Talking 'Bout Our Generations

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, February 11, 2009

I get a lot of e-mails from consultants suggesting various column topics about which they—coincidentally—happen to be experts. No problem. That's how they make a living. I appreciate the help. Keep those ideas coming.

The other day, however, one of my co-workers forwarded an e-mail that he'd received from a consultant offering strategies for retaining and motivating "Millennial" workers. The suggestions all make sense. Give these fresh-scrubbed young Millennials regular feedback. Give them "bragging rights" for a job well done. Make their workplace enjoyable. Give them a sense of ownership. Tap into their "unique talents." Who could argue with that? Recruiting and retaining workers are among the top priorities of hospital and physician leaders in rural and urban America, according to the just-released HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey 2009.

Here's the rub, though: Every suggestion for Millennials can be applied to every worker in your community hospital, physicians' office, restaurant, hardware store, fiberglass insulation manufacturing plant, or anywhere else—regardless of that worker's age, job description, level of education, or any other distinction you'd care to make. It all boils down to treating people like you'd want to be treated.

Sometimes these generational divisions we construct or adopt are nothing more than media-driven chatter and artificial distractions that really don't help. I've never heard my 40-something contemporaries carp, for example, that their working environment was too much fun, or that they were sick and tired of the CEO asking for their feedback, or that their sense of belonging and value at work made them ill, or that they were getting ready to go postal because of all the credit they get for a job well done. The only difference I can see between myself and my 20-something colleagues is that they're thinner, they're more computer savvy, and their music sucks.

By definition, Millennials are the latest demographic subset to enter the workforce. According to Wikipedia, they are born no earlier than 1976 or 1982, depending upon which Millennial is rewriting the definition this week. They are also known as Generation Y, Echo Boomers, the Net Generation, and the iGeneration. My personal favorite description is the marvelously snarky "Trophy Kids," because these youngsters apparently are taught that everybody wins, nobody loses, and everybody gets a trophy just for showing up.

Somehow, if you buy into the media sales pitch, Millennials are supposed to be completely different from the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation Jones, Generation X, and any other generation that has gone on before or that you can market to. I've heard my fellow Boomers say—without a trace of irony—that Millennials are insufferably self-absorbed, overly opinionated, and have a strong sense of entitlement. To which I say: "Kettle, I'd like you to meet your new co-worker, Pot."

Ripping the new kids has been going on for as long as there have been older generations and short memories. Socrates railed against the youth of Classical Greece when he allegedly said: "The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households." In a history book I'm reading now about WWII and the Greatest Generation, an army general tells a reporter in 1942 "I'm afraid the Americans of this generation are not the same kind of Americans who fought the last war." As it turns out, those fears were unfounded.

It's true that generational differences exist. Of course there isn't a one-size-fits-all way to deal with employees, regardless of their age. A 55-year-old nurse with 30 years in the work force, two kids in college, and a mortgage is going to have some different ideas about how things are run than is a 25-year-old fresh out of med or nursing school, or some young hotshot with the ink still wet on his MHA degree.

But people who ought to know better are making way too big a deal out of small potatoes, nit picking the minutia of differences rather than recognizing our overwhelming commonality. Good managers know that and will treat all employees with respect, listen and act on their concerns, provide appropriate feedback in an appropriate setting, and will try to accommodate them in any way they can to make them comfortable and productive at their job. That formula for success crosses all generational divides.

John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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