Millennials at Work: Not My Generation

By John Parkinson  |  Posted 05-01-2012

A funny thing happened during the course of my career: Just about everyone around me got younger, and a lot of them got less familiar.

By the time I graduated from college, I'd already had a variety of work experience. I had filled my vacation time as well as weekends and evenings with every kind of work, including digging ditches, bartending, engineering maintenance, production line working and sophisticated electronics testing.  I even played semi-pro poker one year.

While I still didn't really know what I wanted to do, I had a fair idea of what I did not want. And no one had any problems motivating me to work hard and do well. I come from a modest economic background and I wanted to do better for myself than my parents had done. I wasn't terribly materialistic -- and to tell the truth never expected to become wealthy -- but I could see how effort was coupled to reward if you understood how organizations function politically and socially. In short, I was a pretty typical and destined to be successful Baby Boomer.

Those early habits of effort, presence and a willingness to try anything (within reason) have served me well. I have worked all over the world (at least minimally in 100+ countries) done well enough to "retire" five times, and figured out how to use what I know to make a living for as long as I care to work (probably forever). Some of the motivations have changed (I get a lot of satisfaction from developing talent these days - not something you get to do when you're starting out) but the things that pushed me to do well when I started out are still there today.

I spent roughly half my working life in consulting, where everyone is, by design, generally from the same area of the gene pool. Motivation is seldom an issue when you have a crowd of type A personalities in a system with 20 percent annual turnover. The survivors are very talented, self-motivated and (in most cases) able to fit their own ambitions into the broader corporate Gestalt. If they can't, they don't survive for long. So management isn't much of an issue either. The culture does change over time and with shifts in leadership style, but the core model is still the same as the one I joined 25 years ago and most of the consultants I engage with today are recognizable as the type I worked with and managed a couple of decades ago.

What I found when I moved into the corporate world was a different, diverse mix of ability and motivation. There were plenty of talented people -- many of them from the Millennial Generation -- but their drivers were less well defined (and aligned) that I was accustomed to. The motivational tools I was familiar with didn't always work with younger employees. In part, that's because there has been an erosion of the connection between effort and reward in much of business. If you preach to people that they must take charge of their careers, you can't be surprised when they do just that - and care less about what you want from them.

I also see a widening gap between what the education process provides, in terms of both knowledge and aptitudes, and what businesses need from their employees. Throw in globalization, competition from everywhere, two generations of newly set expectations about entitlement running into a pair of recessions within a decade and you have a very challenging management environment globally, not just in the US -- and not just in IT.

The good news: The people we all want and need are still out there. They're hard to find. They're tough to keep. But they're not hard to motivate or manage, if you know how. On the other hand, they don't tolerate poor management very well, and they have to be kept challenged, engaged and interested. I just hope there are enough of them to see me through to my final retirement.

About the Author

John Parkinson is head of the Global Program Management Office at AXIS Capital. He has been a technology executive, strategist, consultant and author for 25 years. Send your comments to editors@cioinsight.com.