Knowing Your Workers: Generation X/Millennial Dynamics


dynamicsFor several months now we’ve been discussing the generations of workers in today’s economy, and today we will talk about the interplay between Generation X and the Millennials. Gen Xers have been working since the 1980s and are now transitioning into positions of real leadership as Baby Boomers retire. The youngest Millennials, born in 2000, have yet to enter the workforce, but these two segments of the population are the present and the future of it. Their habits, mores, and values will shape what business looks like as we move farther into the 21st century, so it’s important to understand how do differ and may create tension.

One of the largest differences between these two generations is the level of supervision they are used to and feel comfortable with. Generation X grew up during a period of rapid social change. They were the first group of children to experience widespread divorce, and many of their mothers went into the workforce full time as a result. They were the original latchkey kids, and many Xers grew up making their own decisions day to day about how to care for themselves. In contrast, the parents of many Millennials reacted to this, rejecting that trend and becoming what we now call “helicopter parents,” monitoring their children continuously, scheduling their time, and intervening in problems ranging from large to small.

In the workforce this means Xers may provide or want an entirely different kind of management style than Millennials will feel comfortable with. Generation X wants to be left alone to do their thing. They feel comfortable making decisions about what they should or should not do on their own, and they do not expect or ask for much feedback.

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Millennials are the opposite. They want mentors, and they need direction and praise. Shifts in parenting and teaching styles (as Boomers entered and made their mark on education) meant that they grew up getting praise and encouragement as well as being consulted about their opinions. Unfortunately for them, older generations are used to a system of “paying their dues” before advancing or being invited to make leadership decisions at work. They are not charmed by how quickly their new colleagues expect to climb the ladder or how valuable they think their opinions are.

Generation X grew up during the advent of the technology boom, but they remember what it was like before cell phones and the internet. This generation is comfortable with computers and used to technology changing, but they do not have the same unthinking fluency that Millennials do. This is both good and bad. Millennials have a great deal of confidence about their ability to solve tech problems and the experience of translating one solution to a different problem, but they also don’t know how to disconnect from technology either because they’ve always been surrounded by it. Generation X can punt better if the internet goes down.

Finally, these two generations look at the purpose of work differently. Generation X, being sandwiched between parents and children who may both need care, primarily work to pay the bills and clock out. They don’t need or really expect to find meaning in the jobs. Millennials do want their work to be, not only meaningful, but an expression of their own values. They want to impact their world and make it more equal and diverse through their work.

Obviously, the above three differences between Millennials and Xers will cause differences, both in how they see work and how they do it, and tolerance is needed from both in order to make working together simpler and more efficient. Harnessing the Millennials’ skill with tech while at the same time providing greater guidance and affirmation may not come easy to Generation Xers. Learning to listen and to wait to be asked before offering their opinions may also be difficult for Millennials. If we do not try to understand each other’s values and motivations, we will be spinning our wheels forever and only increasing miscommunication and frustration at work. That’s why a little knowledge about generational tendencies can go a long way towards easing stress between Xers and Millennials.


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