Generational Divides: Q&A With a Millennial Expert

Jolene Erlacher

Jolene Erlacher

Jolene Erlacher M.A. ’06, Ed. D. ’12 understands as well as anyone the effect different generational behaviors, values and beliefs can have on an organization. As an author, speaker and consultant, Erlacher works with all kinds of organizations to educate their members to be more aware of generational differences, how those differences affect cultural health and how employees can work together to be as strong as possible.

We caught up with the founder of Leading Tomorrow to pick her brain on what everyone can learn about generational differences.

How did you get into this kind of work? What interested you in researching generational groups, especially millennials?

I was working at North Central University in downtown Minneapolis in student development, and working with people who are now older millennials, and also had millennials on my staff. Since I was in mid-level management I was also working primarily with [Generation] X-ers for colleagues and [baby] boomers for bosses. I was always studying student trends, but I attended an HR session on generational differences and a lightbulb went on for me. This is what I’m living every day. … I watched the communicational differences, and this workshop opened my eyes. There’s more than just age differences. The generations today are very unique in how they’re positioned.

That propelled me on my own journey of research. A lot of the people studying at our school were preparing to go into church or nonprofit areas, similar to St. Thomas, where I did my master’s and doctoral degree. … I became fascinated with those generational differences and how those were playing out in the church and faith-based organizations. I did my dissertation on the job satisfaction and retention of millennials who chose to go into faith-based institutions. …

About a year after I finished my dissertation I had a publisher contact me about turning my dissertation into a book. I had married a military man, and that required a career change for me when the Army was telling us where to go. … What do I do to make a career mobile? I now teach online classes as an adjunct professor, but doors opened for me to do training and consulting for all kinds of organizations. Government organizations, business, church groups, nonprofits.

My book was published in 2014, and around that same time I decided to start my own business, Leading Tomorrow. … It’s been a great career option for a mom of [3-year-old twins]. I can do a lot of work from home and a lot of flexibility. It’s been a great transition for me.

What have struck you as some of the most important realizations for people when it comes to generational differences?

Hands down – the realization that I see being most significant when I’m talking about this is that we need to approach millennials and Generation Z almost in a cross-cultural way. People are thinking it’s just another generation of young people and they’ll grow up and outgrow some of these characteristics. That’s true to a point; there are certain behavioral things they will. But from a cultural and values perspective that’s not really true. … They’re the first generations to grow up in a culture that is truly, predominantly post-modern and have those values. … During the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, these baby boomers ushered in post-modern values. Basing values on experience and emotion vs. on logic and reason. … Believing in pluralistic views vs. an absolute truth. A lot of ideas that were ushered into our popular culture had fully taken root in our education systems and throughout our lives by the time millennials and Gen Z were born. They’ve been raised under a completely different set of values than previous generations. … There is an underlying worldview difference.

In organizations where you have these big mixes of generations, who have you seen taking the onus for understanding these differences?

It’s equal that we need to figure it out. I’m one who feels the older generations have more perspective, and frankly, the power. Very little is going to change without the older generations exerting some power. The way millennials are exerting their influence is by quitting. … The turnover cost is catastrophic. … Traditional work guidelines are that you have to wait your turn to have your voice, and millennials have been taught to use their voice since they were 3 years old. That waiting’s not going to work for them. They’re not coming into organizations to wait for 10 years to speak to the processes. … Bosses who want to retain them have to understand that they have to engage those voices sooner rather than later if they want to retain them.

The thing millennials need to recognize is that things are in place for a reason. They’ll question why things are the way they are. … Those are great conversations and we need to engage them, and older leaders may feel it’s disrespectful and that you need to get on board, but millennials want to understand why things are the way they are. If they found out the reasons they tend to buy in pretty quickly. They need to come in pretty open-minded, and in general they are open-minded. …

There is equal weight [in addressing these things], but the organizations that have older generations dealing with this are in much better shape because they have the power to influence the situation.

In general as you work with educating people on these issues, is there an under-appreciation about the need for understanding these things?

There is a wealth of materials out there about millennials. … Despite all of that, I am always amazed at the people who are hearing about these generational differences for the first time or comprehending it for the first time. Yes, I do think in something in some circles is still under-represented or misunderstood.

The second piece is, even where there are people who have studied this, the behavioral changes to facilitate intergenerational cooperation is slow to happen. … There are still a lot of people who don’t have the knowledge of how great this issue is, and people who have the knowledge are struggling to put it into practice.

There’s a lot of this focus on millennials and boomers because they’re such large groups, but Generation Z is right around the corner when it comes to entering the workforce. Is it daunting trying to educate people when that’s the case?

It’s very true. Generational lengths are actually shrinking because our culture is changing so quickly. … Generational cohorts are shorter and shorter; what used to be like 25-year groups are now closer to 15, and will continue getting faster.

The biggest frustration for me, is instead of learning some of the weaknesses that we produced in millennials through how we educated and parented, and seeing the strengths and building on them, we’re just exasperating the strengths and weaknesses with Generation Z. The way technology has affected education, moral values and ethics, has been detrimental in millennials. If anything we’re creating greater problems with Generation Z. … Generation Z is going to have a whole new set of challenges. It is a little daunting and overwhelming. As we look at management and leadership in the coming years, how do we learn from the things we’ve already seen unfolding? How do we use that to raise the next generation? Those are the questions we have to take seriously.

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