June 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kids today…they’re entitled, disrespectful brats who can’t write a complete sentence and are always playing with their phones.

Harumph.

You know, those so-called Millennials born between 1980 and 2000 with the silver spoons in their mouths. The ones who lost, but still got a trophy. The ones doing all the Snapchatting, Tweeting, and Tinder-swiping.

They roll in late, take long lunches, and then leave early. Then they whine for a pat on the back.

Funny thing is, none of that is really true. It’s just a variation on what every older generation likes to say about “kids these days.”

We are surrounded by Millennials—about 55.9 million of them are in the workforce today, the largest of any cohort. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers number about 49 million in each group, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Millennial1WebEvery year it grows increasingly more probable that a millennial is signing paychecks. They’re making important decisions at businesses everywhere. BVH Architects, for example, is announcing a restructuring of their organization this month. This includes putting into key positions people such as 35-year-old Mark Bacon, their new creative director.

To understand the influences a Millennial might have as a manager in the workplace is to understand that Millennials are just a product of their parents and the times—times that have seen remarkable technological advances in the last 30 years, taking us from rotary phones and fax machines to the wonders of Google and the full breadth of human knowledge readily accessible from even the cheapest smartphone.

Alec Levenson, a Yale-educated economics professor at the University of Southern California, has studied generational differences for most of his career. His book, What Millennials Want from Work, carries one inescapable theme: “Millennials want what older generations have always wanted—an interesting job that pays well, where they work with people they like and trust, have access to development and the opportunity to advance, are shown appreciation on a regular basis, and don’t have to leave.”

While they may not be all that different from those who came before them, they are a complex mix of privilege and disadvantage. They came of age as the smartest and most educated—but also the most indebted—generation ever, during one of the worst U.S. economic periods since the Depression.

It’s a tough world out there for Millennials, made tougher by skeptical older generations who are unwilling to step back.

Kristin Streff Barnett, 33, is the director of Employment Services at First National Bank. She manages a couple of millennials, but most of her staff consists of people in the Gen X or Baby Boomer classifications.  As a manager, she invokes a laid back style and tries to be as flexible as possible.

“I am more relaxed than my team desires at times,” she says. “The bank is not the most important thing in your life.”

Nonetheless, she understands that as a younger manager, she needs to built trust and credibility with any team she manages.

“There’s a certain amount of proving yourself I have to do,” Barnett says. “I don’t see that as part of my age. I’ve had seven years of management experience, and I think it’s gotten easier with time.”

Although Barnett works at a bank, the dress codes and flexibility of the company have become more relaxed as the company evolves. She has been known to wear a suit, but she won’t be seen in flip flops at the office. And she knows how to answer an office telephone and leave voice mail.

Bacon is transitioning from a non-management position to managing a team of 52, but he doesn’t see himself barking orders at minions. “It’s not hierarchical, it’s much more about collaboration and integration with project teams.”

Moving millennials into management is often more important than bosses realize. Brandi Goldapp, the 45-year-old owner of  Omaha event planning firm, A View Premier Event Venues, needed help connecting with a younger generation. After decades of success in the industry, something changed.

“Our product didn’t change,” she said. “But there was a disconnect.”

She realized something. Her clients were millennials, who nationally account for roughly 81 million people—many of whom are now entering the life stages of marriage and building families.

So she put a few Millennials in charge.

Her business has now expanded to two additional locations, including the construction of an entirely new building. Most of their venues are booked solid several months in advance, and most of that traces back to the tireless energy of her management team—a pair of dynamo Millennials.

“I believe my business is as successful as it is because of them,” Goldapp said.

Staying ahead of the curve usually involves keeping a close eye on a smartphone, which can be aggravating for the older set. But those phones are for more than Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. The gadgets allow them to be constantly “on the clock,” accessing email, contacts, documents, and calendars. Anywhere, anytime.

The tradeoff? Just as they don’t mind working from home, they expect the boss to accept some of their personal life bleeding into work.

“I think it’s important to remember how important all aspects of their lives are to them,” Barnett says.

Nonetheless, they want to work. Another key piece to understanding Millennials is their need for a sense of ownership, or making a contribution to the larger whole, in a real, tangible way.

“That people are forgetting the fact that there’s still integrity at work,” says Rachel Tew, the 28-year-old tattooed marketing specialist at Mid-America Center. “My work stays at work, but my mind is always looking at opportunities. An older generation believed in work…If I have a deadline, I never miss a deadline.”

Another key piece to understanding Millennials is their need for a sense of ownership, or making a contribution to the larger whole, in a real, tangible way.

Goldapp promoted Millennials in her event planning business as she started developing plans for a new building to accommodate the company’s growth. She brought in her young protégées for input. Together they sketched plans on napkins and visited the construction site.

Goldapp described the process from her small 12-feet x 12-feet office in the new building. She shares the space with her two managers. It’s crammed with two desks and a small fridge. One wall is painted bright orange, another is painted gold, and she loves every bit of it.

“I’ve never had an office,” Goldapp said with a wide grin. It never even occurred to her to include it in the plans, but it did to her 24-year-old sales manager, Britney McRoberts, who had to make a workspace wherever she could.

McRoberts laughed as she recalled the conversation with Goldapp: “If you want us to work smarter and not harder,” McRoberts said, “then we need a desk and a place where we can shut a door. And then you need to paint the walls gold.”

McRoberts also helped rebrand the business, which continued to grow. That meant there was going to be more work for everyone, but not enough to justify hiring more help. Goldapp said they didn’t complain, or ask for raises. They saw the bigger picture.

The bigger issue for Levenson is that problems with management in the workplace are systemic.

“One of the biggest problems we have in organizations,” he said, “is that people get put into frontline management roles without any evidence that they can actually work as managers.”

Corporate policies for hiring, training, and retaining talented leaders leave a lot to be desired across the board, not just Millennials. Changing policies and practices that benefit Millennials would benefit all, he said.

Goldapp laughs at the idea of generalizing the Millennial generation in anything less than flattering terms.

“If you want your business to survive, you better make some changes,” she said.

Goldapp put down a few swaths of gold paint, had a few conversations, outlined expectations, and let the kids take care of the rest.