Why Xers Struggle to Manage Millennials

By Hannah L. Ubl, Lisa X. Walden, Debra Arbit

On paper, it seems like Xers should have a pretty easy time managing Millennials. Both generations grew up around technology, both are relatively young, and both know the difference between an emoji, a meme, and a gif (or at least most of them do). In reality, we’ve found that these two generations have some of the biggest workplace clashes.

The relationship between Gen X managers and their Millennial employees has been wrought with issues from the get-go, and while they are getting increasingly used to each other with every passing year, the struggle is real.

This conflict often manifests itself much like that between an older and younger sibling. There can be moments of friendship and even fun, but it can easily switch to squabbles and spats in an instant. In the workplace, though, squabbles and spats can be translated into tension and moments of deep frustration. Much like Boomers, the Gen X managers who can find a way to work with Millennials end up as champions, while the ones who succumb to the “annoying sibling” complex fall into the naysayer category. What do these two types of managers look like? Take a look:

  • The champion Xer boss: Here’s a reference Xers should relate to: Opposites attract. Paula Abdul may have been referring to herself and an animated cat in her music video, but in this case, it applies to the workplace too. Rather than focusing on differences as negatives, the champion Xer boss figures out ways to transfigure them into positives.

Take Xers’ natural skepticism paired with Millennials’ tendency toward optimism. This difference in mindset can either be cause for frustration or a chance for each person to bring what she does best. Millennials provide the fresh, new, unvetted, and sometimes crazy ideas, while Xers put their expertise to work by testing the idea’s validity by asking tough questions.

  • The typecasting Xer boss: A major “tell” of the typecaster Gen X boss is refusing to meet in the middle. While Xers and Millennials may approach projects differently (hello, independence versus collaboration), there is a lot of gray area in between extremes for the two generations to meet. However, rather than looking for compromise, this Xer digs in and just says, “I’m the boss. Deal.”

This stalwart refusal to bend for Millennials often results in frustration that can teeter into the realm of resentment. It can shut a Millennial down completely, and it’s not uncommon for a Millennial who is dealing with this type of Xer boss to either ask for a new manager or bow out of the company entirely.

The following table shows how to be a champion and how not to be a typecaster.

Tips on How to Be a Gen X Champion Ways to Avoid Being a Gen X Typecaster
Reframe differences as positives. Don’t try to be “one of them” — it will come off as inauthentic.
Stay true to your Xer self (and let Millennials do the same). Find ways to meet in the middle.
Find areas of commonality. (There are some!) Avoid stereotyping Millennials before you even meet them.

Taking advantage of the natural alignments of Xers and Millennials

It’s true. Gen Xers and Millennials can have a rough go of things. But it’s not all bleak, bad news. There are lots of natural similarities that work in favor of this relationship. As anyone with a much older or younger sibling knows, while it can be challenging, it can also be just plain awesome. Here are some connections to capitalize on in a Gen X manager to Millennial employee relationship.

Transparency is best

Both Xers and Millennials appreciate full transparency from their leaders as well as the people they’re working with. For Millennials this manifests as constant communication and feedback; for Xers that means knowing exactly where they stand and making sure any issues or areas that need improvement have been aired. Though each of these generations come at transparency in a different way, they both gravitate toward the basic tenet of always knowing where they stand.

Efficiency for the win

Though this leaning toward the efficient stems from different reasons, Xers and Millennials alike want to get work done in a fast and furious way. Don’t take that the wrong wat; they both want to do a good job — a great job in fact — but each generation appreciates taking the straightest line to their destination. For Xers this is true for an entire project, whereas Millennials may want to start off with a creative brainstorm session and then apply that efficiency to the actual “doing” part of a project. Either way, both generations love to find fast methods to get things done efficiently.

Find your strength

Tap into your natural Xer manager strengths by

  • Being transparent with your Millennial employees about where they stand in your mind and in the company as a whole
  • Connecting with them over new processes, technology, or anything that enables both them and you to do your job more efficiently
  • Showing them you value their input by soliciting their help finding tools and technology that will help do work better and faster

Navigating through the inevitable collisions with Millennials

Older siblings everywhere know that younger ones can sometimes be the absolute pits. They get all the good stuff you had to fight so hard for without lifting a muscle, they are fawned over as the newest sparkly addition to the family, and they can be the most infuriating know-it-alls. You can see some of this older-sibling-esque frustration in the dynamics between Xer managers, who think the following while working with their Millennial employees.

“Earn your OWN stripes”

Millennials are entering the workplace and shaking things up with abandon. Xers, who created great change in an albeit quieter way, look at these brash youngsters and think, “Are you kidding me?” Millennials are credited for being a techy generation, when Xers are the first generation to have had a personal computer and are the inventors behind a lot of today’s biggest technological successes. Basically, Xers see Millennials lapping up the goods of all the Xers’ hard-fought battles, and they think Millennials don’t even know how good they have it.

Despite all of that, Millennials still find things to complain about, aren’t loyal employees, and keep asking for more, more, more. A frustrated Xer manager may find herself thinking, “Why can’t they just be grateful about how good they have it?”

“My Millennial team members want to talk, ask questions, get clarity. My Gen Xers don’t. The struggle is giving the same amount of time, direction, information, and leadership to my Gen X team members as I do my Millennials.” — Cathie S., Manager

“Stop pestering me”

You know how younger siblings can be like shadows, following you around everywhere you go? Xer managers sometimes feel like they can’t get rid of their Millennial employees. They show up for all of their office hours, they are constantly asking for feedback, and they don’t seem to be able to do anything by themselves without a heavy dose of support and very explicit directions

Xers start feeling annoyed that so much of their resources are being drained by these needy Millennial hires. They feel like their resources are finite, and they can’t continue to give up so much of their time. Unfortunately, this can result in an almost complete shutdown, where they shrug Millennials off and ask them to figure things out by themselves.

“Coming from a different generation, it can be exhausting. I feel like [asking], ‘Why? Why do you need this? I don’t understand.’ [But] part [of it] is recognizing that they do need [feedback] and making sure I deliver it in a way they need so we both are on a good operating situation.” —Julie A., Manager

Prevent pitfalls

Avoid potential Xer manager pitfalls by

  • Understanding that Millennials are fighting their own battles (one of which is shrugging off all the negativity surrounding their generation)
  • Encouraging Millennials to do independent work and giving them a detailed road map to get them started
  • Stemming the tide of Millennial “neediness” by setting clear parameters about when you’re available and when you’re most definitely not
  • Communicating transparently without being brash