Everyone is talking about “connecting with millennials,” as if leading them is some mystery, or human nature has suddenly shifted into the unknown with this particular crop of adults.
Google how to lead or connect with millennials and you’ll find that myriad business websites have something to say. It’s an important topic, because the millennial generation, who was born between 1981 and 1996, are about 72.2 million strong, according to Statista. For perspective, the baby boomers, who outnumbered every generation before them, have about 68.6 million, according to Statista.
But some of the tips I’ve seen on connecting with millennial workers have ranged from the obvious to the outrageous, and reading more than two or three makes me just a little bit twitchy.
Look, yes, millennials have a different outlook than Generation Xers and baby boomers. These are people who may have never seen black-and-white TV and many of whom got their first cellphone in middle or high school. Tattoos are the norm for them, and some of them have pierced things I don’t even want to know about.
But at their core, they want what many people want: They want a work-life balance, and they want to be paid well. They want their work to mean something, and they want the companies they work for to make a difference. While each generation has its differences, the reality is, humans are humans. We have similar fears and doubts, dreams and desires.
How to connect with millennials
So if you want to connect with someone from the millennial generation, be authentic. These are people who likely don’t remember a world where movies didn’t have a product line with action figures and their very own version of Monopoly. Being authentic means that you’re not trying to sell them something, you’re trying to meet a need they have, such as the need to make a difference or to be happy.
Many millennials were adults when the financial crisis of 2008 was at its peak. As they graduated into the world, “good” jobs were scarce and student debt abundant.
As we try to connect with millennials, we must be empathetic and stop calling them lazy. Both of my sons are millennials. Most of their friends graduated college and are now working full-time jobs. But at the ages when baby boomers and Gen Xers were buying homes and starting families, this generation is wrestling with the reality of trying to lay a financial foundation. They worked hard in college and they’re working hard now, but many of them just aren’t making an income that allows them to follow what was a traditional path for their parents and grandparents.
Authenticity and empathy are basic leadership traits, each helping people to trust you. To lose that trust is to risk your employees becoming less engaged in the workplace—or even leaving the workplace entirely.
As of 2019, according to Pew Research Center, millennials overtook baby boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. As long as you remember to continue to hone your leadership skills, connect with them through authentic and empathetic interaction and help them move toward their goals, you’ll find that your millennial workforce is a great source of creativity and energy for your team—and not at all as ‘lazy’ as you might think.
This article was updated July 2023. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock
John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, a Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.