5 Things My Gen X Manager Taught Me About Millennials


Concern over our careers (or lack thereof) continues unabated for all of us 20-somethings entering the job market full speed ahead. While plenty of people have proffered advice to the newly minted generation of workers who do manage to get a job, and plenty of managers have offered advice to other managers on how to hire millennials, there's a distinct lack of genuine dialogue between millennials and Gen X-ers in the workplace— a shame, because our generational differences are largely superficial.

How do I know?

Because I asked my former manager, Dean, a Gen X-er who works in the same field as me and who truly, organically became my mentor.

We sat down together to talk out a key question: What are millennials not getting about Gen X, and how can we work better together?

Here’s what I learned.

1. Despite what you’ve heard, millennials and Gen X are natural allies.

Dean has heard me lament that millennials are facing challenges of greater magnitude than those of previous generations many times before. Yet, as he rightly reminded me, Gen X was actually the first generation to have less affluence than the Boomers, to understand the joke that is social security, and to begin incorporating daily technology use into their careers. (Millennials came second.) The proverbial dinosaur-lacking-basic-computer-skills in your office is very likely not a member of Gen X; the digital divide is smaller than we think it is. 

Dean told me that as a Gen X-er, he feels more closely aligned with his millennial workers than his Boomer supervisors, which shouldn't be much of a surprise.

"My generation really rides the bubble of the Internet," Dean told me. "When VHS came out and you could go to Blockbuster, it was cutting edge for our generation. I had a typewriter, and we counted up the space and divided it to center everything, but now I order a car on Uber and have had nine cell phones."

Like millennials, Gen X-ers want to innovate to find solutions. As Dean said, "We’re very task oriented, as a generation. Put the problem in front of us and we'll find creative ways to take care of it." Gen X and millennials can harness these shared traits and leverage them in the workplace to the benefit of both generations.

2. Millennials are not going to leapfrog over Generation X.

Many of us aren't accustomed to the same kind of work that Gen X has been doing for years. Over half of millennials would like to start their own business, and many have relied heavily on freelancing to make ends meet during the down economy. Millennials, myself included, are often quick to forget the value of more traditional skills in the workplace, skills which are just as useful as our well-honed career survival instincts. The missing piece for us is the experience gained through trial-and-error, experience which Gen X has already accumulated, and which millennials will gain over time. Gen X can provide millennials with insights and cautionary tales in ways that our Boomer counterparts cannot.

I asked Dean why he thought millennials struggle with traditional workplace attitudes and "unrealistic" expectations about our careers.

"CEOs don't make great employees," he observed. "If you're running your own business, 9 to 5 doesn't quite fit in what you're used to. While I think everyone should run their own business for the experience, in a traditional work environment, there’s a system that some millennials choose to ignore."

We millennials are not going to leapfrog the generations ahead of us in a traditional workplace, no matter how much innovation, technology, and enthusiasm we bring to the table. This isn’t to say that there isn’t an opportunity for millennials to contribute and seize their moment now, but the best way to do so may be to find allies in treacherous office waters as we work towards advancing our careers.

"Millennials have a lot of big ideas but don't yet know enough about the nuts and bolts. Ideas without action are just ideas," said Dean.

Millennials like me will be better recieved in the workplace when we respect its processes, when we acknowledge that every generation has paid its dues — maybe not the same dues, maybe not as hefty a price, but dues nonetheless. Unfortunately, it's often all too easy to get caught in the doom-and-gloom echo chamber and accidentially alienate our natural workplace allies.

3. Technology has changed the game for millennials, for better or worse.

"The millennials I've worked with aren't as they've been described," Dean told me. "They're constantly in motion, multi-tasking, Facebooking. They're plugged in all the time."

The downside of our generation's widespread use of technology is how easy it's been for us to forget the value of in-person interactions. In the workplace, that means millennials can unconsciously neglect what our Gen X counterparts consider the common staples of communication — like the power of a phone call. What drives Gen X-ers crazy, apparently, is when they ask us to call someone and we choose to fire off an email on something time-sensitive instead, because that's what we're used to doing. As Dean put it, "Every generation reflects its technology."

Gen X-ers like Dean are concerned by millennials' preoccupation with being "first," with our tendency to measure success by audience. "Millennials' thought process is how to connect with 1,000 people versus the quality contact of one-on-one," says Dean.

And he has a fair point. How many times have you seen something posted on Facebook or an article you follow online where someone has commented "First!" and nothing more? How many times has the media reported something with incomplete information in the name of being the first out of the gate? This attitude isn't limited to our generation, but the reality is that that our generation will have to be aware of technology's negative externalities as we proceed in our careers.

4. Yes, millennials are screwed, but the next generation will have it even worse.

Our generational predecessors recognize quite clearly that millennials have gotten a pretty bad deal. Yet for all the challenges we face, Generation Z could be dealing with tenfold the problems. Gen X has less affluence than the Boomers, millennials even less than Gen X — what exactly will be left for Gen Z?

While millennials have now grown to expect that our dreams to be dashed, Gen Z will likely never have such lofty expectations in the first place.  

"When I was in law school, we had more students than there were attorneys. 20 years earlier, [law school] guaranteed you were on the partner track. The talent pool keeps increasing, and the job market is more competitive. There are more and more capable and educated professionals trying to get the good jobs out there," Dean argued.

If current trends continue, the competition we face now will only get more intense, in part because Boomers and Gen X have had to delay retirement and are staying longer in positions. We have now had two successive generations in a row where real incomes and economic well-being have trended downward, an unprecedented development. The widening gap between older generations and younger ones is very real, and the trends in the job market making it harder to get into entry-level positions and harder to advance aren’t likely to reverse course.

"You’re stuck under a structural glass ceiling, with no job vacuum to fill," Dean concluded. 

For all the challenges we’re facing now, it wouldn’t hurt to start thinking about how we might advise the generation that follows us. They’ll be looking to us as mentors.

Which brings me to…

5. Mentorships are best when they form naturally.

One day, I told Dean he was the closest thing I had to a mentor. Instead of running for the hills, he started calling me his mentee/snowflake. It was then that I realized that despite all the times millennials are told to seek out a mentor, true mentorships only come about organically.

While a networking event can introduce us to executives in our field, the perfect mentor on paper may have absolutely zero emotional connection to us. At the end of the day, what millennials need professionally is not just to be able to answer the "who you know" question, but also the "who will recommend you" question — and the answers to those questions are largely personality-driven.

"I can't imagine a mentor-mentee relationship where the two didn't genuinely like each other on some level," Dean commented.

Dean shared some advice on how not to find a mentor, as well.

"Let me describe for you the world's worst mentee: 'What are you going to do for me and help me get to where you are?' Well, no. That's just not going to work," he said. He's right. There's a difference between being direct and being overtly demanding. Millennials should focus on a specific task or project instead of setting out simply to "impress" others. It’s about the work you do, not that you've bragged about doing to others. 

The best advice Dean ever received from a mentor was to "do well by doing good," a sentiment that resonates with at least this millennial. As a generation eager to make our mark and find fulfilling positions that make the world a better place, doing good is precisely our aim to achieve living well.

As young millennial professionals, we have raw, unfiltered talent. Sometimes we need to sit back and try not to rush it. We are frustrated, downtrodden, and maligned by the media, but we are ever hopeful.

Gen X-ers are not our enemies; they're our best allies.

A big thank you to Dean for being so willing to share his sage mentoring advice with all of us at Identities.