by Christina Glon
“They are entitled.”
“They are coddled by overbearing parents.”
“They do not want to work hard.”
“They are not loyal to their employers.”
So starts the book You Raised Us – Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an attorney and nationally recognized expert in developing successful multi-generational workplaces, and founder of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.
As the Millennial generation moves into the workplace in increasing numbers, this evolving narrative is now becoming a fixed description. These descriptions form the themes that the media seizes upon and that employers use when frustrated by behaviors they do not understand.
These are also unfair characterizations that miss the mark and negatively impact a multi-generational workforce. When leaders in the workplace adopt this view without further analysis, they lose opportunities to develop the extraordinary potential of a generation that, as a result of current demographics, will be thrust into leadership roles at a younger age than their predecessors. They also miss important research about ways to engage this generation of future workplace leaders.
I’ve been wondering when “Millennials” would finally work their way into law school and ultimately into my classroom. Much to my surprise, they are already here. Traditionally defined as born between 1980 and 2000, Millennials currently range from age 15 to 36. Apparently, they’ve been in law school for quite a few years now! Each spring, I teach “Technology in Legal Practice.” One of my goals with the course is to help the next generation of lawyers understand that perhaps the current generation of lawyers are not as technologically savvy as they would hope and to prepare them for some of the conversations they are bound to have once they join their new firm. So, last spring I asked my students, “Are you Millennials?” The reaction was underwhelming. Most shook their heads no or just looked at me with confusion, as if I just asked them for the square root of pi. I fear that some “Millennials” don’t even know they are Millennials.
Last week, I “attended” a conference call / brown bag session titled “You Raised Us – Now Work With Us: Demystifying Generational Differences and Strengthening Workplace Relationships,” sponsored by the ABA’s Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. I invited my friend and head of our Access Services Department to join me, as she manages our student workers and is always on the front line with our patrons. We had very different reactions: I was fascinated by the program, while she was bored. It turns out that an early Millennial (born in 1982) and a solid Gen-Xer (born in 1970) don’t see things the same way. In fact, this was evident when we created a display case together last fall, but we didn’t realize why until last week’s program. Luckily, because we are close friends, the display turned into more of a sitcom-style project that we often laugh about (“remember when we tried to do that display case together?!? Haha!”). But, I digress. Back to the Millennials in the classroom…
I found the ABA program especially interesting because so many of the new behaviors I’ve seen in our students were explained logically and reasonably. For example, actions I perceived as reflecting the “entitled” stereotype could also been seen as the image of “self-confidence” and “self-respect” this generation has been taught to project. This is a misunderstanding that I can see my way through. On the other hand, some of the anecdotes Ms. Rikleen wrote about in her book were startling to me, and I am still unsure of the appropriate solutions. In one, she told the story of a new associate who was asked by a partner to call the client and provide an update on their case. Much to the horror of the partner, the Millennial associate actually sent an email to the client with an update and was stunned to learn of the partner’s anger and disappointment. Apparently the root of the problem was the partner’s use of a “vague” phrase such as “call the client.” To the new associate, “call the client” meant “communicate with the client,” which is precisely what the associate did. In the most comfortable and familiar form available.
I do not consider “call the client” a vague phrase. Ms. Rikleen suggested that the partner could have been more precise about his or her expectations, and the associate could have confirmed prior to sending the email that any communication would be acceptable. But I see both these suggestions as problematic. If I asked an associate to “call the client,” and they asked if email was okay, my immediate response would be, “No, that’s why I said CALL the client and not EMAIL the client.” Is this just me being an old curmudgeon? And by questioning my instructions, isn’t the new associate displaying the opposite of being “self-confident” and a “real go-getter?” Don’t we (employers) want them (employees) to take some initiative (while still following our instructions)?
So, what are we to do? First, nobody panic. The sky is not falling. Second, understand that a new, radical generation is not really new. We’ve transitioned generations before. Remember how appalling Elvis was? And those crazy Beatles and their long hair?? We will all (Millennials, too) survive this transition as well.
The population of the Millennials in the United States is estimated at 86 million and is the largest cohort in history – 7% larger than the Baby Boomers. . . . Overall, Millennials are expected to comprise 75% of the global workforce by 2025.
I plan to assign parts of Ms. Rikleen’s book as required reading for my technology students this semester, and I am going to recommend it to everyone I know, young and old alike. Better communication starts with better understanding and an openness to learn about the other side. We all have much to learn as we begin to pass the torch to the next generation. After all, who knew my friend and colleague was a Millennial? I certainly didn’t.