A Conversation With Millennials

by Steven Cerri on April 8, 2012

What Is the Difference?
There is no doubt that there is a difference between “young people today” compared
to their older colleagues. “Young people seem to want everything right now! They
don’t seem to want to pay their dues or wait their turn.” “Why, when I was their
age I appreciated when I was given the opportunity to do something interesting.”
“Young people don’t seem to have any respect. They are on their computers or phones
texting in the middle of our staff meeting!!!”

You have heard all this before, right? You may have even said some of these same
words yourself. The interesting point is that when I entered the engineering workforce,
I remember the same words were said about me. I was impatient. I wanted more responsibility…now…not
later. I couldn’t understand these older people who just didn’t get it.

Has anything changed or have the previous generations merely forgotten what it was
like to be young and impatient? I think I got a glimpse into the answer to this
question. Some things have changed and some have not. But the question is, what
has changed and what has remained the same?

The AIAA / TMC Meeting
Several weeks ago I attended a weekend meeting of the AIAA / TCM (American Institute
of Aeronautics and Astronautics / Technical Committee on Management) in the San
Francisco Bay Area. The topic of the meeting, besides conducting general committee
business, was to have a discussion and learning conversation with a group of Millennials.
The goal was too learn what Millennials want from their jobs. The event was called
“A Conversation with Millennials.”

In order to facilitate the learning and discovery process, the presenter, a TCM
member, structured a series of exercises. The first was to use a Pew Research Center
questionnaire to determine the correlation between a person’s age and their behaviors.
The purpose of the questionnaire is to determine if a person’s behaviors are closely
correlated to the behaviors of the general population of those of similar age. (The
questionnaire can be found online here if you would like to answer the questionnaire and learn your score.)


The Meeting Participants
The scores of the TCM meeting participants were plotted against their ages, and
while there was some scatter in the data, generally speaking, age correlated relatively
well with generational behaviors. The older the respondent, a Baby Boomer for example,
the more they exhibited the behaviors associated with Baby Boomers; i.e., uses the
phone and snail mail; prefers face-to-face communication; uses email sparingly;
seldom sends text messages; does not have a Facebook page; and does not Tweet. On
the other hand, the younger the respondents, the more they behaved like Millennials;
i.e., Tweeting; using Facebook and emails; and text messaging.

The second piece of the learning process included inviting eight or so young people
(i.e., Millennials) to the meeting to discuss what they wanted from their engineering
careers. They completed the Pew questionnaire and their data also supported the
general contention regarding age and behaviors. These young people were from various
companies and at various stages in their engineering careers and all were between
25 and 30 years old as I remember.

What Do Young People Want?
As they spoke about their careers and their desires for their careers, they made
it clear that they wanted careers that included the following:

* Work that was meaningful
* Work that was creative
* Work that had an impact beyond their own immediate environment
* Work that gave them a sense of autonomy and empowerment
* Work that allowed them to grow

As I and other “non-millennials” listened to these young people express their desires,
we all had the same response… “These young people all want what we wanted when
we were their age and that many of us still want.” At this point in the day, I
was not yet finding the distinctions that seemed to generate the differences in
our behaviors… the differences in the behaviors of the Millennials and the Baby
Boomers for example.

We then broke into groups with one Millennial in each group together with four or
five people who were not Millennials. The non-millennials generally were from the
Baby Boomer generation through Generation X. As the people in my group discussed
and asked questions of the Millennial in our group, I was not getting any information
that seemed to differentiate the behaviors displayed by the different generations.
All of us seemed to want the same things from our work. It seemed that engineers,
at least, generally wanted the same things from their careers regardless of age.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seemed to apply across generations.

And then It Happened
Finally, at one point near the end of our discussion time, the Millennial in our
group said something that triggered a question from me, and this was the question.
I asked him, “If someone calls you on the phone and leaves you a voice message,
how long do you think the person should expect to wait before you call them back?”
The young person’s response was immediate and a little surprising to me. His response
was, “Why should they have to wait at all. Waiting for my response is wasted time
for them. I should respond immediately.”

Something wasn’t computing. I personally anticipate that if someone leaves me a
phone message, I might not get back right away unless they indicate that it’s an
emergency. I’ll respond when I have a break in my activity. Yet this young person
was saying, “Why should anyone have to wait at all.”

Is This the Difference That Makes the Difference?
I seemed to have found the thread I wanted to pull. So I asked my next question
which was something like this, “So you don’t think someone should wait at all for
a response. In that case, if someone sends you a text message what thoughts go through
your mind when you get that text message?”

His response was something like, “Well, if they text me it must be important. They
must want an answer right away. There is no reason for them to wait for an answer.
So I’ll respond immediately to their question or text.”

I next asked, “Well suppose you are in a meeting?” He said, “Well, if I’m not in
the immediate discussion I can answer the text message and still hear what is going
on so I will answer it right away with a text response while the meeting is proceeding.”

I next asked, “So you actually feel compelled to answer that text message right

He said, “Absolutely. Why should the person wait?”

I then asked, “Well what about the fact that when you respond to that text message
while you are in a meeting you might be upsetting the people in the meeting?”

He now smiled and simultaneously let me know that he didn’t understand what all
the fuss was about. He said, “Yeah, older people get upset in meetings when I text
but I can text and hear what is going on in the meeting at the same time. I shouldn’t
let the other person wait and I don’t see what the big deal is.”

As we continued to talk to the Millennial in our group and as we discussed his sense
of time and its impact on his behavior, he began to understand, from a different
perspective, why his manager and colleagues were upset with his behavior.

What Is Going On?
As I listened to this young person explain his thought processes and actions it
became clear that there were several forces at work simultaneously.

First, and probably most important, young people have a different sense of “time”.
They probably live with a greater sense of “immediacy” than past generations. Technology
has allowed them to actually communicate, (i.e., receive a request and respond /
make a request and receive an answer) with a greater sense of immediacy than was
ever available in the past. This leads the younger person to feel, “I can respond
right now… so I should”.

Second, young people have grown up with their face-to-face, in-person mode of communication
merging with their electronic communication protocols (think text messages and Instant
Messaging communication) such that in-person communication has essentially been
replaced by electronic communication.

And Part Of It Is Our Fault (I’m included)
Third, we, their parents, must accept some responsibility for this sense of “immediacy”
that afflicts the most recent generations. Here is what I mean. Remember, cell phones
have not been around forever, and the smart phones that kids have now, have been
around for even less time.

When the Baby Boomers were young adults, landlines were the only telephones available.
The phones sat on desks or tables or were attached to walls. If you were away from
your office you did not know you had a phone message until to you returned to listen
to your answering machine. You could generally only answer a phone message when
you returned to your office… and you might be away from your office all day.
So it became reasonable for the caller to expect that, if someone did not pick up
their landline phone, they were away from their office and their phone, and they
probably would not return to their office nor return the call for some time, perhaps
even as late as the next day.

Fast forward to today when every young kid is given a cell phone by their parents
to keep in almost constant and immediate contact with their child. It is not uncommon
for a parent to call a child to arrange a ride home from school or to convey an
important message, and if the child does not pick up the phone, the parent often
questions: “Where were you? I called and you didn’t pick up. You have a cell phone.
I expect you to pick up when I call”, or, “I expect you to respond to my text message
with an acknowledgement that you, at least, received my message.”

There it is! The first indoctrination that a “reach out” in any form requires an
immediate response, whatever the form.

The implied message we sent young people was then and still is: “When I (and by
implication, anyone) calls, you had better answer that phone call (or text message)
immediately.” We have been training our kids to behave just as they are now behaving
and now we are complaining about it.

Be Careful What You Wish For
Those of you who have taken some of my workshops know that I often talk about changing
behavior. My position on changing behavior is if you want to change behavior do
not focus on the behavior. Focus instead on the “drivers” of that behavior.

By telling a Millennial not to text in meetings because it is annoying and distracting
and that they can’t possibly be listening to the meeting while texting, is probably
a set-up for nothing changing. That path will only contribute to a disconnect between
the young person and older person.

However, by focusing on the underlying drivers of behavior, that is, a person’s
sense of time, or their belief regarding how long a person should wait for a response
to a call or text message, it becomes clear that different generations have completely
unique ways of moving through the world. By putting our attention on these parameters,
on understanding the drivers of behavior rather than the behavior itself, we can
begin to understand not only the “what” of behavioral differences, but also the
“why”. And it is understanding the “why” of behavior that helps us to bridge the
gaps between generations.

Managers and Direct Reports
When we use the terms “Baby Boomer” or “Generation X” or “Millennial”, obviously
we are generalizing over a vast population. Generalizations and useful at times,
and at other times, not so useful. I tend to shy away from generalizations.

My suggestion therefore, is as follows. If you are a manager, I suggest that your
challenge is to have a discussion with your direct reports of all generations to
understand them and to explain the way you, the manager, want the context of the
team to be generated. One of the most important tasks of management is to generate
and establish the context within which the desired behaviors will show up regardless
of the generations that make up the team. This requires a conversation just as
I have outlined in this eZine.

On the other hand, if you are a direct report, it is incumbent upon you to have
discussions with your manager and your colleagues to determine the behavioral drivers
they have and how they dovetail or diverge with yours. Then you can decide what
to adjust in your behaviors in order to move effectively within your organization.

Generally, none of this is easy or comfortable. And it can often be convoluted.
But these types of conversations are necessary to effectively communicate, manage,
and lead in the diverse organizations that are common in today’s work environment.

Be well,


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gray Rinehart May 15, 2012 at 6:32 am

Fascinating post! I appreciate the link to the Pew Research Center quiz, which was interesting, but the insight into different perceptions of time was terrific. I’d heard a similar take on the subject in a graduate class, in reference to time management.

I wonder what gets lost with such an emphasis on immediacy. I get the impression that younger folks tolerate a lot more in terms of errors that have to be corrected later (e.g., typos in e-mails or text messages), rather than adopting a “take your time to get it right” approach. Maybe that’s not all bad.

Nice post, thanks!
Gray Rinehart


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