We Are All Millennials Now

Entitled. Needy. Spoiled. Seeking instant gratification. – Sound familiar? Well, think again…

Setting the Stage

To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect from a book about Millennials. The idea of embracing a specific leadership approach targeted at a specific age group of employees did pique my interest, of course. But perhaps it was my own biases toward the generation born roughly between 1981 and 1996 that made me initially skeptical.

Trepidation aside, I was happy to see how author Christopher Tuff, in his book The Millennial Whisperer, immediately tackled the stereotypes surrounding those who now make up the largest chunk of the U.S. workforce. He either dispelled these pervasive tropes outright or, at least, presented a historical rationale for why Millennials are who they are. To my delight, Tuff draws a clear distinction between the younger (born in the late 1980s and 90s) and the older (born in the early to mid-1980s) members of Gen Y.

The Generation Conundrum

As a Gen X’er myself, I belong to what has been described as the “forgotten” generation. Reading through much of the literature on the needs and expectations of today’s workforce, I have found that my generation is often absent from the discussion while much focus is placed on Baby Boomers, Millennials/Gen Y, and Gen Z.

At the same time, despite belonging to Gen X, I found myself relating to the experiences of those born in the first half of the 1980s: We both lived through a period before computers and the Internet and gradually had to develop what has become known as “digital literacy.” As latchkey kids, we learned to fend for ourselves while dealing with momentous, accelerating, and at times almost unmanageable change in the world. We (mostly) followed our parents’ playbook, yet struggled and suffered during the Great Recession of the late 2000s. As a result, both younger X’ers and older Millennials became somewhat cynical, developed a healthy distrust of authority and tradition, and learned the hard way that loyalty to many employers is often unwarranted.

So far, so good.

But while I continued reading, something didn’t sit right with me.

What irked me was the feeling that The Millennial Whisperer attributes these experiences and resulting attitudes and disposition to a generation other than my own, despite the vast overlap. (I guess, the trope of Gen X as the “forgotten generation” really is true.)

When I read about Millennial workers wanting and expecting to feel valued, understood, acknowledged, included in decision-making, and to have their opinions heard, I thought… well: “Wait! That’s me!”

Thought Leaders, Unite(d)!

Like almost everyone in my social and professional network, I, too, wish to find meaning, and purpose at work, build meaningful relationships, and be able to trust the organization and its leaders to have my back. I, too, seek stability and long-term possibilities through growth, development, and opportunities for advancement in a purpose-driven culture. I, too, long for ways to contribute to something greater than myself in the service of people.

Recent reports, studies, and books on the Future of Work have shown that I’m not alone. For instance, Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2022-2023 Study, Rise of the Relatable Organization, surveyed 13,384 respondents and found that a sense of belonging, purpose, transparency, empowerment and autonomy, opportunities to develop and grow, and diversity ranked highly in today’s workforce – irrespective of age.

The State of Organizations 2023, recently published by McKinsey & Company, found similar trends and provided several recommendations to companies for adjusting their organizational, talent management, and leadership structures while making every effort to attract and retain talent in meaningful and sustainable ways.

Similarly, the report Our Time to Take Control: The Future of Work 2023 by Korn Ferry tackles the issue of motivating the (Millennial) workforce through a supportive culture that allows workers to pursue their passions and interests.

And no excursion into the Future of Work – albeit brief – would be complete without mentioning two (highly recommended) books on the topic:

In Work here Now: Think Like a Human and Build a Powerhouse Workplace, Melissa Swift at Mercer outlines brilliantly how engaging employees at all levels through authentic leadership and communication; leveraging language to tackle head-on the myriad issues of much-needed workforce transformation, such as leadership stereotypes; and eradicating mechanisms that drive employees to engage in (unproductive and demoralizing) performative work will lead to a brighter future for organizations in all industries.

Finally, Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan of The Ready is a work I have come to appreciate as the blueprint of modern organizational design. It addresses how an organization’s Operating System – a term, quite tellingly, now used throughout the literature on the topic – can be modified to enable companies to pursue what Dignan calls a people-positive and complexity-conscious approach to organizational evolution. Without putting people first, acknowledging the complexities of any organization, creating an engaging culture of transparency, flattening hierarchies, and empowering all members of the workforce to do their part in moving the needle toward improvement and sustainable growth, the future looks bleak for those employers and leaders who refuse to leave the past behind.

Eureka! – A Seismic Shift

Let’s return to The Millennial Whisperer and the nagging question of why author Chris Tuff singled out Millennials as the generation that, supposedly, has written the playbook for what work ought to look like in the 21st century. How come the needs of all the Boomers, Gen X’ers, and those in between are subsumed under the umbrella of Gen Y?

While pondering this issue, I recognized something crucial that had escaped me until now: The Millennial Whisperer was published in 2019 – right before what was arguably the first truly global trauma since World War II: death, suffering, uncertainty, anxiety, and isolation shared by virtually the entirety of the world’s population. At the same time, technology took a major leap forward, showing the world that many of the old rules of engagement at work were no longer valid and that on-site 9 to 5 jobs were an outdated concept. Add to all this the recent emergence of artificial intelligence as a major disruptive force across industries that has brought even more ambiguity, fear of obsolescence by many workers in traditional jobs, and general anxiety about the Future of Work among all generations, from Boomers to Gen Z.

I have come to understand that

the COVID-19 pandemic and the seismic shifts in societies around the globe have become the great generational equalizer of our time, both societally and in the workplace. Unlike globally disruptive events of the past, this trauma is shared by all generations across the world, affecting the values, motivations, and expectations of a vast swath of the population toward life and work.

This realization provides insights into why the characteristics, stereotypes, and behaviors traditionally associated with the Millennial generation resonate with so many of us in the workforce, now that we have begun to emerge from the pandemic.

In short:

For those of us privileged enough to pursue some form of self-actualization, the shared and deeply impactful experience of living through a global pandemic has made many of us reevaluate our lives, priorities, and expectations for how we earn a living.

What’s Past is Prologue

The Future of Work not only belongs to the Millennial generation (for now, at least) but has already been shaped and set on an unstoppable trajectory by their desire for meaning, purpose, connectedness, and empowerment. These values have become a common driver for both today’s workforce and evolutionary organizations.

Accommodating Gen Y’s needs has thus far made ‘business sense’ given the sheer dominance of this largest generation in the foreseeable future alone. However, addressing these requirements has now become an organizational imperative that transcends industries, geography, and age.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us all in ways large and small. Our lives and what we have learned are non-negotiable features and values within them will never be the same.

We are all Millennials now. And organizations and their leaders had better take note and action to ensure they not only survive but thrive in the foreseeable future – such as it is.

This piece was originally published on May 22, 2023, on LinkedIn.com, and may have been updated since its original publication.