Narrowing the generational divide at work

I was listening to a network talk show and heard the pundits denounce a certain group as lazy and caring about nothing more than video games and pop culture. I’ve heard the presidential candidates talk about them using the words “entitlement” and “lacking values.” When I speak to groups about the Future of Everything project, in most cases the first question is, “How can we accomplish anything with this group?” Who is this much-maligned and oft-misunderstood group? The millennials or “Generation Y.”As with other prejudices, the passive-aggressive dialogue is slipped in between the issues, and just accepted by the rest of us as fact. In fact, these false claims and stereotypes are symptoms of change and progress that plain old scare the pants off some people.When I was speaking to a group in Washington this past summer, one woman said that social media was destroying our society and the next generation. She was so upset she left the presentation. The fact is that society is changing, social norms are changing and the way we do everything will be different.This includes the generational perspectives of how we work. Refusing to engage this group and their norms is counterproductive at best, disastrous at worst.The most common issue I hear about the younger generation is that they don’t have a “good work ethic,” aren’t loyal, and lack respect. None of these assertions is true. There are good, loyal and respectful workers in all generations. What we need to consider are the norms, perspectives and motivators of all groups and tap into them.Newer workers have the same needs and aspirations as we do, they just have a new perspective about the methods to achieving them.Moving forwardIf companies want to attract good workers today, they tout transparency, empowerment, work/life balance, the ability to do interesting work and the ability to work in teams. In fact, many jobs require these workplace competencies.If we do a comparison of generations, it is the millennials who not only embrace these values, they excel at them. By definition, millennials are transparent, feel empowered and like working in teams. But when they leave work “on time” because they have to make the aerobics class, they are criticized for not sharing our work ethic.They might ask for flex hours, but are denied that because they need to have a presence in the office. Or they want to network, but are told they have to do that on their own time. They tell the truth about the wastefulness of a process or method and are seen as disrespectful.There is a big contradiction to what we claim we want in our companies and what we are willing to accommodate.The truth might be that millennials are the best workers to move us all forward and are held back by old thinking and outdated management norms. Rather than criticize them for speaking up and staying true to their own values, we should invite them into the conversation and allow them to teach us what they know.Millennials have watched loyal employees hit the unemployment rolls, experience downsizing or have their jobs outsourced. Younger generations are conditioned to these realities, so they don’t even try to understand work tenure or the value of benefits. It’s not that they don’t want these things; it’s that they don’t trust or understand their value.The reason I hear these generational concerns is that there is a divide, a misunderstanding and a reliance on outdated workplace norms. Empowerment can’t be just talked about, it has to be embraced. Teams can accomplish more on some projects, but all generations need to trust that approach.Respect works in both directions. If we respect the younger generation, they will respect us. Loyalty can be achieved by optimistic millennials and progressive companies, if we listen to and understand each other.When I am asked why the generational work ethic is different, I respond by emphasizing that the problem is ours, not theirs. We are the leaders, therefore we need to create the bridge between us.Dr. Russ Ouellette, managing partner of Sojourn Partners, Bedford and creator of The Future of Everything Project, can be reached at 603-472-8103 or