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Boomers' Love/Loathe Relationship With Millennials

The 'You Raised Us — Now Work With Us' author explains the paradox

By Richard Eisenberg

Here’s a conundrum for boomers: Why are you so testy about the Millennials you work with because they exhibit the same behaviors you instilled in your Millennial kids as a parent?
That’s the vexing question Lauren Stiller Rikleen answers in her intriguing new book with the plaintive title, You Raised Us — Now Work With Us. I just spoke with Stiller Rikleen to hear her advice on how the sometimes paradoxical boomers can work better with — and sometimes for — Millennials.
Stiller Rikleen, a multigenerational workforce maven, is Executive-in-Residence at the Boston College Center For Work & Family and president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership. Equally important, she’s the mother of two Millennials: a son, 27, and a daughter, 24.

(MORE: Mr. Millennials' Career Tips for Boomers' Kids)
As part of her research, Stiller Rikleen surveyed roughly 1,000 Millennials, asking them about their job experiences, their view of older workers and their opinions about their own generation.
Highlights from my interview:
Next Avenue: Why did you write this book?
Stiller Rikleen: I do a lot of speaking and training and several years ago, whenever I was doing a presentation, the conversation always came around to people complaining about Millennials in the workplace. One time, I asked whether anybody had Millennial kids and most did.
I realized at that point there was a huge disconnect between the qualities we tried to instill in our children when we were raising them and how they play out in the workplace.
The purpose of writing this book was to parse through why the generation that raised them is having such difficulties adjusting to their behaviors at work.

My sense is that you feel Millennials have been maligned and stereotyped.
Those are the exactly the right words. Unfairly stereotyped is what I always say.
How did this happen?
It goes back to how the qualities of the ways Millennials were raised end up playing out at work.
One stereotype is that Millennials feel ‘entitled.’ But are we confusing the word ‘entitlement’ with what self-confidence and self-respect look like in young people? And is it off-putting to an older person to see young people come into the workplace so self-confident?
I don’t think other generations were raised to be focused on being self-confident the way Millennials were — the whole parenting notion that ‘you are special’ and making your children feel secure in the world.

(MORE: What a Millennial Wishes Mom Told Her About Work)
So we made a mistake as parents?
I think we probably did not spend enough time focusing on how important it is to temper self-confidence with modesty when you are interacting with other adults at work.
Another stereotype is that Millennials demand constant feedback. What’s the truth?
Yes, there’s a stereotype that Millennials want to be told how great they are. But they really have a desire for feedback in the workplace in order to understand how they’re doing.
And how does this desire tie back to the way they were raised?
Growing up, their parents were constantly giving them feedback and so were the other adults in their lives — teachers and coaches. The Millennials were getting not just a report card, but a report card every day in how they were doing.
That’s a role they’re used to adults playing in their lives. In many workplaces, they’re frustrated by managers who are uncomfortable giving feedback and hardly ever give any.
Somehow that’s gotten morphed into: ‘Oh, they just want to know how great they’re doing.’ I have never heard one Millennial say: ‘I don’t get enough positive feedback.’ What I hear them say is: ‘Can you tell me how I did this time?’

(MORE: Organize a Cross-Generational Conversation Day)
Why are boomers so resistant to give feedback? Are they too busy or do they just not want to be held accountable?
I think it’s a number of things. Everybody’s gotten busier in their jobs. So on that level, it’s a fair reaction.
But beyond that, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for the most part, boomers are not comfortable giving feedback on a regular basis. So they avoid it, especially if it’s not positive.
The problem becomes that Millennials read no feedback as negative feedback. I think that contributes to attrition in the workplace.
Do the boomers see the contradiction between they way they raised their Millennials and the way they feel about that generation at work?
The reaction I’ve been getting as I’ve spoken with boomers is they’re not connecting it up.
You also say there’s a disconnect between what Millennials value and what boomers think they value.
The data shows that boomers think that what Millennials value in the workplace is money. But in studies asking Millennials what they value, compensation hardly ever makes the Top Three. Generally, meaning in their work and flexibility are very high; money is not.
It’s essential for managers to understand what drives Millennials because if you come up with the wrong answers, you’re not going to be able to retain the people you want to retain.
You write that Millennials feel they have the same work ethic as boomers or even a better one. But boomers don’t think so because younger employees don’t tend to come in early or stay late and they want a life outside of work.
For Millennials, the work ethic is far more about efficiency than time. A lot of workplaces are still measuring time and are unnecessarily focused on time over flexibility.
There's also a tech conflict. You say that for Millennials, being a tech mentor to boomers is often part of their job, but it's not in their job description and they’re not being paid extra for it.
That was a fascinating piece I picked up from the anecdotes in the survey. It’s an example of behavior we do at home that plays out when we get to work.
At home, if we have a problem with technology, we turn to our Millennial kids. In the workplace, we look to the first person we see and say: ‘Hey can you help me with this?’
Millennials say, if I’m going to be tech support, at least acknowledge that. Let’s not have it be this hidden aspect of my day that no one acknowledges and might interfere with what I’m supposed to do at my job.
Do Millennials hate the boomers they work with? Is this a war?
I don’t find that there’s a war at all. Millennials were raised to like the adults in their lives. They’re much more inclined to like working with more senior people than we’re appreciating.
So how do Millennials really view boomers?
I asked them and the interesting thread was: ‘I can appreciate all the things boomers did when they were younger, they were so engaged in the world and made such a difference. But all that ended when they entered the workplace.’
And I think that’s the source of frustration young people have with boomers today: How is it you were so engaged in being a change agent on so many fronts in your younger days, but in the workplace you just accept the status quo, and — I think it’s fair to say — made it worse in many respects?
That’s very puzzling for Millennials who think: Why on earth would you have the attitude that because you had it hard, I should have it hard? Why shouldn’t the attitude be, ‘I had it hard so I want to make your life easier?’
You found a particular vehemence by Millennial women toward boomer women at work.
There were a lot of comments from younger women around work-family issues who find boomer women feel that because they had to sacrifice to succeed, that’s what the next generation should be doing.
This is a huge source of frustration and sadness for younger women, because they completely reject it and because that’s not making sense to them.
What could boomers be doing to work better with Millennials and be more helpful to them?
Number one would be to make the workplace a more level playing field for Millennials as a whole — to promote more transparency and ensure everyone has opportunities to succeed.
Another would be reaching out more as mentors and sponsors.
You could also look at how your workplace provides feedback and whether its employees know how to give feedback. You can train people on how to give and accept feedback; that would make for a much healthier workplace.
Also, allow Millennials to weigh in on how they perceive that the workplace could operate better from a technology standpoint.
You finish the book saying that Millennials have the opportunity to use their collective power to change the workplace. Will they?
I’m forever the optimist. I think they will, and here’s why:
When Gen X [now age 36 to 49] entered the workforce, we thought they would change things from a work/family standpoint. But I think they were too small a generation; they just ended up assimilating. Millennials are a huge generation and there is universal data around their commitment to managing work/life integration. It’s really a fundamental aspect of who this generation is and what matters to them going forward.
My hope is that they will be able to be change agents in the workforce. They have the numbers to do it and the commitment. If they’re successful, future generations should thank them.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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