How Millennial and Generation Z Culture Works for Small Business

How Millennial and Generation Z Culture Works for Small Business

Entering 2017, sixty percent of all small businesses in the United States will be owned or controlled by “Baby Boomers”, or people born from 1946 to 1964.  The generation behind them, the so called “Generation Xers”, are now in their late 30’s and 40’s and have comfortably settled into their careers.  New employees entering the workforce over the past fifteen years have been tagged as “Millennials”, which are women and men who came into adulthood after the year 2000.  Now we are on the verge of the next generation of adults that has been named, for lack of creativity, “Generation Z”.  As many small businesses struggle to find good employees, I am hearing more and more how “lazy” the Millennials are, and the fear that Generation Z will be even worse.  Is it reasonable to think that we have a generation of young people, and possibly two generations that are just simply lazy, or has a disconnect developed in the workplace between the generations?

Expectations play a critical role in the human psyche.  If you expect someone to fail, they probably won’t disappoint you.  On a positive note, the reverse is true as well.  One of the significant differences that I am seeing in young employees as opposed to the generations ahead of them is that they interview better than they immediately perform.  This sets expectations high for the new hire, which can be a good thing, but it can also set a course for early disappointment and failure.  Let me use a specific and common example.  The typical baby boomer small business owner has limited working knowledge of computers and technology.  When interviewing someone under the age of 35, it is just assumed that they “grew up with computers”, which they most likely did, but what does that mean?  To the prospective employee, it might mean that they can navigate, or use as a tool, a smartphone, a tablet, a computer and/or a computerized machine.  To the aging business owner it might mean that the new employee will be able to efficiently use and understand all things technological.  The employee can boot up a computer and get into QuickBooks, but the owner expects that they should be able to reorganize the chart of accounts and process the weekly payroll.  The new shop employee may understand the basic concepts of how to program a computerized router, but the owner thinks that they are capable of immediately understanding how to make specific parts to fill orders.

Forty-five years ago when baby boomers were flooding into the workforce, just because they could drive a car it did not mean that they could also operate a forklift, skid steer, backhoe or drive a semi tractor.  However, the basic concepts were in place, some of which transferred to the operation of other drivable equipment with internal combustion engines.  Similarly, the new generation of workers have a fundamental working knowledge of technology, but they are in need of training and mentoring in order to adapt their basic skills to meet the needs of the business that has just hired them.  There is a key difference however.  Baby boomers have gone from a world where much of what they make or do was done by hand and now is automated.  For example, QuickBooks automates the accounting function that used to be done on green ledger sheets with a pencil and often used eraser.  Baby boomers understand the function because they used to do it manually.  The new generation has, in many cases, never seen a green ledger sheet and can barely use a pencil and eraser.  The training and mentoring in that situation needs to focus on accounting principles and functions as they relate to the business and the job for which the new employee was hired.  On a resume and in an interview there may be an indication that the interviewee has “experience with QuickBooks”.  What they do not have is experience with QuickBooks as it relates to your business.  So, you either spend the time to integrate the employee to your culture and way of doing things, or you allow the new employee to establish their own way of doing things within your business.  The second way typically does not work out well in the long run.

The final significant difference that I am seeing in the new generation of employees is the way they were educated.  For most of the educational path of the millennials and all of generation Z, they have been in a teach to the test mode that was memorialized in the No Child Left Behind legislation.  The natural result of this type of education, combined with the breakneck pace of technology advancement, is that we are graduating kids who have the ability to access incredible amounts of information in a short period of time and solve for “X”, or answer a specific question.  The downside is that this type of education does not lend itself well to critical thinking and/or creativity.  The “self-starter” is harder and harder to find because they are missing that component of their education process.  When told what to do, they have a heightened ability to figure out an efficient path to doing whatever is being asked of them, but they are not going to necessarily recognize that the task needs to be done in the first place.  This provides a unique opportunity for the small business owner, but one that has to be understood and taken seriously.  A longer learning curve and more specific mentoring is needed for the millennial and generation Z employee.  The good news is that once they are up to speed, their efficiency and work output will be greater than your older, more experienced employees. But, you have to have patience and commitment to your young employees to bring them into the culture that has made your business successful.

It is true that millennials and younger who become your employees want to feel like they are a part of something and that they are making a difference.  Is that really any different than the rest of us?  A “rewarding job” is in the eye of the beholder.  The key for the small business owner is to find people who want to do the job being offered, teach and mentor them to a level of self-sufficiency and respect and reward them as a valued part of your team.  Small businesses and their baby boomer owners are uniquely positioned to transfer the knowledge and success that drives our economy to a generation that has the skills to take us to the next level. 

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