About this story: So much is written on the millennial generation of people in the workforce in their 20s and early 30s. Other generations strive to understand just what makes them tick. We decided to bring a group of millennials together to discuss the topic of generational difference, from their perspective. Reporter Kyle Oppenhuizen, a millennial himself, moderated the discussion. We videotaped the discussion, and the full hourlong video can be found on our website. Below, Oppenhuizen shares some of his takeaways from the discussion. 

The Background

My name is Kyle and I’m a millennial.

Some things about me: I like to email. I’m motivated. I’m more likely to use GPS on my smartphone than look at a printed map. I believe the sky is the limit in my life and career, but sometimes I feel that I’m not reaching my goals quickly enough.

You may work with someone like me. You may manage someone like me.

Much has been written about the millennial generation, and not all of it has been positive. The topic of generational differences has come up in among our newsroom staff at the Business Record, and I’ve often heard business leaders comment that they have to think differently when dealing with millennials.

Sometimes the topic of generational differences takes a negative tone. A baby boomer will recall how things were done “back in my day” or a millennial will not-so-politely remind the boomer that “you raised us this way.”

“One of the greatest losses we can experience is when we either refuse to acknowledge another or another’s experience, or when we polarize ourselves with regard to it,” said Deb Rinner Godwin, vice president of Tero International Inc. Godwin trains business people on how to deal with differences in the workplace, including generational differences. “If the generations can find commonality, as well as appreciate the essential differences between them, there is so much opportunity for learning and wisdom and richness in our experiences and in our organizations.”

How can we find that commonality? A good place to start would be by talking about it. So we decided to ask a group of Greater Des Moines young professionals, along with an expert voice in Godwin, to discuss how they react to the stereotypes, what they look for in their workplace, and what kind of communication they respond to best.  

Speaking to stereotypes

To begin, we asked everyone to list some of the stereotypical words and phrases they’ve heard people use to describe millennials. They included: short attention span, optimistic, entitled, deserve to succeed, overconnected, a short and to-the-point communication style, opinionated.

Godwin sent me an article after the panel written by Janette Fiedler, director of business development at Merit Resources. The article referred to millennial traits such as our technological savvy and our tenancy to become bored, which may mean we are more willing to leave our current job for a more challenging job.  We don’t want to conform, and we want to know why our work matters.

Another article on the NBC News website cites a 2013 Bentley University study that found that 35 percent of business leaders give recent graduates a “C” or lower on preparedness to enter the workforce. Another survey said millennials have poor communication skills, a poor work ethic and a lack of critical thinking and problem solving abilities, though the article talks about skills in technology, networking and teamwork that millennials possess.

Godwin noted that stereotypes can help us know what to expect when communicating with someone, but they can also be unfair if we aren’t willing to change our perceptions based on reality.

So are the stereotypes fair? Many are based on truth, said Richardson, but they are often exaggerated. 

The story isn’t fully written yet, said De Haan. It’s too early to tell if some of those characteristics will continue to hold true of the generation in the long run. Major events, such as the recession, have shaped our mindset, but future events could change that mindset.

What is one thing you’d like business leaders to know about your generation?

Jonathan Brendemuehl, 27
corporate communications manager, Bankers Trust Co.

I would like business leaders, especially in Des Moines, to understand that our generation is grateful. I think we realize and I hope we continue to realize and appreciate how much access we’ve been given by those who have come before us and how much that has helped all of us in our success, and that we understand that we are lucky and that we are willing to pay it forward for the next group.

Kristine Reeves, 25, 
marketing specialist,Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau

I think our generation is really open for challenges and has a lot of ambition, so I would welcome business leaders to use that to their advantage. We’re always up for any task or for learning new skills.

Tyler De Haan, 31, 
internal wholesaler,Principal Financial Group Inc.

Really two things I would say. Number one, our generation is pretty educated for the most part. And then on top of that, with the whole 2008-2009 financial crisis, I believe that this generation is a little bit more financially cautious than maybe previous generations are.

Emilee Richardson, 26, 
marketing and communications manager, Science Center of Iowa
president, Young Professionals Connection

Even though we are millennials and we have certain tendencies, there are a lot of factors that go into it, and each person is different and has different personalities, working styles. You can’t really pigeonhole all millennials one way or another.

Reactions from Godwin

Godwin was impressed with the panelists’ ability to speak to the labels that have been given to their generation and either dispelling them or supporting them.

She thought it was relevant that the millennials at the table acknowledged their generation’s willingness to pick up and move to a different location.

One thing Godwin wanted to make sure that other generations realize is that every generation is shaped by big events, and the millennial generation is heavily shaped by the 2008 economic downturn. 

Some researchers would say there’s enough research to characterize the millennial generation, but Godwin isn’t so sure. “I think, to me, there’s too much opinion in it,” she said, referring to many of the articles written on millennials. That’s why it is important to have an open dialogue about the stereotypes, and why she felt that this was an important roundtable discussion topic.

How to communicate with us

On the topic of communication, the consensus was that millennials like messages to be short and to the point. “Our generation likes to do their own research,” De Haan said. “They don’t like to be told ‘this is what you buy’ or ‘this is what you need to think.’ ” 

Although it can be difficult, it’s important to figure out which medium is best to use in communicating with millennials because there are so many vehicles: email, social media, text messages, or (gulp) even talking on the phone or in person.

The millennials in the room pointed out that we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we give up on phone conversations and face-to-face meetings altogether.

“I appreciate when other people will call and say, ‘I will send you this file, but I wanted to provide a few thoughts on it,’ ” Brendemuehl said. 

Panelists also acknowledged that they are probably more likely to negatively read into an email’s tone than other generations are, though, Godwin pointed out after the panel that communication issues through email are not a generational problem. Whatever generation you are in, “tone is deaf,” she said.

Bottom line for any millennials reading this: The research shows that you have the opportunity to form a positive perception of yourself through your vocal tone on the phone and through your facial expressions and tone in a conversation, Godwin said.

The impact of Facebook

A couple of things struck me about social media’s impact on us. For one thing, people put their best foot forward on Facebook. They are able to carefully craft their online image as much as they want. So when you log on to Facebook, it can feel like a constant five- or 10-year high school reunion, Reeves said. My observation: It can be easy for you to feel that you are behind in your life or career when you see the accomplishments of all your friends. Note, though, that not everyone felt that way.

Facebook and technology in general have also blurred the line between work and personal life. You are plugged in at all times, which makes a fulfilling job a very important thing to millennials.

What we value in our jobs

I asked everyone to list what motivates them to stay in a job. 

Here’s what they said:  a belief in the mission, opportunity, company culture, enjoyable work and an enjoyable work environment, good leadership.

Two words I didn’t hear: money and stability.

Godwin pointed out that millennials are loyal, but they have a lot more opportunity to move to different geographic areas. De Haan reiterated that sentiment, noting that millennials are willing to pick up and move.

Quick Hits

Young and successful:
Most of the questions I asked this panel were from a standpoint of what older generations, and especially baby boomers, would want to know from millennials. But it’s important to point out that the millennials on this panel were all chosen in part because they have found success in their careers, and some of them are managing other people. We could have probably done a whole panel discussion on how millennials manage others, especially people who are older than they are.

Fear of the phone:
I couldn’t help laughing when I heard an anecdote that Reeves shared. Reeves once took a college class that spent two days focused on teaching students how to not fear the telephone.

When the camera was turned off, the conversation kept going. One interesting discussion: People think millennials want a trophy for everything, but we really want feedback. That might not be unique to millennials, Godwin said, but it may be more prevalent for people just out of school, who are used to getting letter grades.