Millennials & You

To:         HR Directors and Managers

FROM:  Mary Cooney

RE:         Millennials & You

DATE:    November 21, 2017


Have you seen some changes in your workforce lately? Are you dealing with friction between generations at your company? Are your young recruits harder to communicate with? Harder to motivate? Harder to manage?

I expect you have. I certainly have.


For the past two decades I have taught in universities which means I have been training millennials to enter the workforce.  Sometime around 2007 students started showing up in my classroom who were unlike any students I had met before. Not all, but many had a very different attitude towards education and my role as their teacher.


These students were not going to trust me to teach them anything until I proved myself worthy of being their teacher.  They expected me justify:

1) Why the subject was relevant, and

2) How this information could be applied after graduation




Had I ever demanded this kind of validation from my professors—and whatever happened to my wonderfully compliant students of a few years before? (Remember the Gen Xers?) I quickly learned that “because I said so” did not fly with this new generation of learners.


Here’s some of what I experienced:


®  Casual dress for class often meant flannel pajama bottoms and sweatshirt. One day I asked a student if had just rolled out of bed and come to class?  And, as you might suspect, the answer was yes. Suddenly yoga pants seemed like high fashion.


®  When I specified formatting standards for their research papers, they assumed that was a suggestion, not a requirement.


®  Class attendance seemed optional to them, even though it affected their grades.


®  They often came late to class, loaded with bags of fast food.


®  At least once per term, a student would tell that he or she knew more about my subject than I.


®   Too often, my posting their final grades was simply the first salvo in what could become a lengthy negotiation process, fraught with appeals.


®  Don’t even get me started on cell phones.

My fellow faculty members and I were completely bewildered by this new species of student. How did this happen and WHAT were we going to do about it?  For many professors the task was to “beat” this disrespectful bunch into submission with the threat of failing grades, even expulsion. Didn’t land. Brow beating, shaming—they just rolled their eyes.


Believe me, I know what you are talking about when you say this new generation of workers is not like anything you have ever experienced.





Clearly, I needed a whole new approach…


1)     I had to answer for myself the very WHY & HOW questions students were challenging me with about our subject. If I did not have a better answer than “Because I studied this in college, and by the way, I am teaching you the same way I learned,” I had a problem. This new brand of student forced me to dig deeper and up my game in what and how I delivered, I couldn’t teach by rote anymore and honestly, it became more fun.


2)     I had to begin every term by meeting my students where they were and not the other way around. I had to quickly assess the strengths and weaknesses of each cohort, and then be flexible in adjusting.


3)     Most classes worked best when they had big questions to answer and could work collaboratively, with autonomy to solve them. They were given goals, clear expectations, benchmarks and deadlines, and as much autonomy as possible to achieve them. I provided resources and coaching as needed. You might say I served as “project manager” for teams of researchers.  More frequently than I could ever have imagined, I was blown away by the depth and quality of their outcomes. These teams were driven by intrinsic passion that exceeded expectations.  No slackers here.


4)     The big fix for attendance issues came when I introduced one day a week for remote learning. I gave assignments they could complete from home and this included quizzes on textbook readings. Why waste in class time taking quizzes?  Being in class took on more importance once they experienced some give and take on my part. The added bonus was being on time.


5)     As students began to take themselves more seriously, I saw improvement in how they presented themselves. I was pretty sure they were dressing better, and I knew they were writing better.


6)     As for the cell phone issue, I made it personal. I assured them I knew they could multi-task, but for me facing 45-50 students this activity was very distracting, it was hard to keep my train of thought, and get this: I even said that it kind of hurt my feelings when someone sent the signal that what was happening in their personal lives was more important than what I had worked pretty hard to share with them.  Boom.  Empathy is alive and well in this generation, I rarely saw a phone during class time again.  It’s all in the Why.


Building relationships by establishing mutual trust and respect, purpose, and empathy are excellent building blocks for our new workforce.



*  This approach transfers readily and effectively into the workplace.  As a result of the challenges I encountered in the classroom, I have developed techniques for helping twenty-and thirty-somethings succeed by:

1)     meeting them where they are

2)     setting shared goals

3)     navigating the road to success through relationships with older workers


*  Millennials have the capacity to become wonderful leaders when the boomers in your business pass the torch.  When they understand the significance and potential impact of what they are doing for you, they are unstoppable.  However, they are not patient, and patience is needed to build leadership skills.


  * I’m here to help. I have the experience and insight you can use to build the relationships to make these leaders of tomorrow. I can help you manage change creatively.  I’d love to hear your stories and explore ways that I can help you overcome generational gaps.





Mary CooneyComment