Later this year, I will enter a new decade and turn the big 5-0. Born in 1968, I am the bottom rung of Generation X. We were the young upstarts that brought technology into the workforce. We blazed the trail with email, spreadsheets, instant messaging and rapid job changing. I still think of myself as the young one in the office, but as I peer down from my office perch at the new comers, I fear that I am one step away from shouting, “Don’t walk on my grass!”
It’s amusing to see the rash of articles, new thought and expertise on the millennial generation. These new trailblazers are often stereotyped as self-centered, lazy, disloyal and title-hungry. But are they really any different from any other generation when its members entered the workforce? I remember my first job working for an insurance and retail company. We worked in a windowless office building, wore ties every day and shared a computer. The newcomers of my generation introduced windows, email and a new way of corporate communication. We thought our managers and the senior management team were out of touch with technology and new ways of doing things. We thought the dress code was nonsensical, the endless meetings a waste of resources and hierarchy overly layered. We looked to rise through corporate mazes by changing departments, companies and careers. My dad worked for the electric company for 45 years; I had three jobs before I was 25.
When I think about my introduction to corporate America, I can’t help but see the similarities between my generation and these lazy, good-for-nothing millennials. Really, are they any different from us? The technology is new; I can type fast, but I can’t use my thumbs to text. Access to information and online content is vastly different. I imagine my grandfather entering his first job and wondering what the previous generation thought of his “new” ideas, his way of thinking and his ghastly act of driving a car to work.
To my fellow Gen Xers: It’s time we accept our role in the hierarchy of generations and stop scapegoating millennials for playing the role that all generations do when they enter the workforce. They will change the world even while we are not done changing it. Millennials are not lazy, they are not disloyal and they certainly are not destroying the culture as we know it. Millennials do suck – but only in relation to our own view that our role must change. We must begin to mentor our new brethren the same way the boomers eventually accepted us and ceded a place at the table for us.
I still remember Mike Smith calling me into his office to teach me about how to live in a corporate world. In my first corporate training role, I was first to arrive; Mike came in later, and stayed later. Being on time has never been one of my best attributes. Mike quickly learned that my 8:00 a.m. arrival time had lots of slack, and he quickly called me to task. I can still remember the meeting when Mike outlined the job responsibilities and the expectations about time. He added a bonus discussion about being clean-shaven. “Grow it out on vacation or shave” was his edict. He sent me home that morning to shave and arrive back on time. Mike always encouraged me, stretched me and gave me opportunity. But one of the best things this baby boomer did for me was instruct me on how to be a successful employee. Mike mentored me, and today, his actions and continued advice instruct me on my responsibility to pick up the baton and mentor the next generation.
Generation Xers and my baby boomer colleagues, it’s time we welcome members of the next generation and mentor them toward success. We must accept that as the gray enters our temple, we shouldn’t defend our ways but embrace a new generation of thinkers who will drive organizations to new places and new ways of thinking and acting.
My millennial friends, your task is just beginning. As you enter the workforce, you, too, have a role. Learn about how and why your organization exists, and become experts in your product and service. Dedicate your expertise to understanding how things operate before you change them. Odds are, you will not stay at any organization for the long run, but while you are there, be the best you can be. Learn from those who blazed new trails, and spend less time watching the clock and more time supporting the mission and vision of your organization. We all can and should learn from each other.
I imagine that each generation fears the next. But our own self-centered fear of being less valuable, less innovative and less relevant need not cloud our perception of the value of our new colleagues. Millennials really are not too different from any of us that entered the workplace in the last century. Millennials really don’t suck!