Once upon a time—that time being a rather specific framework of 1980-1995—eighty million individuals were born. They would grow up with a notorious reputation for being selfish, lazy, entitled, and just gosh darn awful! This cohort, known as the mythical Millennials, is the generation most discussed by the media thanks to the enigmatic aura that has clung to them for years. As they’ve grown into their professional and personal lives, some of the fog has cleared. We’ve come to understand them more holistically—their traits, values, strengths, and weaknesses. And as we continue to study them, one truth in particular has risen to the top: Millennials as you know them aren’t the Millennials as you know them.
Before you call the psychiatrist, let us explain: BridgeWorks conducted a national survey of young people (Millennials and Gen Edgers) and an interesting finding set off the alarm in our already-suspecting noggins: there are pretty clear distinctions between older and younger Millennials. The survey results, supported by qualitative research, showed that these two Millennial subgroups have differing opinions about work and life, which will affect how they’re managed, recruited, and engaged and how and what they buy.
What event could possibly have formed this crack in the Millennial techtonic plates? There are numerous ways to divide a group of 80 million, but our research found that there are three major factors: life stage, technology, and the economy. This last one is perhaps the most significant; the Great Recession is at the core of this generational divide. The younger Millennial segment, which we aptly named the Recessionists, were in the midst of their formative years when the Recession hit full-force. As a refresher, the events that occur during your formative or teenage years dramatically shape who you are, how you form your opinions, and how you show up at work.
Older Millennials, or Early Millennials as we’ll reference them, had already phased out of their teen years by the start of the downturn in 2008. Early Millennials most certainly felt the impact of the Great Recession, but they had already established a firm grasp of the world around them and perhaps even landed stable jobs. They felt the hardships of the steep economic downturn, and many lost those seemingly stable jobs, but, again, they weren’t in those very impressionable teenage years when economic disaster struck. The Recessionists, on the other hand, were young teens when they witnessed first-hand the havoc that financial instability can create.
While Early Millennials and Recessionsts do share many similarities, understanding the nuanced differences between them is not only hella interesting, but it will also set leaders and organizations up for success. So forget everything you know about Millennials! Wait, NO. Do not do that. But perhaps read on to learn more about the events and conditions that define these two distinct Millennial segments.
Early Millennials: Teens of the ’90s
Key Events + Conditions
- Self-esteem movement
- Flip phones
- Nintendo 64
- Oregon Trail game
Three Defining Events & Conditions
Millennials are generally seen as digitally innate, but in truth, advanced tech and social media were only partially present for Early Millennials’ formative years. Facebook wouldn’t hit the scene until the oldest Millennial was 24, and many didn’t see friends with iPhones until they started college. This illustrates a very different upbringing than what people usually picture for Millennials. Since technology evolved so quickly in the 90s, Millennials only five years apart can have very different memories of technology, giving way to one of the biggest determining factors in the split between Early Millennials and Recessionists. Early Millennials were truly the first to incorporate social media and technology into their lives, yet they still remember a time without them.
Early Millennials are products of the self-esteem movement, and as a result, received Honorable Mentions and 6th place awards from every T-ball game, potato-sack race, and chess tournament they participated in. What’s constantly overlooked, however, is the fact that they didn’t ask to be awarded, and they’re just as embarrassed by their collections as the general public. (Exhibit A: An Early Millennial embarrassed of the shrine his parents assembled for him.) Boomer parents, coaches, and teachers taught Early Millennials to be proud of their A+ grade, yes, but also the effort. Having the right attitude, working hard, and being proud of yourself were reason enough for celebration. In the media, pride has been translated as entitlement and laziness. Contrarily, they’re optimistic, positive, and keen to support their team/family in any way possible.
Early Millennials were in their formative years when domestic and international violence made headlines all too frequently. They witnessed the deadliest high school shooting in US history, Columbine, and can remember watching the Twin Towers collapse with their classmates. The country was not impervious to foreign attacks, school was no longer a safe place—where could this generation turn? Parents, teachers, and counselors urged Early Millennials to express themselves and be themselves. A generation who had once seen the world through rose-tinted glasses realized the danger that waited right outside their front doors. Luckily, they had a long list of adults and authority figures to discuss it with.
Recessionists: Teens of the ’00s
Key Events + Conditions
- The Great Recession
- Global war on terror
- Hurricane Katrina
- Disney Channel
- Spice Girls
- Sidekick phone
- High School Musical
Three Defining Events & Conditions
While Early Millennials didn’t have smartphones or social media until around or even after college, Recessionists were in middle school and high school when they became the norm. What’s more, Recessionists didn’t just have an iPhone; they had the newest iPhone and the newest one after that. They grew accustomed to the upgrade cycle of technology at a young age—sometimes scary young—so they developed expectations for frequent change and improvement. Of course, this mindset has followed them into the workplace, and it will follow them into leadership roles as they seek to introduce their teams to new tools and applications to improve office efficiency. Another key difference in the experience of technology is that Recessionsists have almost always had access to the internet via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or cell data. Unlike Early Millennials, their time experiencing the horrible screeching song of dial-up (and being kicked off the Internet when Dad needed to make a call) was short lived. For Recessionists, ubiquitous, fast, and easily-accessible internet has pretty much always been a thing.
The Great Recession
Recessionists were entering, attending, and leaving college as the Great Recession played out. “Five to ten years experience REQUIRED” or “This is an experience-only position” were very typical descriptors for open positions, if there were any open positions at all. Despite their idealistic Boomer parents, Recessionists weren’t spared the bleak realities of entering the working world saddled with crippling college debt with no relief in sight. Consequently, these younger Millennials tend to be more realistic and financially-conscious than the collaborative and optimistic Early Millennials. Recessionists are more likely to define success with financial security, and BridgeWorks focus groups found them to be more jaded and realistic than their Early Millennial counterparts.
Some may feel inclined to define one-half of Millennials as those who remember 9/11 and the other half as those who don’t. Tread carefully, friend, because many Recessionists still experienced and remember the trauma of 9/11. Instead of using 9/11 as a divisive event for Millennials, it’s about the bigger picture of violence as a whole. Early Millennials recall very specific shootings (i.e., Columbine, Virginia Tech) as singular albeit terrifying events. For Recessionists, however, homeland violence like school shootings was more of a condition than a specific event. As awful as they were, local shootings were beginning to normalize when Recessionists were coming of age, and reactions and sentiments towards them were anaesthetized.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking this is all well and great, but do Millennial differences create actual differences in the workplace? While the two segments do share plenty of similarities, they have nuanced differences that are worthy of attention. For example, Early Millennials are more collaborative. In our survey, they were the segment most likely (over Recessionist Millennials and Gen Edgers) to choose answers correlated with collaboration. This is simply one example, of course, but there is no doubt that an office that is keen to the nuances of these cohorts will likely see better results from their younger workforce. In return, they’ll give you their hard work, loyalty, and maybe even the workplace equivalent of the participation trophy—the Best Boss Ever mug.