Millennials: an “I want to help” generation?

22 Sep

I’m reading Millennials in the Workplace by Neil Howe, my generational theory super-hero. His latest book, produced with the help of Millennial super-star Reena Nadler is, imo, a must-read for anyone who gives a hoot about HR, workplace issues and general cultural shifts. In full disclosure, I’ve been working with Mr. Howe on some pr, branding and social engagement work in and around this book and his brand.

Any time I read any of Mr. Howe’s books, I read it slowly. I highlight the heck out each book he writes. I talk about the book with friends and colleagues. I digest it. And this book is no different. Recently, I read about how “team oriented” and helpful Millennials (born 1982-2004) are and the implications for employers. (Really. Heads up, folks. Generational cycles impact workplace issues. Heed the experts here to your own advantage and peace of mind.)

Anyway, as a GenXer and one who has been watching the media frenzy and giddiness around Millennials and whatever phase of life they’re in, I’m reminded that when talking about any generation, it’s most informative not to look at a generation as isolated and separate, but as part of a constellation of generations all moving through life phases, with each of the four generational archetypes influencing and being influenced by each other.

So, come with me here as I look at this view of “team oriented” and “helpful” Millennials. How true are the claims that Millennials are more helpful? More likely to feel their career choice or company mission or volunteer work needs to help the community, help others and have a positive impact on society as a whole? Well, when surveys ask that question, guess what? Survey results demonstrate really high stats that show Millennials are much more oriented toward such goals. Not too surprising there.

But what if the survey question looked more like this:

Are you willing to tackle a messy, disastrous project, by yourself — perhaps with the help of some online friends you’ll never meet in person — and to do endless hours of work, never get credit, never see the limelight and never be personally acknowledged for your efforts (except and perhaps by a handful of others doing the same work who will, by the way, also get no credit)?

Hmmm, I don’t think many Millennials would check that box on the survey. But this is exactly what hundreds of thousands of GenXers did in their young adulthood years. What about this question?

Are you willing to tackle a project for which you have no guarantee of success but with the slight chance that others behind you (businesses, nonprofit organizations, governments and individuals) will benefit? Can you do this knowing your effort may help others not have to deal with the horrible  tech tools, software, unusable manuals and unresponsive help desks at hundreds of companies across the country and globe? (Remember: no credit, no limelight, no tuition reimbursement, no Volunteer America website acknowledgement, no awards, no shining smiling adult faces looking at you and praising your value)?

What do you think? Do you believe Millennials would score high as “helpful” on this kind of question? I don’t think so. And yet, this is exactly what the GenX generation has done, mostly on their own dime and time. But this GenX effort and time will never be recognized in surveys as being “helpful,” mainly because GenXers didn’t do such activities to get recognition but to do — as GenXers (the Nomad archetype) do — what needs to be done, regardless of or in spite of the obstacles, blocked pathways and unwillingness of those who created the problems (older generations) to recognize the complexity of the mess they’ve allowed to be created.

So, back to Millennials in the Workplace, the surveys that show them to be ever-so-statistically higher in a helper orientation and, by result, interested in jobs and careers with a obvious helper role: this is really important information to know, understand and apply. Read Mr Howe’s book! And it’s true. They are — as a whole — much brighter in their optimism, desire for collegial work experiences, belief in themselves and their generation to “be helpful.” I offer that while acknowledging this as true, my own generation has helped in a way that is equally significant, just not the type of work that will lead to ceremonies, acknowledgement or recognition.

GenXers do what needs to be done because it needs to be done.

Millennials help and get involved because they see and experience themselves as trusting of institutions, team oriented and helpful.

It’s all good. And it’s all part of the mix.


11 Responses to “Millennials: an “I want to help” generation?”

  1. JessieX September 23, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    Highly recommended: audio interview with Neil Howe, author of “Millennials in the Workplace.”

  2. treyfinley1008 September 23, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    Thanks for this article, Jessie, and it’s good to see your work in the blogosphere again.

    I’m cautious about answering those two questions for Millennials at this point. I don’t know if there is any research on those questions. They’re great coaching questions–open-ended that leave room for interpretation yet call for action.

    Anecdotally, I know Millennials who would answer those questions with a swift and decisive, “yes.”

  3. David F September 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Hi Jessie,
    Just found your blog and I too am blown away by the insights in the writings of Strauss/Howe. In the 90’s I ran an in-house ad agency mostly staffed with get-it-done X’ers. I was constantly defending them from my boomer peers who could not get past their perceived bad manners and Apple platform. This Xer group single handedly pulled the dept. into the digital age (often kicking and screaming).
    Because they had little confidence that the powers at be would invest quickly enough in hardware and training, they dragged there own equipment into work, self-taught themselves, and worked as long (or as little) as it took to do the job. All the while knowing that this impatient determination was viewed as a “bad attitude”.
    The seasons change and our attitude towards younger generations align accordingly. But I will always admire the accomplishments of that group even though history will prefer to extol the next hero generation.

    • JessieX September 24, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

      Hi David, Yes! The work of Strauss and Howe is remarkable. One of the most significant additions to the social sciences in recent decades. And, as a fellow marketing type of person, extremely helpful info for understanding markets, communities, trends and culture shifts. I will amend — from my perspective — one point you made. I don’t think GenXers “prefer to extol the next hero gen” as you say; it’s more that we get that their will be no culture-wide limelight on us, so we take the shadows and work effectively in them. That’s my 2 cents. 😉 Rock on.

      • David F September 27, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

        Totally agree. I don’t for a minute think that Xer’s will extol their virtues (or should). But if I were a betting man, history will.

  4. Sarah September 24, 2010 at 7:31 am #


    Speaking anecdotally as a millennial, I can easily say that while I may not have _chosen_ to answer yes to those questions, I certainly have done it (and in many ways continue to do so). I’d be surprised if hundreds of thousands of millennials aren’t indeed currently doing that.

    Everyone wants to be acknowledged for their work, but it doesn’t mean it always happens 🙂

    • JessieX September 24, 2010 at 11:16 am #

      Sarah, Between you and me (or you, me and the www), what’s your birth year? Curious am I. Btw, love your CSA posts and blog in general and gave your blog info to a journalist earlier today. Perhaps he’ll contact you for an interview. Me? born in 1963: an early-wave GenXer. My email is newburn.jessie at gmail.

      • Sarah September 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

        Aw, thank you! I just like having some place where I can blab on.

        I was born in 1984.

      • JessieX September 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

        blab away. your blog is great. thx for the birth year info. i have a similarity with you, on the other end of things. i’m born in 1963; genxers start in 1961. you’re born in 1984; millennials start in 1982. we’re in a bridge capacity, having gone to school with and played on the the playgrounds with kids in the next-elder generation. yields more capacity to cross-over and hold both views, i think.

  5. Terri September 27, 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    Good grief, this is what I’m *still* doing. And yes, I’m Gen-X. The Boomers who just will not retire already don’t understand the technology and don’t care what it takes to make it work, but it must work and must work NOW.

    >>>Are you willing to tackle a messy, disastrous project, by yourself – perhaps with the help of some online friends you’ll never meet in person — and to do endless hours of work, never get credit, never see the limelight and never be personally acknowledged for your efforts (except and perhaps by a handful of others doing the same work who will, by the way, also get no credit)?>>

    • JessieX September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am #


      This is part of the awesomeness and the challenge of generations: they grow up (experience their “formative years”) in distinctly different eras and therefore see the world, problems and, thus, solutions, through really different eyes. Boomers, while often hard-working (nay, workaholics) and willing to take responsibility for projects, have a worldview that has them thinking if they can find the purpose/vision/reason for a situation, then the detailed complexities of solving that problem will align in a natural order behind that vision.

      GenXers orient toward NOW, function, and doing what needs to be done to solve the immediacy of a problem AND not leave a mess for others to clean up. (GenXers are a “Virgo” generation, and therefore understand as a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “someone has to clean up after the elephants parade through town.”

      David, Yes, history will remember us. And you’re right, we aren’t about the extolling. GenXers are a “recessive” generation in the archetypal line-up. How messy would it be to have three “dominant” generations in a row! Ack! Boomers and Millennials are dominant (demanding and getting more attention.) Remember, though, size-wise GenXers are bigger than Boomers by about 30% and are as large as Millennials. So “recessive” and “small” aren’t the same.

      Rock on.

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