Do Millennials Believe They Can’t Learn From Boomers? The Surprising Truth

Late last week, I received an email from my friend Bobbi Howe. She’s a real estate agent in Saint Joseph, MO, and one of the coolest people I’ve never met in real life. I was introduced to her thanks to my friend Brian Copeland and a webinar I did early in February for the Council of Residential Specialists on The Millennial Revolution.

Bobbi recently moderated a panel called Bridging the Gap (Gen X/Y) at a big event called Sell-a-bration. After the session was over, a gentleman in his 60’s approached her and recounted a story of a female Millennial in his company who told him, “I can learn everything I need to off the internet and you cannot teach me anything.”

Bobbi was curious if I had any resources or research on this seeming arrogance. Given that I hear stories like this so frequently, I thought I’d share with you the same things I shared with her.

I’ve learned that there are two things that are generally happening in these situations:

  1. The Millennial was likely referring to Google-able information such as “how to file my personal income taxes in Rhode Island.” It’s unlikely that she meant it as broadly as he interpreted it. In fact, I doubt she even said it using those words. I’ve yet to speak to any Millennial who would make that claim. I’m not saying they aren’t out there – just that I’ve yet to meet one.
  2. The Boomers are reaching an age when they desire relevance and legacy. Part of how they do that, is to pass on information to the younger generations. Unfortunately for them, the younger generation does things very differently and with very different tools. In fact, the entire technological knowledge base is tied up in a single generation. It used to be that technical skills were passed from generation-to-generation. Master artisans taught their apprentices the tools of the trade and then taught them how to be masters of them. However, very few of the “tools” are mastered by Boomers. They’re mastered by Millennials.

There’s a great article in the Harvard Business Review which you can see here.

You’ll notice that, from their bosses, Millennials stated that they desire mentorship. It came in #3 on the list of wants.

So how do we reconcile this? I have spoken to a large number of Millennials about this as it pertains to business and many of them have expressed a desire to be mentored by those who are older than them. However, it comes down to being shown the “behind-the-scenes” things you can’t learn from Google: negotiation techniques, how to read people, how to service your clients after the close, etc.

These things focus on the principles of business, not the tools of business. This is ultimately what they want and where Boomers have such a huge advantage. They’ve been in the game for so much longer. But they have to realize that it’s not played with many of the same tools (to Millennials, encyclopedias have almost always existed online). They don’t really care as much about how it was done – they care about how to get it done today. If Boomers could learn to take the principles of business that they take for granted and teach Millennials in a hands-on, interactive way (no lectures – please!), this is where both sides will find commonality.

Remember: You can’t Google principles.

Rather than doing courses on “negotiation techniques,” take them into the field and let them learn by doing it on their first day. And then give them instant feedback when it’s over. They want to learn by doing. So let them do it. They’ll mess up – a lot. Be patient with them and give them direct, immediate feedback. Think of it this way: Millennials grew up on video games where you could safely “die” if you messed up. They may have to move backward in the game, but they received immediate feedback – don’t open that door again or you’ll get shot – and went on to improve the next time they played.

You’ll notice that “give me straight feedback” is on the list of wants in that HBR piece. Millennials have the capacity to learn very quickly in experiential ways.

Another suggestion is listed at the bottom of the HBR piece and I think it’s very good – reverse mentoring. Occasionally put the Millennial in the driver seat of a mentoring situation. It shows that you’re willing to learn from them and it will make them more willing to learn from you. An area of opportunity for this is with the tools themselves. Have them show you how to use Twitter, Facebook or your iPad. They’ll love the opportunity to help.

Finally, this is something I recommend regularly: don’t just give a Millennial a task to complete. They want purpose and they desire to provide feedback. This is actually a good thing if done correctly because, again, they’ve mastered newer tools. Ask them to think, while they’re doing the task, about how it could be improved so that neither they, nor anyone else, has to do that same thing again or could do it much faster in the future. You’ll be shocked at how innovative and creative they are. It also causes them to invest into the task more than just labor through it.

I closed my email to Bobbi with this piece of advice. I’m including it here because I know a lot of agents and brokers read this blog. However, this principle has huge implications for any business:

Personally, if I ran a brokerage, I’d ask my Millennials this question: how could we improve our sales meetings. I haven’t met a Millennial yet who enjoys them and who doesn’t have ideas about how to improve them. Heck, I haven’t met many agents of any age who really enjoy or find value in them.

Share Your Thoughts

Boomers, have you heard something to the effect that this gentleman did from Millennials? How did you respond? Millennials, what are the areas you want and need mentorship in your career? Leave a comment below so we can all learn and grow.

Image courtesy of ultraBobban

About the Author

  • Great video game analogy Travis! It absolutely makes sense to me as a Millennial.
    I am curious if Boomers link the same understanding of video game death to experiential learning as Millennials do?

    • Thanks, Niles! Probably not inherently since they didn’t grow up with video games as a part of their childhood whereas they were a significant part of ours. I do think that once they think about it, most tend to have an “ah-ha” moment and understand the implications of it.

  • I’d suggest first that the arrogance is really ignorance and it is indicative of every generation. I don’t think it will go away. New tools are viewed with distrust by earlier generations – some sort of digital trickery. Old tools are viewed as archaic by newer generations.

    As you know Travis, I view that as process driven thinking. Similar to the PC Fanboy, Mac Fanboy, Linux Fanboy (or girl) – who elevates their tool as the “best.” Where “Millennials” and “Boomers” can meet is in the conceptual understanding of business and problem solving.

    I’m a huge fan of Ben Franklin who I am convinced would easily adopt newer tools and quickly master them because of his conceptual approach to life – and then implementing systems to meet those conceptual goals.

    I also run into, with “Millennials” (and I dislike the generational distinction but it is as good a demarcation as any) that many are more gadget-savvy then technology savvy. Where I try to provide guidance is to get them to back off the gadgetry to view the broader picture of how they add value to the business with a given gadget mastery. The goal being help them transition that value to any tool they adopt.. or more precisely, to adopt and master tools as needed and relevant to the value required.

    • Great points, Matt. Great points.

      You’re point about focusing on the process vs. the conceptual understandings is spot on. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding more and more that the focus on processes is coming from the older generations. I think, in part, this has to do with their lack of understanding of the tools employed by those who are younger. I also think many of them have tied their security or value to how they do what they do rather than why they do what they do. In other words, they have a vested interest in keeping processes the same rather than allowing them to adapt. I believe this is the source of huge frustration among younger workers.

      I also agree that the generation is more gadget-savvy than tech-savvy. Many of them don’t know how “the cloud” works (or that it’s been around since the 90’s – but I digress). But they do know that Google docs allows them to collaborate outside the bounds of IT policies and procedures and get stuff done in spite of ridiculous corporate red tape. There’s an author by the name Jason Ryan Dorsey (a Millennial) who put it this way: “Gen Y is not tech savvy. They are tech dependent. Big difference.”

      I think that goes to your point which is to get them to focus on how to use those tools they’re going to adopt to add value to the organization. Now, we just need organizations willing to empower the edges to make changes in processes as it makes sense.

      Good stuff! Always love dialoguing with you.

  • Travis, as I read this I’m not struck by the difference between the generations, I’m struck by the similarities. I’m 49 and extremely tech savvy, but I’m not at all interested in tech for tech sake or gadgets for gadgets sake. I’m interested in how these tools add value to my life, how they make things easier. I see this desire to connect on that level to be present across generational lines. What I find as I speak around the country is that those who are my age and older require different analogies and learning techniques to ge there, but the desire is the same.

    Also, I’m not sure the angst around the older generation not wanting processes to change is unique to Millennials. I felt the same about my parents and grandparents. There is a stagnation that comes with age, regardless of what generation you were born into. Those of us who have been able to “stay young” have managed to avoid that, to some degree. But even I find myself longing to hold on to behaviors and process that are comfortable. I’d be willing to bet that Millennials will fall prey to some level of same stagnation as they age. And the generation that follows will feel the same way about them. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, Jeff. I think you touched on something important: It’s a choice that each person has. It’s not about tech for the sake of tech, but it is about a choice to keep up. It’s not easy even for me and I’ve been doing this for a long time. But we have to force ourselves to adapt.

      I think part of what we’re witnessing is a shift in the speed that is needed to continue to adapt. You may be absolutely right about Millennials falling prey to the same stagnation as they age. It will also be interesting to see how quickly that happens. With technology advancing at such break-neck speeds will we start to lag at earlier ages? It’s possible. It’s also possible that rapid change is more normal to our generation and, therefore, will be accepted and adapted to more readily.

      If I had to wager, my money would be on the later. But only time will tell. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I also like what you wrote about using different teaching and learning techniques with the generations. This is critical for communicators, leaders and organizations to do. The generations learn very differently. One isn’t better than the other; they’re just different.

      I’m looking forward to hearing you speak at RETSO in a few weeks!

      • Amy McLeod

        My observation is that we all look for ways we’re special, unique, different from the previous generations.ย  I wouldn’t worry about the breakneck speed of technology eclipsing the Baby Boomers ability to adapt.ย  My Grandmother (who would now be about 115!) gave me such perspective on speed while watching Neil Armstrong walk on moon.ย  She whispered, “imagine, I came to the West Coast in a covered wagon and now I’m watching a man land on the moon.”ย ย ย  I considered Grandma pretty hip!

  • This topic is actually quite near and dear to my heart. I came into real estate in 2000, as a young whippersnapper who already knew about email and the world wide web. I joined my father, a Baby Boomer, who has been in real estate since 1978. I can tell you that I would not be where I am today, had I not embraced his mentorship and lived in his hip pocket until I knew what do and what to say.

    Did I have to teach him about technology and tools as that world evolved? Absolutely. He has a willingness to learn and grow-which I think most Boomers do-as long as he is not condescended to. I have seen members of the Gen Y and Millenial generations totally tune out and speak down to Baby Boomer agents. Sometimes, with good reason, but other times-with the assumption that the ‘old’ agent don’t understand the world anymore.

    As a broker myself, I tell anyone who will listen to find themselves a mentor and just live with them. Don’t talk over them (which is a mistake many people in real estate make on a daily basis)-don’t talk at all-listen and take notes and absorb. Ask questions at the end of the day, not in the middle of a client visit. Practice dialogue (on another note-this is our most popular form of office training/meeting, to practice with each other based on current situations). Spend time with those who are and have been successful, of any age group, and embrace the opportunity to learn.

    Can’t we all just get along? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • You’re absolutely right, Leigh! I am a huge advocate of mentorship and coaching like you mention. Huge! I agree with everything you mentioned, but I would add one thing: I wouldn’t advise asking them to hold questions until the end of the day. Certainly, in front of the client is not appropriate! However, they need more immediate feedback.

      I love your ideas! Thanks for sharing them.

      • Diversity. We have to have it. I can’t learn anything from someone exactly like me.

  • You know, I get the need for immediate gratification that seems to grow stronger with each generation-but there is a time and place for everything. I worry that the art of taking notes is dying in an age of ADD. And I know that saying this makes me sound old-but younger folks can benefit from taking notes and focusing on the experience. Debrief later of course, but take the time to use both ears and listen. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. =)

    • There is definitely a time and place for everything. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Great article, and I’ve enjoyed the comments. I think I have to respectfully disagree about preferred learning styles differing by generation, and as a training professional, I’ve heard that a lot. It seems to me that experiential learning linked with critical thinking and immediate feedback would be preferred by most people at any age, if they were given the option. It’s certainly how I prefer to learn, and I’m somewhere around the tail end of the Boomers, or as I prefer, Pre-X ;-).
    And, at times, I can also sit through an interesting, well-delivered lecture that includes opportunities for some dialogue, and take notes. My guess is most millennials have that capacity, as well.
    But again, I think the preferred learning style recommended for millennials would be greatly appreciated by most people, given that option.
    Cheers!
    Veronica

    • THanks for jumping in! I agree that most people would “appreciate” the styles we’ve talked about as being more “Millennial” – I’ve heard that each time I’ve talked or written about it. However, very little has ever been done about this in most corporate settings.

      Corporations don’t change their programs or styles because, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” The generations above Millennials haven’t pushed for as much change in the corporate environment as the Millennials are starting to do. Xers tried and, to a degree, have helped move the needle a bit, but as a generation, they haven’t been big enough or had the tools at their disposal as Millennials do.

      It’s not a slight on the previous generations, it’s simply what is. There is now a generation hitting the workforce that is double the size of Xers and bigger than the Boomers. In 3 years, they’ll be over 50% of the workforce. Plus they have the tools to affect change. Hopefully for the better. I think this is where Boomers and Xers have the biggest opportunity to shape the development of Millennials.

      Things are going to change. It’s exciting to watch and I hope that the shifts in the workplace are good. Some will be. Some won’t. I think professional trainers such as yourself are in a GREAT place to be able to lead and guide this next phase.

      I’d love to talk with you more about this. Mind if I email you directly?

  • Anonymous

    As a boomer mother of a daughter at the front-end of the millenials (same age as you) I have experienced a lot of millenials – her friends, my nieces and nephews, church, and more recently in the workplace. Maybe I am deaf and blind (or not), but my experiences with this generation have been awesome (excluding a couple of my daughter’s teenage years).

    I just read your ebook and listened to the corresponding audio, which were both excellent. I may have to write a blog post paralleling this one from the boomer perspective (with your permission to adapt the title, of course). ๐Ÿ™‚

    • That would be awesome! Of course you have permission to adapt away! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for checking out the book and the audio. I do think there are incredible Millennials such as those you’ve come in contact with – and it sounds like you’re an incredible Boomer. Unfortunately, so many (from both generations) dismiss each other. I’m glad to see that you and those in your circle aren’t doing that.

      Let me know when you publish the post!

      • Anonymous

        HI Travis, well I didn’t get to writing a parallel post but I did just write something about the digital divide that I thought you might enjoy reading. It references your post.

        The Digital Divide: Lay Down Your Weapons, Everyone! http://bit.ly/dGUZ6l

  • As a Baby Boomer, I find that I PREFER to work with Millennials in most instances for many of the reasons you cite. I have had nothing but very positive experiences working with the Gen Y group. I have found that some Boomers are stuck in their ways, and a bit fearful and jealous of the new up-and-comers. (Note that I am not saying ALL Boomers are that way; but I have run into several through my work who aren’t willing to look at new ways of doing things.)

    Personally, I never felt as if I fit into the Baby Boomer generation. I’ve always found Gen X and Gen Y folks to be far more open and accepting of others–and more tech savvy.

    Also, as a former television journalist, I am SO excited about what Millennials will bring to the news business. Gen Y is the group that will create a new, workable business model for news. I would love to partner with some of those bright minds to create a kick-butt new-era news org!

    • MAUREEN POLCZYNSKI

      Type your comment here.Thank for putting it so succinctly… “kick-butt new-era news org!” I am working on a paper on designing and presenting professional development for beginning teachers. For the most part, this means milennials. As an urban educator, my colleagues and I are charged with closing the achievement gap. I find great capacity in our initial educators. Looking at the research regarding learning styles and psych profiles of that generation, it is a challenge to plan/facilitate meaningful professional development for them. I hope they have it in them to be the “kick-butt new-era educators!”

  • Gen X here; I think this assumption is more indicative of immaturity in some cases (“I can’t learn anything from you that I can’t learn from {anything representing your obsolescence}”) than true arrogance. There are plenty of BB/X/Y individuals who genuinely believe that there is no one smarter than they are, and as such, will not be willing to learn from anyone else.

    I find Gen Y more idealistic and willing to make things happen, they take action promptly because they’ve grown up in a time where “soon” is not soon enough when “now” is the expectation. There are pros and cons to this, just as there are pros and cons to careful deliberation all present and future consequences of one’s decisions and actions. But Gen X’s like myself have seen the plight of boomers and we vow that we’d never be like our parents, too.

    What I’ve found is that inevitably the great equalizer across generations, no matter which generation, is time. Eventually we all come to a point in our lives when we experience for ourselves that the former generation that we used to chuckle at and make fun of as “archaic” has all along been a source of strength and wisdom that we can only now appreciate as we walk enough miles through life, and that we now look at the next generation who thumb their noses at us for our antiquity and we’d smile knowingly.

    • ย I think your last sentence is very insightful. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Just as with any younger generation many “don’t know what they don’t know.” Makes it easier to dive into challenges fearlessly. Fine for some types of projects, disaster for others.ย 

  • Anonymous

    I’m still trying to understand how anyone in their early to mid-twenties has acquired the experience and skills one would need to truly be entrepreneurial in today’s world. Follow your dreams. Business isn’t about money, it’s about helping people. You can design your perfect world. Millennials are being bombarded with a new world view that, for most of them, is unsustainable. I want to see the look on their faces when they turn forty… fifty… sixty. I want to hear what they’re telling their kids and grandkids.

  • I guess my frustration has been in seeing most of the boomers who could act as mentors retiring to “their” golden years in Florida. ย I think most millinials and Xers would love the interaction and are looking for mentors – in business, as parents, for marriage – but are having a hard time finding folks who want to invest in us. ย Just a thought. ย