Sunday, June 21, 2015

Why millennials matter

Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Gazette weekly column, “On Topic,” from 05-24-15
I considered starting out like this:
How many millennials does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Who knows — none of them stick around long enough to finish the job … .
But lately, after spending most of my working day with those frequently maligned millennials, I’ve concluded it’s probably past time for managers to rethink the validity of that view.

For the sake of this discussion, I mean those born generally between the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan took his first oath of office, and the beginning of the 2000s, after the numbers “9/11” became part of all our collective consciousness.
For one thing, it’s in our best interests as supervisors, mentors and, frankly, sensible human beings to reconsider our attitude and approach to this group of folk who now make up the majority of today’s work force — 34 percent, according to  the Wall Street Journal.
But not just because they’re in the majority and might kick us out of our close-in parking spots. More so we don’t miss an important opportunity.
Here in the combined newsroom of The Gazette and KCRG-TV9, we have a true multigenerational base. We have reporters who’ve been covering the Corridor, well, longer than it’s been called the Corridor, and certainly longer than I’ve worked at any one place.
We also have a lot of millennials. They’re smart and eager, and more than one of them, when discussing the pop-culture-obsessed, here-today-out-the-door-tomorrow stereotype, has proclaimed sternly, “That’s not me.” And I’ve come to believe they are right.
When we look at how they got this reputation — and how managers have responded to it — we can be more inclined to reconsider our outlook.
They don’t want to put down roots? Keep in mind they graduated with an education debt far in excess of that their parents had to shoulder.
Remember, too, take-home pay isn’t what it used to be. A Pew Research Center study from this past autumn noted that for most American workers, “real wages — that is, after inflation is taken into account — have been flat or even falling for decades, regardless of whether the economy has been adding or subtracting jobs.”
So you bet they are reluctant to buy a house or start a family. Their American dream might look somewhat less rosy than it did for baby boomers who grew up during a more stable economy and having been reassured that all you need is love.
Millennials keep looking for other jobs and seem to show little loyalty to your company? Well, don’t take it personally, but they witnessed — or certainly were told about — their parents during the Great Recession being chucked out of careers into which they’d sunk their hearts and souls.
The WSJ earlier this month cited 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations in noting the median job stint was less than 16 months for those 20 to 24. It was only three years for 25- to 34-years-old.
Scary numbers, to be sure. But come to that, what are you doing to reassure these young employees?
Do you invest in training and seminars? Sure, maybe they will to put those newly learned skills — skills you paid for them to learn and improve — to the benefit of some other employer.
But maybe they’ll also take to heart that investment you’ve made in them and stick around a tad longer. In that meantime, you’ll see some return.
You also might consider, when it makes sense, to include them in some of the decision-making process, too. You hired them so we should assume they’re smart and bring a certain talent to the table, right?
Leading isn’t always about being at the front of the charge up San Juan Hill, waving a broadsword above our heads. Often it’s about partnering — leading but with a bit of humility grounded in the genuine acceptance that we don’t know everything.
It’s not really us versus them.
Last week, Iowa Public Television broadcast a program highlighting American Ballet Theatre’s 75th anniversary. In it, one of the dancers talked about how ballet as an institution passes on its tradition and knowledge: You learn “Swan Lake,” he explained by way of example, from someone who learned it from someone else who learned it from someone else — down through the years, from the very first “Swan Lake” production in Moscow in 1877.
And that, I think, is how we should view our own roles as supervisors and mentors.
Take into account what our younger partners possess and help them build on that, to do their jobs better, to help grow our companies — where we’re all standing right here and right now — and to develop their own careers.
I also think that’s our job.


  1. I love this column! Somehow I'd assumed Michael Chevy Castranova is a national syndicated columnist (you're that good), so the local ID surprised me. I love the joke: "How many millennials does it take to screw in a light bulb?" and love the column about spell check, AI, "The Age of Earthquakes" and other assorted, esoteric yet interrelated topics.

  2. Love this simple reminder, too: You learn “Swan Lake” from someone who learned it from someone else who learned it from someone else ­ down through the years, from the very first “Swan Lake” production in Moscow in 1877.