Millennials — use their talents for good, not evil

This article was originally published in Smith & Gesteland’s March 2017 Connections newsletter.

An article I wrote a couple of months ago praising millennials — those born between 1982 and 1997 — for their energy and strategic thinking raised some hackles amongst their parents’ generation. I heard words like “entitled” and “unmotivated” and complaints that millennials don’t show they “want it” and aren’t “willing to work for it.” I heard millennials aren’t “stepping up” and that this causes senior generations to think millennials aren’t ready — and may never be ready — to take a leadership role in the family business. I understand the senior generations’ concern. Millennials are different, and some of those differences take getting used to.

This is a crucial issue for family businesses. We’ve all heard the population statistics: By 2020, millennials will comprise more than half the global workforce. There are 78 million baby boomers, only 50 million Gen-Xers (born between 1964 and 1982) and 80 million millennials. Because the boomers can’t keep working forever (although they might like to) and there aren’t enough Gen-Xers to pick up the slack, all businesses need to understand how to retain and develop millennials. Fortunately, there has been some good research into how millennials tend to think, act, and work, and some good guidance into what they’re looking for in a work experience.

Of course, it’s important to remember members of the millennial generation are individuals and it is best to take any millennial research with a grain of salt. No broad brush paints a generation. Still, studies have shown the social and cultural atmosphere children are subject to while growing up can have a profound influence on their character and attitudes when they are adults. From the experts:

Work habits

Millennials work differently than Gen-Xers and boomers. They grew up when information was immediately available and every new app created an opportunity for enhanced efficiency. As a result, millennials tend to be impatient when they have to wait for things. This extends to all areas of their lives, not just to how quickly an application loads. That’s both good and bad.

Millennials may be unwilling to wait until they’ve moved up through the ranks before offering opinions and ideas. Parents may see this as brashness or forwardness that is unappealing or contrary to parents’ preferences. Similar to young people everywhere, sometimes millennials are surer of themselves and their abilities than their experience warrants. They may not have the patience or the desire to deal with office politics or hierarchy. They can be impatient with and condescending to their elders. They don’t like being told what to do, preferring bosses that operate more as coaches or mentors.

As natural collaborators and team players, they want the opportunity to provide input and help make decisions. Because they are such efficient gatherers and synthesizers of information, they are efficiency- and strategy-focused, which makes them perfect for process-improvement initiatives or focusing on a new line or area of the business. They may not have the experience to know when an idea won’t work or has been tried before, but they are often creative and innovative thinkers. If that style can be nurtured and refined, it will be a powerful tool for the company’s future. Millennials tend to value results and ability over tenure, and are often frustrated by the time it takes to move up the career ladder. Fast-tracking high achievers is important to millennials and essential for the companies they work for. Fortunately, millennials tend to want as much training, mentorship, and continuing education as they can get.


Millennials are collaborators, as noted, and they seek input from others on a regular and routine basis. Unfortunately, some boomers and Gen-Xers see this as an inability to take charge and a lack of desire for a leadership role. I don’t believe that’s the case. Millennials have grown up in a world of constant feedback. They learned early on to solicit opinions on what they were watching on TV, listening to in music, and thinking about world affairs. They seek opinions to help them refine and improve what they’re thinking. That isn’t seen as a weakness by a millennial, it’s just the way they’ve always operated. Studies have shown that collaborative thinkers tend to make better decisions, so this, too, is a plus for a business that can harness this skill. A collaborative and team-oriented work style has been shown in study after study to boost productivity and profitability. Ultimately most businesses will benefit from a millennial’s style.

Where this becomes difficult is when a millennial appears not to want to take responsibility, relying on others (generally parents or more senior colleagues) to tackle difficult problems. To some extent, this may be both parties’ fault — the seniors for being drawn into fixing the millennials’ problems when the work gets hard, and the millennials for not taking individual responsibility for a problem. The solution is to provide the millennial enough time and space to allow them to find their own answers. The difficult part for the boomer or Gen-Xer is developing enough patience and trust to allow that to happen.

Millennials need to be sure what they’re doing will have an impact. If they believe in the company’s mission and their place within the company, they accept responsibility early, although that acceptance may not look like eagerness or drive to the older generation. Because millennials tend to be collaborative rather than competitive, they may not exhibit the same “go get ’em” attitude boomers saw in themselves and Gen-Xers. It doesn’t mean a millennial doesn’t want responsibility but they do show it differently. According to a Deloitte survey of millennials conducted in 2016, 71% of the millennials who reported they were planning to leave their employer in the next two years were doing so because their “leadership skills were not being fully developed.” Furthermore, USA Today reports that most millennials would be willing to give up higher pay (an average of $7,600 per year) for a better situation at the office, including more career development opportunities.

Building a positive and well-defined culture and a path to leadership is an important tool in using and developing millennials’ skills appropriately. Fortunately, they’ll take responsibility in helping define and build the culture and the path to leadership.



Work ethic

Millennials are sometimes perceived as lazy or unmotivated because they don’t spend as many hours at the office or the plant as their parents’ generation thinks they should. They like to travel, both men and women want to spend significant time with their kids, and they want free time to relax and enjoy life.

Because smartphones have created 24-hour access to work and work-related communication, millennials don’t need to be in the office to get things done. Where the workplace can be conformed to meet millennials’ needs for remote access and flexible schedules, millennials will produce more work with less potential for burnout. This seems to make boomers and Gen-Xers a little jealous and sometimes a little crazy. Although they may not be able to point to projects that weren’t completed or were turned in late, it still upsets them they were at the office after the millennial went home. If a millennial does turn in a project late or isn’t available when needed, it’s pointed to as evidence the millennial has a poor work ethic and a whole generation is cast as lazy. They forget all the times millennials answered emails at 11 p.m., while at home with a sick child, or while on vacation. Of course, there are lazy millennials, just as there are lazy boomers and Gen-Xers. It’s a best practice not to blame millennials for being able to work away from the office — and emulate them if you can.

Communication styles

Because they’re focused on efficiency, millennials sometimes don’t value the time it takes to let a conversation — particularly with an older person — unwind. Millennials may be more focused on getting information from others than in building rapport by spending time listening, particularly if it means listening to an elder who takes a while to get to the point. Because it’s less efficient, millennials often don’t want to call customers or vendors on the phone, preferring instead to email or text questions and answers. It’s true this is more efficient, especially for the emailer or texter, but much of the content of the communication and the ability to build a relationship can be lost. For the senior generation, the importance of being able to ask and answer questions, hear the speaker’s tone of voice, and make a personal connection with the person on the other end often makes a phone call more attractive than the speed of a text or an email.

Some of this is just the impatience of youth. It takes experience to match your listening style to your conversation partner’s speaking style. Millennials have been shown to tend to lack “soft skills,” but those skills can be nurtured and developed. Millennials are focused on personal growth; incorporating soft skills training in their development plan will benefit both the organization and the individual.

I suspect boomers and Gen-Xers were considered challenging when they were young, too. In fact, when boomers entered the workforce it was widely reported they were “arrogant,” and when Gen-Xers came in they were “selfish.” Every generation has its flavor, shaped by the forces in society in their developmental years. The strongest organizations figure out how to harness the talents and contributions of their workforce, no matter what generation they belong to. The benefit in doing so is not only a greater opportunity to capture the best work performance of the millennial generation, but the possibility of enhancing the professional experience of all generations.

Julie M. Bogle, JD, is a partner and tax director at Smith & Gesteland. She specializes in business advisory services for family and closely-held businesses. She also provides state and local tax consulting services, as well as income and sales tax audit management. She can be reached at

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