I work with a Millennial. That’s a conversation starter that’ll get an immediate reaction. Those reactions will be widely varied, of course, depending on the age of the folks you’re tossing it out to. I confess to entertaining myself at times by making the statement when I’m with folks, how shall I put it, my age.
Our museum’s Visitor Services Manager, Jessica, fits smack dab in the middle of a generation that’s now a driving societal force, both culturally and economically. The majority of the museum’s interns and volunteers were also born between 1981 and 1996. I can, at times, find myself surrounded by them.
I’m that generation born between 1946 and 1964. That makes me, much to my disappointment, a Boomer. Baby Boomer, that is. Since I’m way at the end of that cycle, it is a title with which I wholeheartedly disagree. My Generation X wife, born a scant few years behind, takes personal daily pleasure in reminding me of the barrage of senior discounts of which I should take every advantage. But I digress. My generational stamp has been stamped and my personal problems stemming from the mistake is best worked out through therapy. Let me get back to the Millennial issue.
As a disgruntled Baby Boomer that’s worked along side Millennials in our museum setting for almost 7 years, I’ve concluded a few major points that help me succeed in getting along. For the purpose of this blog, I’ve narrowed it down to five things. If I stay very aware of these five points, I’ve learned that success in working together is far more likely.
1 – They are smarter than me.
Much smarter, actually. On some days, it can be humbling to realize how much smarter. And why shouldn’t they be? The background that colored my world, those early experiences that shaped how I interact with life, was pretty small. I went to the library to look stuff up. I used a dictionary. I used a phone attached to a wall. Thinking back on the pace of my learning, it’s a wonder I managed to figure anything out. To think trip planning meant I wrote Chamber of Commerce offices request letters and received vacation brochures in the mail three weeks later. Cable TV was part of our cultural revolution. When history remembers cultural changes, I certainly hope they keep Cable TV listed very low, where it belongs.
There’s a good reason why the millennials might refer to me as a dinosaur. Sharing some of the “how it was” stories out loud makes it quite easy to imagine the sound of a Stegosaurus plodding heavily in the background. When I listen to Jessica, I hear a voice that shares growing up and learning with the world right at her fingertips. The speed at which she learns was once incomprehensible. For her, it’s a normal, every day phenomenon. I’ll caveat here, being well aware that smarter does not mean wiser. I do not believe that Jessica or any of the younger interns are any wiser than I. But I do know for a fact that they are smarter.
2 – They are tech savvy geniuses.
Get out of their way. Pay attention. Pick up anything you can from the genius that stands before you. I matured in a world where geniuses were few. Now I have the dizzying pleasure of working with them every day. Remember, this is someone that’s already smarter than you are, and now they have a range of devices that have literally changed every aspect of how we do things both personally and professionally. It’s amazing when there are two or three of these geniuses in the room sharing new tech options that are available this week. I’m still trying to catch up to changes from last year, and the geniuses have already moved on to another dozen new apps that make almost everything I have on my smartphone obsolete. Listen closely, and ask them to teach you. Thankfully, I have found my younger colleagues to be both supportive and enthusiastic to share that knowledge.
3 – They seek a greater purpose.
Stop bringing in those cases of the little plastic water bottles, because they understand that it’s a stupid waste of our very limited resources. Both my and my wife’s generations never quite gave it a thought when we filled our world with cheap, disposable single use plastics. The Millennial gives it more than a thought. The Millennial isn’t using plastic straws. They will literally bypass the restaurant that’s using those straws for an establishment purposely committed to not killing sea turtles. Their need for greater purpose has helped define the found again popularity of shopping local. As the Goliath corporations offer less and less choice, this generation is responding by creating a huge amount of new, local self-starting enterprises and businesses. It’s how these smart, tech savvy geniuses are changing the world, one great cause at a time. You’ll find their causes online, or even in brick and mortar shops. They aren’t merely selling, say, fine hand-made leather bags, they are also donating proceeds from the bags to local charities or even international relief agencies. Find Millennials doing business, and you will most likely find they are also figuring out how to share that wealth with a greater purpose.
4- Their creative quantity can’t be quantified.
Creativity defines this amazing generation’s contribution to the world. Not only are they expressing and developing ideas at light speed, but they are connecting ideas in ways never before imagined. I think it’s Baby Boomer manufactured myth that they’re defining themselves through social media hearts and audience engagement data. Sure, they take pride in the social media account that gets hundreds of likes on a post, but there is something much more important taking place in between all the selfies. They are creating entirely new ways to see and explore the every day world. As their technology continues to develop, so will their creativity. You simply cannot put a number on this kind of intellectual capital. They are already bypassing much of the clunky 20th Century infrastructure that’s slowing them down. It leaves Boomers like me choking on their dust and wondering what’s going to change next week. Because creativity rules, nothing is permanent. That app you think is really great? Gone. The way you see your smart TV grid layout? That’s going to change next week, and change again the week after. The smartphone you just bought so you could keep up with technology? That’s going to be out of vogue in a matter of months. The major social media platforms have all morphed more in the last year than in the last decade.
From the time I was in grade school to the time I was in the world working a job, very little about the structure of life had actually changed. The biggest thing we could celebrate was faster internet speeds. Let’s pause and remember how long that actually took. I grew up in a world of stability. Of three networks. Of a few popular things on cable TV. Of computers and telephones being completely different objects. What comes to mind most when I think of life, is stability. This generation of creativity means life is anything but predictable. It’s breathtaking, amazing, and maybe just a bit terrifying. The Millennials bring us the wild west of change. And you need to be quick on the draw. And, yep, that was a pretty deliberate Baby Boomer reference. You’re welcome.
5 – Their economy is hard.
Perhaps I should put this one first. It often stands as the defining point if you are older and wish to get along with some younger folks. They’ve been handed an economic structure that’s a shadow of the one that accompanied my trip into the world. The Boomers like to complain about the Millennials still living at home. We also like, however, to leave out the fact that we’ve handed them economic conditions that make it extremely hard to move out. If you’re keeping company with a Millennial that’s been to college, you should probably buy them a craft beer. That’s because most of their income is going to their student loans. Since they were born, college tuition has increased at a rate four times that of inflation, and eight times more than an average household income. It means they enter the world with a lot of debt. Fellow Baby Boomer, do you remember what you spent of your first car? Mine was $1100 bucks. Young professionals today face financing used cars that cost an average of $20,000. Put it all on top of wages that have fallen further and further behind the cost of living, and you have the defining issue that keeps most Millennials from financial success. When I landed my first decent job, it was full-time and provided enough income for a place to live, a car, and I always had cash in my pocket for fun stuff. Let’s not forget that all of their incredible tech means many jobs are now automated, which narrows the field and increases the competition for full-time employment with genuine chances for advancement. Boomer friends, put a twenty dollar bill in your wrinkled palm (the Greatest Generation would say double saw-buck) and recognize how very, very different that Jackson looks to you, than it does to your up and coming co-worker.
So that’s what I try to remember when I find myself struggling to cross that ever widening generational divide.
As a footnote, I recently enjoyed listening to Jessica share how our young Oral History Intern, a Sophomore in High School, left her feeling a bit, and she did use the term, old. While listening to her confess how she didn’t quite speak his language, I recognized the reluctant acquiescence in her eyes. But I’ll let her write her own blog about struggling to communicate with the younger generation.