April 21, 2018

They're All Volunteers

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kanab, United States by Patrick Hendry

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kanab, United States by Patrick Hendry

It seems to be the thing these days to slam members of the generation known as the Millennials. I understand that this happens with every generation. I'm in the unimaginatively named generation X and I recall people despairing that we'd ever get ourselves pulled together and ready for real life. Somehow we managed, but looking back I understand how they might have worried. We had our fair share of slackers and trouble makers, with the punks, goths and skinheads. And before my generation were the Baby Boomers. They certainly had slackers with their hippies, flower-power girls, stoners and potheads.

Every generation has a full spectrum ranging from the slackers to those who are determined to get after it and make things happen. Proclaiming that Millennials are bad because they have idiots, or the current batch of youngsters are a waste of good oxygen because some of them eat Tidepods(tm) is to ignore this. Rather, what does seem to vary from generation to generation is the fundamental world-view that they have as a whole. And that's what I'd like to talk about here.

I don't remember which article I was reading a few weeks ago, but it triggered a moment of reflection about some of my former co-workers, many of whom were Millennials. Again, this is not a Millennial bashing post. I have worked with too many of them to lump all of them into one bucket.

Millennials and younger have different perspectives and motivations from the generations before them and this is why so many managers have difficulty leading them. It is fairly widely observed that Millennials are cause-driven and less materialistic than the generations older than them. I'm sure that we've all seen and read a million articles about Millennials and how they are different from Boomers and X-ers, but I realized something during my contemplation that I have never seen in any of the articles to this time.

A conversation with one of my former co-workers brought all of this together and cemented the idea for me. (Name withheld, but we were enjoying some very fine BBQ at Bob's which helped relax him and get him into a talkative mood.) And he explained that he wasn't enjoying being at work anymore as so many other team members (including me) had left, that they had him doing only maintenance work (the worst thing to ask a programmer to do) on old and unexciting Java projects, his manager didn't really have time to talk to him any more and that he wanted to be doing JavaScript instead. Nothing too unusual there, programmers just like archetypal infantry grunts, love to complain, but then he said that he was close to just quiting and taking a month off, living on savings and afterwards applying for something more interesting elsewhere. And that's when it dawned on me that these younger generations are just like volunteers. Sure, they like to be paid, but in every other respect they're volunteers.

Many things make more sense now that I realize that Millennials are volunteers. They are so different from the preceding generations by this world-view difference that they might as well speak a different language for all of inability of the older generations to understand them. This goes a huge way to explain why managers have so much difficulty managing their Millennial and younger staff. Modern management is trained to manage by the carrot and sticks approach. This works well with Baby Boomers and passably well with Generation X, but fails with the younger folks. This is where, as a pastor, I have an advantage over modern managers because all of my congregation are volunteers and the two key things you have to learn with volunteers is to lead them rather manage them and to match their interests and talents with your current needs.

Millennials are motivated by causes. Whether it's saving the world in some way or building the best and most usable insurance system ever, they want to feel that they've made a difference. They care about money only to the extent that they need to keep body and soul together, so they like food, shelter, smart phones and the latest computer games. As a consequence of this, they travel light. Many of them rent apartments and in bigger cities, it's not at all unusual for them not to have a car. Monetarily, their needs are few, so when modern management tries to lean on them and get them to do things they don't like with the promise of more money or the threat of unemployment, they don't react with panic and a flurry of work like those of us with a family and a mortgage to support. In fact, if management lean on them hard enough, the Millennials will just quit. Their needs are few, they're highly mobile and the job market for youngsters who don't demand higher salaries, like the older generations, is always good.

If you are managing Millennials the first advice I would give you is to stop managing them and start leading them. Throw away your carrots and sticks and start putting more effort into matching them on a one by one, very personal level, to the projects that you have available. I realize that you may think you are leading, but the truth is that if you can't do what they do then you are managing rather than leading. During my time in corporate Information Technology departments it has always been the case that at least nine out of ten managers don't know how to program. Because of this they don't understand what their programmers are telling them. And consequently their programmers don't have much respect for them, which leads to them not having much loyalty towards them.

I have lots more that could be said on this, but let's pause here to allow this concept to sink in.

Tags: Observations