Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, global executive search and leadership advisory firm.
We have all heard it or heard stories about it: the caricatured millennial saying they do this or say that because they are a millennial. And you’ll hear the Gen Xer complaining about the millennial mindset, often with the refrain “If only they knew what life was like back then” – which is only 15 or 20 years ago, when the Gen Xer started working.
Are the millennials really all that different? Regardless, why does a person suddenly need to apologize or justify a behaviour or belief based on when they were born? I, the Gen Xer, have never done this, and you will likely not find any that have. When we started our careers, we saw ourselves working side by side with older, more experienced colleagues. We did not label them baby boomers (and the term existed in the 1990s), and we didn’t assume that all were “lifers” in their careers.
Many things have been written that say millennials are vastly different from Gen X. How different? From the standpoint of basic career aspirations and seeking to balance work and personal life, not much. After reading a number of articles about how different millennials are, it seems to come down to three things.
Millennials want to be constantly challenged, so they will consider changing employers for better jobs. This will provide a salary bump and help repay student loans.
Many, many Gen Xers have changed jobs – I had three in the first five years of my career, each seeking progressively greater responsibility. Especially in early career days, people will more readily switch jobs for a better opportunity to grow their skills and advance, as entry level roles tend to have a limited lifespan. Millennials did not invent this “jump ship” and “look after me” mentality. It has always existed in those of us who are actively looking after our careers. Student debt existed in our day as well, and regardless of the amount, Gen Xers will tell you it was equally hard to pay off.
Millennials will assume leadership roles, even if one does not exist.
Leadership roles, at least in title, are diminishing mostly due to the preference for flatter organizations. Gen Xers did work in more traditional, hierarchy-based companies, but that was already starting to evolve because of overhead costs and the emergence of the internet. The earlier generation had equal appetite and capacity to assume leadership roles, formal or informal (a project, or advancing an idea within the company). This got us (the Gen Xers) noticed, and subsequently challenged us – see point one. After graduating from my second postsecondary program and working for one year as a communications officer, I was asked to take on an assistant editor role for a trade magazine – at the age of 26. I did it without saying I was doing so “because I am a Gen Xer.” I just wanted to do it – and it was offered.
Millennials will work anywhere – so long as they can get their job done.
The mobile office and access to work material have become easier as technology has evolved. But even in the early days of the internet (remember, Gen Xers were instrumental in building that, too), working from home was possible if you had a personal computer – ask any freelance writer or project manager. Files were saved on disks. Laptops were expensive in the 1990s, so many of us Gen Xers had personal computers at home and worked from there if it made sense. Over time, the laptop became cheaper and more common, making it easier to work anywhere, but still, working where it best suited us existed, and many of today’s flexible workplace practices reflect the groundbreaking experiences of past decades. The Gen Xers get the mobile office because we pioneered it, and many of us might fondly remember the satisfaction of getting a good dial-up connection while travelling.
Millennials grew up with the internet, social media and all things cool in the tech world. And they’re rightly starting to flex their skills and explore their new talents in the workplace. Their beliefs about work and life are not, however, tremendously different from those of the generations before them. The Gen Xers were equally pioneers, but did not feel a need to apologize or justify themselves through their generational label. So, instead of saying “I’m a millennial” to explain (or excuse) a belief or behaviour, perhaps own it yourself rather than clump it into a generational thing. You believe something because it is what you believe, not because you are a millennial – or because you’re a Gen Xer, for that matter.
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