Gen Ys and Millennials: ‘They Might Be Right’

The Gen Y and millennial generations have been harshly criticized by its Gen X and baby boomer counterparts, people who have survived economic downturns, recessions, the digital revolution, outsourcing and off-shoring and still managed to maintain their “greed is good” work ethic. So they often look at their younger co-workers and think, You just wait, kid…. Life is going to hit you hard!

And as the managers of this new, seemingly entitled, generation, we constantly complain of the fact that they won’t just knuckle down, do their time and earn their stripes.

These Gen Y’ers and millennials demand things like work-life balance, time off to donate their labor to charity work, a sabbatical to pursue a foreign placement, a clearly planned path to management—and then they clock-out at 6 p.m. so they can spend time with family and friends because they place human relationships ahead of a singular focus on career advancement. Seriously, what is wrong with these people?

All this angst is despite the fact that many of us from the more senior generations are disillusioned, suffering burnout, dealing with broken relationships and perhaps not doing as well in business as we think we should.

Legendary New York adman Bill Bernbach is reputed to have always carried a card printed with these words: “They might be right.” It was there to remind him that his clients sometimes had a point. Maybe we should apply the same wisdom when dealing with our younger team members.

What if a more balanced view of work, seeing it as a part of our broader lives, is no bad thing? How can we learn from those who will follow us instead of constantly assuming that we know better?

Clearly all generations can learn from each other, but given that the older one is usually doing the lecturing, let’s consider what the attitudes of these so-called slackers have to teach the rest of us:                                       

1. Learn to seek work-life congruence.

Work-life balance is a myth. The lines will always blur and, from time to time, one part of our life will dominate the others. So rather than seeking balance (whatever that is), we should seek a level of congruence between our work, our personal values and our lives.

Consider the fact that Gallup’s Global Workplace Engagement Study has workplace disengagement at around 50 percent, and you begin to understand why. At least half of us, from all generations, are not engaged in the work we are doing. Add to this the fact that employee surveys of younger staff consistently rank a sense of meaning in their work ahead of things like money, and we begin to understand why a establishing a sense of purpose in our work, one linked to our own, is so important.

2. Challenging the status quo is useful (if also slightly irritating).

Of course the world would be a better place if everyone around us just did what we asked without questioning our motives or methodology. But all progress requires a level of agitation and dissatisfaction with the current way things get done.

Constant questioning is critical to innovation, to improvements in efficiency and also to ensuring that we mitigate risks that we hadn’t planned for. While challenge can often come across as disrespect or insolence, being open to questioning the status quo is essential.

3. Shift from using metrics like time and physical presence to measuring results.

Just because someone is burning the midnight oil does not always mean they’re being effective. In fact, oftentimes it’s an indication of poor time management and a lack of planning and proficient systems.

The move away from Industrial Revolution models of productivity toward those of the digital and information age necessitate a re-evaluation of the metrics we use to assess our output and that of our teams. In this reality, achieving greater results with less effort is a critical asset.

So the next time a younger member of your staff starts to push your buttons, remember Bill Bernbach and consider, “They might be right.”

Find out how to step into others’ shoes for fresh, enlightening perspectives with John C. Maxwell’s 4 tips on how to become an empathetic leader. 


Behavioral strategists Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan, authors of Selfish, Scared & Stupid, specialize in unlocking human behavior to create organizational and cultural change and to build environments that lift performance and engagement.



A behavioral researcher and strategist, as well as an author, educator, international speaker and social commentator, Dan Gregory specializes in behaviors and belief systems – what drives, motivates and influences us.  One of the most respected voices in the industry, Dan is a regular on ABC’s Gruen Planet and has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world: Coca-Cola, Unilever, Vodafone, MTV and News Ltd.

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