Unless you happen to be Rip van Winkle, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the term “Millennials” at some point along the line. For those of you unfamiliar with the moniker: No, it is not a word invented by Buzzfeed denoting its “most famous people of the millennia” list-icle. It actually describes a group (really, a generation) of people that are far more common – so common, in fact, that they’re expected to make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2020.

There’s a very good chance that you may be living or working with one of these baffling creatures at this very moment. And given the rapid rate at which their numbers are growing in the workforce and at companies near you, you need to know how to identify and categorize Millennials, otherwise known as Generation Y. There are many stereotypes about Millennials — this satirical definition, for example, hits on most of the major tropes — but knowing how to separate fact from fiction is crucial. The success of your business may just depend on it.


So here’s the quickest way to determine if you or someone you know is a Millennial: Were you (or was someone you know) born between 1980 and 1995? If the answer is “yes,” then I hate to break it to you, but that makes you (or them) a bona fide, genuine Millennial.

Millennials are expected to make up 50% of the U.S. workforce by 2020.

But before you reach for the phone to call the police, the family doctor or town dog-catcher, take a moment to reconsider. If IBM’s recent study of Millennials in the workplace is any indication, there’s a good chance some of those popular tropes about Generation Y aren’t quite accurate. Take it from me, reader, I’m one of them.

While it’s certainly fair to characterize Millennials as having a generally higher level of proficiency when it comes to technology than their older counterparts, their reputation writ large is widely undeserved. This is good news for any Gen X, Baby Boomer or even Millennial boss out there trying to figure out how to manage these allegedly bizarre and pesky creatures, especially in the workplace.

The first step, painful as it may be, is accepting their presence and growing influence in the world today, because it’s a sizable one. Mathematically, Millennials are hard to ignore. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 80 million Millennials in the U.S. today, making them 25 percent of the nation’s population. This means that they outnumber both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Plus, when you consider that Generation Z (the generation to follow Millennials, also known as the nation’s teenagers) is even larger, it shows how important it’s becoming in today’s workplace to understand these younger generations. Not long from now both Millennials and Gen Zers will make up nearly 50 percent of the population.

Given their sheer numbers, and their influence in the workplace, it’s especially disconcerting that Millennials don’t hold a particularly high level of esteem in popular consciousness. Especially compared to Generation Z, Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. Their reputation comes with a fair number of pejorative adjectives, and Millennials are knowns as the “entitled,” “self-centered” generation. They’re tech-obsessed multitaskers, who can’t take feedback (particularly negative feedback) and, in the working world, they’re known for being itinerant job hoppers and for their inability to work independently, among other things.

In truth, while Millennials are definitely a different beast and may be markedly different in many ways than Boomers, the most-studied generation shares many qualities with both their older and younger peers. The bright side for managers is that how Millennials act, what they expect and what they want (particularly in the workplace) ultimately may not be so different from what we’ve come to expect from workers of all ages.

That said, there are some differences that managers need to look out for in today’s workplace, though it can be said that many apply to employees across the board. To help you navigate the weird and wonderful world of the Millennial worker, we’ve put together a list of eight tips, best-practices and advice for anyone looking to more effectively work with and manage these unicorns.

1.) Millennials Look For Group Flow

The rumors appear to be true: Millennials love to work in groups. They want to be part of networked teams, where they can collaborate with others and learn on the job, and they value a diversity of perspectives. According to the IBM study of Millennials in the workplace mentioned above, more than 50 percent of Gen Y workers said they’re more likely to make better business decisions when group input is involved. They love to collaborate, having grown up participating in team sports, bands and study groups, and seek out group flow.

Millennials and Gen Xers don’t have the inherent skepticism of authority characteristic of Boomers.

The upside here is that Gen Xers actually polled similarly (even a little bit higher) when it comes to seeking advice from the group before making decisions. And, like Gen Xers, more than 50 percent of Millennials believe that their boss (or managers) are the most qualified to make important decisions in the workplace. (So, this means that on the one hand, Millennials may not be the nefarious, undermining force in the workplace they are often portrayed as being.)

Group consensus is equally if not more important to Gen X as it is to Gen Y. Neither seem to have the inherent skepticism of authority that is so characteristic of Boomers, giving you the ability to employ similar tactics across your “younger” workforce.

When it comes to group participation, managers may also want to consider assigning Millennial employees to cross-departmental teams and projects, in which Millennials can work with a broad variety of stakeholders. It gives them a chance to get to know how their business functions at a broader level, and, from there, how they can contribute in a way that helps the organization as a whole, as Dan Klamm of Redbooth noted last year.

However, one thing that must be said here – and this applies not only to Millennials but workers of all ages across your company – while it’s important for managers to place value on group dynamics and collaboration, rather than taking a “my rule is law” approach, be careful not to lose sight of the individual. 

Workers in older generations typically accept directions with a simple “yes.” Millennials are curious and ask a lot of questions.

2.) Employers Should Contextualize Decisions

One key difference between Millennials and older employees is that older employees are often more likely to accept decisions or directions with a simple “yes,” without questioning the thought or reasoning behind it.

Millennials are curious and tend to ask a lot of questions. While this may be annoying or grating for some managers, the fact of the matter is that they’ve grown up in environments where their opinions matter. They’re used to asking questions and to having someone ask them what they think. So, if you’re going to get along with the Millennials in your office, consider offering context to the decisions you make and sharing how and why you came to a particular conclusion.

Millennials, like all employees, value transparency, and you’re more likely to get a better product from them if they understand your motivations, the goal at hand and what’s expected both of the individual and the group.

For example, If you’re breaking employees down into teams, you should explain why you’re putting each individual on a team and what you expect from each person in the group.

Millennials are always looking for a better understanding of their role within the wider organization. They crave access, and giving them that will keep them motivated.55117025

3.) Give Them Feedback

This one is especially key. When it comes to Millennials, give feedback early and often. Millennial workers love to spend time generating ideas, to run with those ideas and then get feedback. Like engineering and product teams, they want to cycle, prototype and get rapid feedback, incorporating it into their process before moving onto the next task.

To that end, managers should consider doing away with the typical annual review process when it comes to Millennials. Instead, give them short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, and consider offering quarterly reviews or performance conversations. Furthermore, Millennials also crave the opportunity to provide feedback to management, so consider making feedback a two-way street, and an ongoing conversation.

Millennials want to cycle, prototype and get rapid feedback, incorporating it into their process before moving onto the next task.

On top of that, it may be smart to consider designing incentive structures where bonuses or raises are based on quarterly performance, rather than annual. Whatever course you choose, if you can find time to offer Millennials honest feedback, in realtime, and highlight positive contributions or areas where they have or can improve on key competencies, you’ll put yourself in a better position to get the most out of your Gen Y workforce.

4.) Create a Community

More so than career advancement or higher salaries, Millennials are motivated by understanding their contribution to a broader company vision. Having grown up in a new, maker-oriented world, Millennials are keen to create; they want to build something.

Writing for Forbes, George Bradt goes so far as to say that Millennials may not commit to you (their manager) or the organization, but they will work themselves to the bone for a meaningful, “good-for-others cause.”

They’re out to make a real, measurable difference so it’s important for managers to explain the vision behind their company and how the Millennial’s work feeds into a broader purpose. Anything you can do to inspire them will do wonders for productivity and happiness.

Millennials want to work for an organization that takes helping others seriously so one way to inspire Millenials is to help them to contribute to causes they care about. From When I Work:

“If you hope to attract and inspire millennials, you must offer them more than the chance to earn a buck. You need to show that them their work matters in the scheme of something larger than themselves. One way to do this is to create programs and opportunities for them to give back to the community. This might be through time off to participate in charity events, through company-sponsored events, or through a matched donation plan to the organization of their choice.”

5.) Enable Fluidity of Work-Life Boundaries

Millennials crave flexibility in their jobs and value work-life balance. While their careers and professions often are integral to how they define themselves, they like to have a life outside of work, and there’s more fluidity between work life and life outside the workplace. So, if you’re able to give your Millennial employees transparent targets and instructions and they know when a particular job or task needs to be completed, does it really matter how or where the work gets done?

While it may not come easy, managers should consider giving their younger employees the freedom to work from home (or from a coffee shop). After all, if the work gets done and that’s where they’re most productive, then maybe it’s not worth putting as much of a stake in their tactics or requiring them to clock in and out.

It’s not unusual for Millennials to answer work texts, emails or calls at home. Millennials have come to expect this, it’s how they operate, so consider embracing this fluidity of boundaries between work and life, between the office and home, and the individual and the group.

6.) Give Them Opportunities to Learn

Remember: They’re kids. They love to learn. So let ‘em. Millennials want to learn, and they value on-the-job training. They’re eager to make a difference, and they’ve grown up in an information rich age, where education, training and learning of all kinds can happen anywhere and in real-time.

So it stands to reason that, if you want to retain your Millennial employees, then you need to engage them, especially when it comes to development opportunities. Consider implementing mentorship programs, and on-the-job learning and education, whether it be seminars, speakers or even classes.

It’s important to remember here that career orientation is key to Millennials. They’re not afraid to jump ship and don’t have the same notions of loyalty that their parents or older generations might have had. They don’t expect to work at one company for the rest of their lives and, as a result, they’re keen to acquire skills that are transferable to other areas of their life or to future jobs.

More than career advancement or higher salaries, Millennials are motivated by understanding their contribution to a vision.

7.) Are You My Reverse Mentor?

Furthermore, to this point, managers may want to consider establishing a reverse-mentoring program. The fact is that Millennials are, for the most part, at (or near) the beginning of their careers. As such, they have a lot to learn, especially from more senior members of their teams.

On the other hand, as children of the digital age, many have skills (particularly when it comes to proficiency with technology) or comfort with change that may not be as readily accepted among older workers. So, let older workers and younger workers learn from each other, and teach each other. That way everyone wins!

8.) Top-Down = Bad; Coaches = Good

Remember: We’re not in any way advocating that you coddle your Millennial workers or give them more rope than any other worker, but we also advise strongly against employing the traditional top-down management when it comes to Generation Y. Ultimately, this is true for all employees, of any generation. But telling your Millennial employees to “fall in line”? That’ll get you a resignation letter on your desk faster than you can say “mutiny.”

The fact of the matter is that, Millennials, like all others, respond far, far better to coaches than they do to “managers” or “directors.” After all, most of them grew up with coaches who would give them trophies just for showing up. So, instead of issuing directives and expecting them to go on their merry way and come back with a perfectly, crafted, wow-you-nailed-it finished product, try to collaborate with them. You don’t have to hand-hold, but try establishing a few additional, brainstorm or feedback sessions. Tell them they’re doing a bang-up job, or are failing miserably, and give them tips, clear and concise on how they can do better. Work with them. It will save you time, money and from having an ulcer in the long run. Trust us.

Images via Memegenerator and quickmeme 

About the author

Rip Empson

Rip Empson

Before a stint at a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, Rip spent four years as a staff writer at TechCrunch, researching and reporting on technology news and the exciting array of startups, entrepreneurs and technologies that are reshaping our world. He also loves The Boston Red Sox, drinks too much coffee, and wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.

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