What to know about managing “older” versus “younger” millennials

Talkin’ bout your generation.
Talkin’ bout your generation.
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This question originally appeared on Quora: Are there differences between employees who are older millennials and those who are younger millennials? Answer by Helen Min, Head of Marketing at Quora.

I’ve managed older and younger high-achieving millennials in tech and found that there are differences beyond the fact that one group is simply older than the other. Some insights from my experience:

1. Attitudes toward “paying your dues”

Older millennials were in the workforce during the 2008 recession, and likely experienced a career pivot or lifestyle adjustment during that time, which taught them how to restructure their career paths and gain perspective on being employed. For most of their lives, they exclusively saw corporate executives as people who had spent their entire careers in one company or industry, starting from the bottom and working their way to the top. The young, billionaire founder/CEO persona did not exist in their minds until several years after they had already been in the workforce. As a result, older millennials will see hardships, repetitive work, and new gray hairs as part of paying their dues as they work their way to the top.

Younger millennials hold a much more egalitarian, real-time view where intelligence, abilities, and performance at any given point (that day, that month, that performance cycle, etc.) hold more weight than any relevant past experience. To attract and retain young, top talent, I’ve seen more and more tech companies adapt to this thinking through “pay for performance” policies, meaning the company will pay equal money for equal work regardless of years of past experience. Setbacks and repetitive work can sometimes feel like an assault on younger millennials’ upward career trajectory. One lesson I learned early on is to never force perspective on young millennials. It really doesn’t matter if the vast majority of people follow a certain path; their reality is with outliers, and they benchmark themselves against the top 1%.

2. Expectations of management

It’s often said that millennials have higher expectations from life in general, and this is an area where I see the biggest split between the older and younger group. Older millennials see you as human, flawed, and thanks to alternative rock, Janeane Garofalo, and other variables more commonly associated with generation Xers, this group has learned to lower their expectations about many things in life to avoid disappointment. Low expectations have pros and cons, but in my experience, low expectations yield lower performance—it’s a cycle.

I’ve found that it’s specifically younger, not older, millennials who have high expectations of life and work, and you as their manager are no exception. Embrace it! Younger millennials see you as a partner who is responsible for helping them reach their full potential. They have incredibly high expectations of you from day one, which can also mean that they are quicker to trust you, push you to be better manager, and your potential to make a meaningful impact on their growth and career is enormous. When they work hard and achieve goals, they hold you accountable to making sure that they are rewarded, recognized, and (most importantly) given new opportunities to excel.

3. Preference for learning

I recently heard Adena Friedman, president of Nasdaq, say at a roundtable on career growth that she sees three tiers of competency in a role related to compensation:

  1. those learning how to do a job,
  2. those who are dependable with a job, and
  3. those who are an expert at a job.

In my experience, using this framework, younger millennials are far more likely than older millennials to choose No. 1 again and again, while older millennials seem to prefer finding stability with No. 2 on the path towards No. 3. This makes sense considering where the groups are in terms of life stages; however, even 10-plus years ago, older millennials sought structure in their career paths where mastering certain sets of skills and roles were considered a necessary part of upward mobility.

Herein lies a powerful win-win situation for the company and younger millennials: Reward and recognize younger millennials by giving them opportunities to learn something new. Younger millennials are more averse to doing a job that they feel they’ve already done, or “mastered”—even if they’ve only done it once or twice. Giving these team members the opportunity to earn new, exciting problems to solve and acquire new skills on behalf of your team helps your overall team grow and evolve and creates a more fulfilling, rewarding experience for high-performing young millennials. Then challenge the older millennials (and generation Xers, and boomers, etc.) on your team to take something done very well once or twice, and up-level it by making it world-class and highly scalable. One challenge here is that this management approach is counter-intuitive (and you may receive push back as a result); however, I’ve found this aligns nicely to what makes older and younger millennials different.