Relationship Goals: Making it Work with Older Colleagues

A few weeks ago, our friend Clare Convey shared her thoughts on working with millennials. This week, we're providing a millennial's perspective on the generational divide! 

It’s probably the millennial in me that’s hesitant to speak for my generation as a collective, but I’ll give it a shot. I think if there’s one thing all of us younger workers would like our older colleagues to understand, it’s that if we’re working with you, then we want to be there. We want to learn from you, we want to grow in experience. Yes, we want to be respected and listened to (like any other colleague), but I promise we want to be there and we want to do the work.

If millennials act entitled, it’s not because we think we deserve the world on a silver platter, but rather that we think we put in the work and effort that deserves respect. I think there’s a danger in assuming something of any group - including age groups. At the end of the day, millennials, gen X, gen Y, and baby boomers would rather be defined by who they are as an individual than as a collective.

Millennials Have to Work Really, Really Hard

For twenty-two years of my life, I’ve been a millennial. That means I’ve never really known a world without the internet, smartphones and the expectation that you will be reachable 24/7. For twenty-two years of my life, I’ve had to be “on” and I put a lot of effort in every day to be even just a little bit better than I was the day before.

A typical week in my life has me bouncing from a college campus, a nonprofit office, babysitting, running a student organization, being invested in a church community, and planning for the future. Often, all of these things take place in a single day.

This isn’t a new habit and it isn’t a lifestyle I live alone. For years now, I’ve been witness to friends stretching themselves thin in order to be a better person and make a better world.

Sure, all millennials don’t fall in this category, but, I would be bold enough to say that a majority of us are like this. We were told to do well and excel in middle school so we could be in AP classes and lead organizations in high school. In high school, we were constantly reminded that four years was not enough time to build the perfect resume but we needed to do that and have a great GPA to get into the college of our dreams. Some of us came to college thinking, “I just need this diploma and then I’ll be set to get that job and live a great life.” Pretty quickly I (and many around me) realized that wasn’t the case at all.

Everyone is getting a degree in something. All of my peers are accepting job offers and balancing a full class schedule. It isn’t enough to just get that piece of paper that says you spent 120 hours on a college campus.

If you want a leg up, you have to be looking at grad programs and double majoring. To stand out in the crowd, you have to be excelling in at least three different areas of life. Some days, I feel a little overwhelmed. I worry that my future children will be stuck in years of schooling and debt just so they can keep up with the competition. However, most days I wake up excited to tackle whatever color coded mess is in my planner.

Millennials were raised in an era that operates under the assumption that busyness is best. America is a fast-paced “let’s get things done” kind of place - and this is true no matter your age. My grandmother is 80 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. She has an iPhone, an iPad and a laptop so she can check her email and keep up with her grandkids on Facebook. She retired several years ago but still has a packed schedule of volunteering, dinners, and bridge. Maybe it’s because I share DNA with her, but, for me, downtime has to be planned.

Another example is my executive director. He’s young at heart (if not in years), and he’s been pedaling hard, literally and metaphorically, for years. The man bikes everywhere in Austin, sends emails at 4 a.m., and knows the family story of every important person in the area. These are the people millennials are learning from.

Millennials Learn in New Ways

Hard work doesn’t look the same as it did 20 years ago. Gaining knowledge sure doesn’t either. I often walk around with headphones in my ears, but I’m not listening to music to avoid conversations. Chances are I’m listening to a news podcast to stay informed. I may be looking at my phone while riding the bus, but I am probably reading an article or part of a textbook.

Just because technology is near me at all times doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention. I’m taking notes, making lists, setting reminders, communicating, and networking. I’m trying to be more efficient than the peer next to me - who could take over my job at any moment. Even as I’m working hard to be a stand out individual, I also celebrate the success of the ones around me and help them any way I can.  

Millennials Appreciate Expectation Setting

One thing I’ve learned from working so closely with my generation is the reality of expectations. I’m a Type A, slightly obsessive, nonstop personality type. I know this about myself, but I also know that not everyone is like me. My roommate is a bit more of a free spirit. She’s a crazy hard worker, but her life is a bit more chaotic. I know if I want to do something with her or have something happen at our apartment, I have to give her day and time. Vague doesn’t work in her schedule well.

The same expectation setting applies to the 186 college students I find myself leading every week. If I say, “Hey friends, we need this paperwork turned in soon,” nothing happens. If I say, “These four documents are due in one week,” things get turned in. It’s not hand holding, it’s being clear about your expectations. Every now and then, a professor will ask that we not use laptops or technology in their classroom. They want us to be engaged, so paper notes it is. Do 100% of students follow through with this? No, but a large majority do. Odds are, if you’ve hired someone you probably think he or she is capable and respects you. If you have expectations for them, but don’t make them clear, you shouldn’t be disappointed when they fail to meet them. If you set expectations early on, you may find that you get better results from your millennial peers.  

Millennials and Older Workers Can Learn From Each Other

Chances are high that you’ve invited a millennial into an established workplace, with its own culture and way of doing things. Tell them how things work and what the expectations are, but also be willing to listen when they have new ideas.

Friendly reminder, you can be younger than 30 and still have good ideas. Second friendly reminder, an old dog can and probably wants to learn new tricks. There are times when I’m shocked that more people aren’t using Google Docs, GroupMe, and Doodle Poll when they are working on collaborative efforts. However, I can’t tell you the last time I told someone older than me that these resources were an option.

We all fall victim to expecting people just to know things. We forget that there is beauty in all of us knowing a lot about a little. Knowing a little about a lot of things doesn’t change the world. Passion and focus is what changes the world. So, have a little grace, we all have a lot to learn from one another.  
Katie Henderson is a graduating senior majoring in corporate communications at The University of Texas at Austin. She currently serves as the director of Ignite Texas, a nonprofit Christian camp for incoming UT freshmen. She works at Hill Country Conservancy, an Austin based environmental nonprofit, as the development and events associate. In August 2017, Katie will be moving to Scotland for a year to serve with the Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer Program.