Why Some Gen X Managers Struggle with Millennials, Literally

I recently received an email from a client who we’ve been doing some Millennial consulting with.  The email came from a Gen X manager who was beside herself with a Millennial comment: “A Millennial today made a comment, “I worked almost 40 hours last week-my boss should know that I need an extra day off!”  Really??”

Now, one of two things could be happening here.  One, she has a low performing Millennial, what I like to call the “Toxic Millennial.”  This is a Millennial that just hasn’t made the jump to being an adult yet.  They show up late, they do poor work and they don’t have a clue that their stepping on a lot of toes along the way. This could be the case and I would say work as much as you can to determine their toxicity and then, like any other employee, get rid of them if they simply do not fulfill the requirements of the job.

However, let’s take possibility number 2.  This possibility is the idea that Gen X and Millennials communicate different based on the different generational period that each was brought up in to.  Gen X, born between the years of 1965 and 1980, is a very independent generation.  They have a more ‘get over it, and get the work done’ attitude.  Gen-X are heirs of bleak fortune, “Instead of getting free love, we got AIDS,” says Douglas Rushkoff, author of GenX Reader.  They also inherited a recession after college, a cold war, a technology burst, and now, a housing and financial burst at what should be the height of their adulthood.  I’ve often called this the Rocky generation both for their ability to take a punch and keep moving, also because the Oscar-winning movie came out in their forming years.  This generation can also be cold, use ‘biting’ language in their conversations throwing jabs and smart alack comments, and can come across as independently arrogant or smug. They may know how to take a punch, but they also think that every other generation should be able to take one too.

The Millennial’s communication style is likely to be a bit more exaggerated.  They tend to talk more in hyperboles and less-than-factual statements (literally, so over it, OMG, I’m dying) - what I call the use and abuse of 'intensifiers.'  But this really revolves around their need to be more dependent on social acceptance and comradeship (or commiseration).  “Aren’t we alike?  Don’t you feel this way too? Let’s get along and talk about this.”  They’re looking for friendship and social belonging.

You can see where an Xer and a Millennial might get off on the wrong foot when communicating.

There is another possibility that’s going on inside the Millennials head (and heart).  Media Post’s Engage:Millennials wrote this article on both the absolute misuse of English adjectives as used by Millennials, as well as the underlying tone of stress. “For all of Generation Y’s #yolo posturing and whatevs attitude, Millennials are super-stressed out, yo! Like, they literally can’t even right now!!! A quick scroll on Tumblr of the hashtag #ILiterallyCan’tEven yields a not-so-surprisingly vast catalog of Millennials stressors.”  A recent APA survey of Millennials showed that work and finances were top stressors for Millennials and Gen Xers, while personal health and the health of family members most occupy the minds of Boomers and Matures. While 62% of Millennials reported that they’ve tried to reduce stress, 52% of them also reported that stress has kept them up at night. It seems that the younger generation is falling short of its goal.  In addition, the article points out, “And let’s not get started on how technology and today’s culture of #fomo (Fear Of Missing Out) has convinced an entire generation that they are totally missing out on the super-glamorous, care-free lives that they see on the carefully curated Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds of their friends and foes.”

If we were to look at this through Maslow’s hierarchy, Millennials are perpetually in a state of safety and security (due to 9/11 and collapse of economy) and social belonging (due to a high regard for social influencers).

Here’s the bottom line: Over 60% of employers say that they are experiencing tension among employees from different generations. Studies have shown 70% of older employees dismiss younger workers’ talents and capabilities, while 50% of younger employees dismiss the talents and capabilities of their older coworkers. 

The catch, however, is that Gen X and Millennials have to learn to play together.  Soon, they will be the only two left in the workplace! Here are some areas I would recommend both Gen X managers and Millennials look at and move forward:

  • Stop the Shared Sense-Making: Every generation experiences what is known as “shared sense-making.”  It is the process in which individuals within a generation jointly interpret their environment and create collective narratives from which they derive meaning.  This process, through the lens of being in the same generation, moves individual perceptions and feelings to a state of “group knowledge.”  We, as a generation, have some general beliefs about the world and all those “other” generations.  We, in turn, make stereotypes based on how our generation feels about other generations and this influences our individual interactions with people from other generations (whether that person deserves the label or not). 

  • Gen X managers should not focus on the Toxic few.   The Toxic Millennials make up about 15%-20% of the young worker population in any organization – as mentioned these are not the low performing workers you want to invest a whole lot of energy and resources in.  But, the In-Between Millennials (40-60%) make up a majority of the group and really are just on the fence of low performance/high performance – they experimenting and slightly pushing boundaries.  Its important with this group to coaching, correct behavior and to put them with your Rock Star Millennials.   Gen X managers should focus on empowering Rock Star Millenails and including and engaging the In-Between Millennials.  Essentially, sweeping them over to the side of ‘good’ employee.
  • Both generations should have the Belief: Behavior Conversation discussion with each other.  This is an ongoing conversation!  Millennials should help dissipate the belief that “all Millennials are…” by having assertive and face-to-face conversations with their managers to get a better understanding of what is expected. Likewise, Gen X managers should be reflecting back to the Millennials how their comments come off and behaviors that don’t align with the organization’s culture and values.  Gen X managers should focus their conversations around success and fairness as Millennials respond well to those two areas of focus.

No one is saying this is easy or that you do all of these and you’ll magically get the relationship you’re looking for.  We’re humans and we are complex.  However, these are hopefully tools to start the process – dismissing your Toxic few, coaching and molding your In-Betweens, and empowering your Rockstars.


PS – A Charge To Millennials (Millennial to Millennial):  As I have the opportunity to go around and meet with various organizations and their leaders, I also have the opportunity to speak highly of our generation.  This is usually a contrarian thought to most leaders.  They have heard such horror stories of our generation that I think it’s refreshing when I can speak about all the rich talent and great personalities we Millennials bring to the table.  Trust me, I have heard some horror stories too, however I decided a while back when I first began talking and training on Millennials that I would always talk about our generation in a positive, progressive way.  I may be a solo voice at times, but I do think we are the generation to do a lot of great things and we just need to grow up and lead a little better.  That’s why I’m passionate about giving tools, strategies and helping Millennials build competencies to position themselves well for the future.

I encourage each of you to do two things:  take a deep, introspective look into yourselves, your actions and your behaviors and find one or two things you’d like to work on in 2015 in regards to improving your relationship with your direct manager.  Second, begin framing the ‘Millennial conversation’ in the positive – we get enough bad press.