: “I know X about our business and I have XX years of experience.” For millennials, it’s tied to their ability to figure things out and learn on the fly. The baby boomers are the “user’s manual” generation. The millennials have never even read a user’s manual. In fact, notice that one doesn’t come with an iPhone. They simply figure it out. When we (baby boomers) need to do something that we have never done before, we find somebody who is an expert at it and ask for their opinion and help. The millennials Google or YouTube it.

So, are knowledge and experience overrated? Those with it probably think not, and those without it probably think so. The truth probably lies in the middle, recognizing that as markets change ever faster, the value of knowledge and experience becomes less and less.

2. Do you work to make money?

Of course, few of us will work for an employer if they don’t pay. However, is work about making money? Or is there a higher purpose? How many of you baby boomers recall searching for the “purpose” of your company when you joined the workforce? It was clear: You did what the company needed done and they paid you for doing so. Honest work for honest pay. The “purpose” was simple. But the millennials don’t buy that. They are searching for meaningful work for meaningful pay. The notion that we should seek a higher purpose than just getting paid didn’t dawn on us when we joined the workforce.

Social activism was, by and large, abandoned when the baby boomers left college. In college, our social activism was limited to hippie lifestyle, opposition to the war in Vietnam and the women’s liberation movement. Of the three, we abandoned the first when we joined the workforce, the second came to natural end and as for third, the states could not agree on ERA. By the time the baby boomers joined the workforce, there was little social activism left in their bellies.

The millennials, on the other hand, have made it part of their lifestyle. As such, they want to make sure that they and their employer, to whom they give the bulk of their waking hours, are similarly aligned on issues that are dear to them. This has caused more and more employers to be more vocal about their positions on social, economic and environmental issues, in the hopes that a carefully crafted sense of purpose will attract the new generation in the workforce.

Were the baby boomers just a money-focused, heartless workforce? Quite the contrary. The baby boomers sincerely believed in Winston Churchill’s philosophy, “We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.” For them, you work to make money; you make money so you can do good.

In contrast, millennials believe you can make money while doing good. As with the rest of their lives, they do not separate one activity from the other. They have grown up with the likes of the Gates Foundation that has advocated invested philanthropy, that giving needs to be invested in passion, invested in time and invested in money. The Blackbaud Institute predicts that 60% of millennials make charitable contributions only when they can see the direct impact of their giving. And when they do, they get passionately involved, often cajoling their network to give as well, as evidenced by 50% of them giving through crowdsourced mechanisms. All of this points to the importance of their social activism and their life, and ergo their work, to all be connected. For millennials, life and work are intrinsically intertwined.

3. Do you work to play or do you just work and play?

The baby boomers saw their parents and generations before them give their lives to a single employer, trading a lifetime of loyalty for a healthy pension upon retirement. In fact, defined benefit pension plans were designed to incentivize lifetime loyalty, growing quadratically with each year you worked.

However, in the 1980s, as the baby boomers entered the workforce, mass layoffs in big companies became a common practice in the pursuit of delivering greater shareholder returns. Corporate raiders such as T. Boone Pickens and Sir James Goldsmith, self-described as the Ajax of America, went after companies enshrined in their own inefficiencies.

For the baby boomers, this was a wakeup call. Who is loyal to who, they asked. What is loyalty, anyway? The baby boomers concluded that they had to be loyal to themselves and to their families. Their commitment moved from an employer to their career, hopping from one employer to another to fulfill their career aspirations. The government assisted in this process by moving to more portable retirement plans, like IRAs and 401ks. They shifted their thinking from depending on an employer to depending on themselves and careers that would ensure them reasonable work. They defined themselves by their careers, rather than by their employer. And they worked so that they could play.

It would be wrong to assume that the millennials had it all handed to them on a platter. The biggest recession since the depression hit just as they were entering the workforce. There were no jobs to be had. The housing market had collapsed when they didn’t have a job, much less money to buy a house. By the time the millennial workforce was fully engaged, the housing market had rebounded.

These events have given them a slightly different view of life. Like previous generations, they concede that the future is uncertain. In fact, they take it one step further and believe that tomorrow is uncertain. But unlike previous generations, they feel that they can take on tomorrow, tomorrow. This tendency of living for today— no, living fully today — probably characterizes the millennials best. They are confident that they can deal with tomorrow; a confidence that I don’t think we baby boomers had at that age.

When baby boomers use the term work-life balance, we think of that phrase as how much of your day you commit to work and how much of your day your commit to life. I believe when the millennials refer to that term, they have a slightly different interpretation: “How much of your time do you commit to work and how much to life?”

What is the difference? The millennials do not compartmentalize the day into work time and play time. They both go hand in hand, as evidenced by their growing preference for flexible scheduling and the ability to work remotely. When they get tired of doing something at work they look at their Facebook page. In the middle of their social interactions with friends they will respond to a work email. So, they don’t measure the division by parts of the day, but rather by how much. For them, that balance is important.

Their play time activity defines them as much as their work time activity, so rather than define themselves by their careers, as we baby boomers do, they define themselves by their passions. The rock climber that works as a software programmer is as much a rock climber as he is a software programmer. He weaves the demands of his rock climbing activities into the demands of his programming responsibilities. He is committed to that integrated lifestyle. And it is not just about rock climbing. He is also very much into craft beer, or a foodie at heart. All of that defines the individual. This millennial is committed to a lifestyle – not to an employer, not to a career, but to a lifestyle.

Our appeal in this article is to understand the different viewpoints of these generations.

Neither is right nor wrong. But, they are different. The more each generation can articulate the other generation’s viewpoint, the greater the opportunity for collaboration.


Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality