The key to understanding how to work with millennials begins with a visit to the zoo.

You may have heard that humans and chimpanzees share 96% of their DNA.

This makes sense. When I watch chimps in the zoo, it’s immediately clear that they have a lot in common with me: The way we form family units, behave hierarchically and care for our young. Though they may be quite a bit furrier than me, it’s easy to see that we share a lot of genetic material.



But millennials and me? Not so much.

Though demographers may have slightly differing definitions, for our purposes, millennials refers to the generation born between 1985 and 2004.

While I have to visit the zoo to see a chimp, observing the millennial is a shorter commute: I have one living right in my own house, and I worked with a bunch in my high-tech job. I can tell you that their behavior is not recognizable:

  • My son listens to loud electronic music while doing homework. He says he’s more productive this way.
  • The millennials I worked with would routinely glance down at their phones while we were in the middle of a meeting. I doubt chimps would be so rude!

After a bit of serious research into the subject of how to work with millennials, I got a much better understanding of where they are coming from. While we technically belong to the same species, we are, indeed worlds apart.

Get a grip on how to work with millennials by understanding two key differences

For me, once I grasped two key differences between us, I really began to approach my work with millennials from a place of compassion and true admiration.

Why Millennials Might Have Different Brains than Me

There is a saying that neurons that fire together wire together. Neuroplasticity refers to changes in the brain’s structure, biochemistry, and nerve connections in response to the environment throughout our lives.

A high-tech illustration of a head with the brain outlined in blue

Now consider the brains of millennials who grew up logging thousands of hours doing school research online and playing video games for fun. Contrast this with how my brain looks, as I spent my formative years reading, writing and exploring the mystery of the fields by my house for a good time.

It’s easy to see that these wildly different activities would naturally lead to divergent brain structures and neural connections.

Their First Language is Digital

Marc Prensky coined the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant” in 2001 when he declared, “We now have a new generation with a very different blend of cognitive skills than its predecessors – The Digital Natives.”

Prensky wrote that digital natives speak digital as their first language, while digital immigrants – like any immigrant trying to learn a foreign language – must struggle with meaning.

In a similar vein, John Couch, author of Rewiring Education, writes that technology is simply the air that Digital Natives breathe:

“While I often hear adults refer to modern technology as a ‘tool,’ digital natives see it as just part of their environment, no different than how my generation perceived technologies like electricity. As a child, I didn’t use electricity. Electricity just existed.”

As I struggle to make sense of new technology—and sometimes suffer bouts of digital anxiety—my brain forges new neural pathways. Perhaps younger people who are not engaged in the same daily struggles with technology do not forge the same connections.

What other influences shaped millennials and me?

Millennials Grew Up in an Image-Based Culture Rather Than a Text-Based Culture

Research supports the idea that kids don’t read much anymore.

A teenage girl sits on a red sofa and reads a book with a red cover

The percentage of 12th graders who read a book or a magazine every day declined from 60% in the late 1970s to 16% by 2016. These days, most kids learn to keyboard in about fourth grade, so the emphasis on handwriting has declined. Ironically, this shift is occurring at the same time that science is uncovering the importance of handwriting in helping the brain develop working memory and generate new ideas.

Communications through images, such as Instagram posts or YouTube videos, is where it’s at for today’s millennials and digital natives. The American Psychological Association finds:

“In recent years, less than 20 percent of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80 percent say they use social media every day.”

Millennials Grew Up as Active Content Creators Rather Than Passive Content Consumers

Millennials grew up creating content. They carefully curate their social media images, make their own videos, edit their own music.

On the other hand, I grew up consuming the media that I was spoon-fed by large news agencies or record labels. It’s no wonder that the millennials I work with have a huge need to shape their work environment to leave their personal mark.

Millennials Grew Up Knowing Memorizing Facts is Useless Rather Than Just Feeling That It Was a Waste of Their Time

Whenever a history teacher urged us to memorize a list of facts in a textbook before a test, I cringed. “This is such a waste of time!” I shouted at the top of my lungs to myself. But I had no solid proof.

I memorized the fact that on April 12, 1861 at 4:30am, the Confederates open fired on Fort Sumpter, kicking off the Civil War. At the time I memorized this fact, I had my heart set on becoming a writer or a veterinarian. I was open to the possibility that one day my knowledge of this fact could prove critical to my career. Despite my hunch to the contrary, I had no proof, so I conceded that maybe my teachers did know what was best for me and future hopes and dreams.

A woman sits on a bed with a dozen books flying around her in the air

Unfortunately, many millennials were subjected to the same teaching methodologies that I was. With the abundance of standardized tests, memorization was still held in high regard. But by that time, millennials didn’t just feel that memorization was a waste of time – they knew it for sure. Why would they waste room in their brains storing facts when they could just ask Google?

And why would anyone do mental math when they could use a calculator?

For this reason, the toll of the torture on our poor millennials may have been even greater than it was for us. This should, at a minimum, elicit some empathy when considering how to work with millennials.

How to work with millennials: Understand their brains

It’s common knowledge that we should respect racial and gender diversity in the workplace. We should also learn to respect cognitive diversity.

If I’m good at doing one thing at a time and reading before bed, then that’s what I’m going to like. And that’s what I’ll do more of. Then my brain will continue to evolve to be good at those things.

Similarly, my teen son likes doing several things at the same time, or at least within the same hour – homework, composing music, responding to social media. He won’t complete one task and move onto the next, like I do, but circle through each of them, again and again.

Until I read Prensky’s work, I thought the way my son operated was wrong. I tried to tell him not to listen to music while working. I told him to do one task and finish it before moving onto the next one.

Dumb mother!

I hadn’t realized that the millennial brain didn’t work the same as mine. In many ways, it works better. In Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Prensky points out the following:

  • Digital natives are better at certain skills like multitasking and switching between tasks, while digital immigrants are more likely to prefer moving step-by-step through an assignment.
  • Digital natives may display more cognitive flexibility in responding to hypertext and jumping from one idea to another. I’m guessing that digital immigrants are more likely to become overloaded when bombarded with random stimuli.
  • While they may not take time for critical thinking and reflection, digital natives thrive in a quick-moving environment. (Think of the Facebook slogan, “Move fast and break things.” and the subsequent repercussions Facebook is currently facing for maybe breaking too many things.)  

How does all this impact millennials in the workplace?

So what happened when our creative, image-focused, fast-moving millennials hit the workplace?

Copious blogs have been written about rude millennials, their demanding attitudes, their spoiled ways.

However, seeing them for the digital natives they are should help you appreciate their unique wiring and what they can deliver that you, yourself, probably cannot.

An aerial view of a circle of people with white shirts extending their arms into the center and layering their hands on top of each other.

Ask your millennial employee to input thousands of lines of data into your spreadsheet, and you may run up against resistance.

But ask the same worker to create a video that explains your product to a new audience. And, oh by the way, be sure to add that you’d like a hundred new downloads by next week. I’m guessing you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Focus on what they do different – better!- than you.

And if you’re really motivated, learn to communicate in their language. Check out my guide to writing skills for the digital age.

The key to working with a millennial might lie in recognizing that while the two of you may look alike on the outside – neither of you is covered in fur, both of you wear clothes to work, and both of you brush your teeth – the truth is that you may have more in common with a chimpanzee.

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