We blew it with the millennials.
They were confident, bold, very educated, and startlingly different from any generation we had seen before. Yet when they entered our classrooms and our boardrooms ready to contribute with a new perspective on how things could be done, we had to make a choice: to welcome them as partners in navigating our changing world or resist them, viewing them as a threat to the way things had always been. We most definitely chose the latter. We took them to task —interpreting their boldness as narcissism and their proactivity as entitlement. We spent years developing the potential of our millennials, and now we are squandering it.
More than a decade ago, 60 Minutes introduced millennials to the world with a news segment positioning them as a plague we must survive. This negative framing has endured, despite evidence that millennials tend to have shared values with previous generations, and even greater interest in social responsibility. Research shows millennials desire meaningful work and are committed to learning and development, but we’ve instead created a narrative that they’re entitled, self-centered and lazy. We’ve blamed them for everything from killing American cheese to the disappearance of the bar of soap.
While the term “millennials” has become a catchall for young people, it’s no longer an accurate label. The oldest millennials will be turning 38 years old in 2019, meaning many of them are approaching middle age and positions of middle management. The youngest millennials graduated from college last spring at age 22. That means your youngest employees most likely belong to an entirely new generation—Generation Z.
Let’s do better with this next generation, shall we?
Speculation abounds about Gen Z: Will growing up in the shadow of the recession make them financially conservative? Will the novelty of career hopping be lost on them, prompting a return to careers with more longevity, or will they continue to embrace the gig economy and radically reshape what it actually means to have a “career” at all? None of this is certain, but one thing is: we cannot treat them as adversaries the way we did millennials.
Why? Quite simply, we cannot afford the continued loss of human potential. The rate of change in every industry in our current business world is unprecedented, and to survive we need everyone fully invested in their work. As Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The challenges we face will not be overcome using old ways of thinking, nor will they be solved by one generation, young or old.
Our contentious view of millennials has contributed to a fundamental misunderstanding about how to productively motivate and lead this vital part of our workforce. Currently, only 29 percent of millennials report being engaged in their work. This low level of engagement has implications for organizational productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and commitment. In other words, our largest generation in the workplace is currently our most disengaged, leading to a loss in vital talent and energy.
What we desperately need is a Gentelligent approach to working together. Gentelligence is an organizational strategy that views the perspectives and talents of different generations as an opportunity, not a threat. This approach paves the road both for younger employees to use their unique insights to innovate and solve problems, and for older generations to work with them to provide context and guidance for how to help those ideas get needed traction within our organizations.
There are a few organizations out there that have begun to crack the code on how to engage their essential millennial employees and illustrate the power of a Gentelligent approach, but not nearly enough. Fortune’s list of the best workplaces For millennials showcases a few model examples. A millennial employee at Kimley Horn, number four on the list, says, “It’s amazingly powerful to know that not only does our management find value in making sure we understand why we do things the way we do, but that they value the knowledge we bring to the table.” Evidence of the potential of Gentelligence can also be found at places like Papa.com, where young people are seen as valuable partners and companions in a “grandkids on demand” business model, or in companies like SoulCycle, where even the CEO has a millennial mentor.
We now have a new generation entering our workplace. This time, it will be the millennials meeting Gen Z at the door, serving as their supervisors and showing them the ropes. This is their opportunity to lay out the welcome mat that was not given to their generation when they arrived and to do what millennials do best: show us a new way of doing things.
Megan Gerhardt is professor of management and leadership at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University.