Why the Hybrid Workforce of the Future Depends on the ‘Geriatric Millennial’
Millennials born between 1980–85 know how to work across generational divides
Editor’s note: Read Erica’s follow-up piece in which she responds to the varied reactions to “geriatric millennial” here.
The first time I heard “geriatric millennial” I thought it was an oxymoron. Sarcastic, even. But as I thought more deeply about it, I realized how perfectly it describes so many of us. Geriatric millennials are a special micro-generation born in the early 1980s that are comfortable with both analog and digital forms of communication. They were the first generation to grow up with technology like a PC in their homes.
If they were slightly older, they would have left college to work for a large corporate company and their career path would have been set in stone. On the other hand, if they were born a couple of years later, the window to create their company would have already passed them by. They make up some of the world’s leading CEOs including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (born in 1984), Canva’s Melanie Perkins (1987), Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian (1983), Rent the Runway’s Jennifer Fleiss (1985), and Airbnb’s Brian Chesky (1981).
I consider myself a geriatric millennial. And let me tell you, we’ve seen things. We’re weathered internet veterans. We survived DailyBooth, Friendster, and Myspace friendship rankings, and yet here we are, feeling incredibly competent at the thought of creating a TikTok or a Clubhouse panel discussion.
I remember the year AOL Instant Messenger was created, and signing up for Facebook when it expanded to a handful of college campuses beyond Harvard; I also remember punch cards, bulky answering machines, and calling collect to have my mom pick me up. By the time social networking rocked the internet, I’d already spent years mastering the physical body language cues and signals I’d learned from face-to-face interactions.
It’s this hands-on experience with pre-digital communication that distinguishes geriatric millennials from the younger set — even though many of us are still under 40 and makes them the linchpins of our changing workplaces. Geriatric millennials can read the subtext of an SMS just as well as they can pick up on a client’s hesitation in their facial expressions during an in-person meeting. They are neither ignorant of technology nor so engrossed in it that a voicemail inspires fear.
Geriatric millennials are best positioned to lead teams that will thrive in the hybrid workplace
For organizations that are divided across generational divides between baby boomers and Gen Z, it’s beneficial to call on your geriatric millennials to help you translate the experiences of both digital adapters (baby boomers) and digital natives (Gen Z). It not only makes for a better internal culture but a happier clientele.
One geriatric millennial and head of HR, Sarah, told me that the new generation doesn’t treat video meetings in the same way they might an in-person meeting and she spends time getting them “up to speed.”
“During video meetings, I am surprised when some junior employees are not as conscious of their video background — it looks messy and unprofessional to me,” she says. Knowing that experienced (and older) team members are accustomed to more formality, even when they’re working from home, she now reminds her younger team members to fix their backgrounds on customer calls and wear clothing that they’d wear to the office. It signals respect, not only to clients but to other colleagues as well. On internal calls, she lets it go, adding, “We have to be willing to understand formality discomforts across channels and be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Geriatric millennials can teach traditional communication skills to younger employees and “Digital Body Language” to older team members
Geriatric millennials bridge the tech-dependent informal styles with traditional body language.
A client of mine once complained about her sales rep who is a Gen Zer. During meetings, he just couldn’t seem to read clients’ body language cues. He appeared blind to their every posture and gesture, made poor eye contact, and overlooked any number of micro-facial expressions that would have told him he was going seriously off-track to the point of losing the client. He commonly used “So” to begin thoughts and sentences, an almost real-life mirror of ongoing, never-ending text threads instead of professional spoken conversation. My client coached her younger sales rep on the signals and messages conveyed by physical body language.
Another essential skill that geriatric millennials can teach their younger team members is how to speak on the phone. Growing up, I was taught how to answer the phone politely, and if the call wasn’t for me, to take a message. It wasn’t until I hired people who were born after 1990 that I realized I was among the last generation to learn that skill. Sam, one of my new hires, for example, had no idea how to take down messages:
Sam: Someone called.
Me: Bob from Idaho? From Minnesota?
Sam: Not sure which…
Me: What did he say?
Sam: He asked you to call him back.
I had to email both Bobs to figure out which one had called. For this reason, becoming fluent in different communication styles is a key skill for leaders in the hybrid workplace.
Conversely, geriatric millennials can work with older generations on their team to help them become better acquainted with digital communication norms. To digital adapters, some traditional modes of communication are not only antiquated but also get in the way of good working relationships. Geriatric millennials can help a more senior employee understand asking a question via Slack may be better than an unscheduled call or one more reply-all email.
Geriatric millennials have their pulse on these ever-changing norms
While older generations may see younger employee behaviors as entitled, the younger generation sees theirs as “old-fashioned” and not as productive to the current times.
Adette, a geriatric millennial and the CEO of Tinsel and In Wild Pursuit, addressed this problem on her team. She once hired a sales coach to grow her company. In his late forties, the coach was a digital adapter who kept pushing Adette’s team “to hit the phones and annoy and pester your prospects for meetings.” Adette remained skeptical, especially since she knew that her clients (most of whom were in their thirties) preferred texting, and in all likelihood ignored phone calls.
Her instincts were right. “Not one person picked up the phone or responded. It failed miserably. So we trusted our original intuition and decided to ask for permission before calling. We emailed people and said, “Hey I’ve been trying to reach you, left a VM but who listens to voicemail, right? I’d love to share our new offering with you.” Then, instead of composing an open-ended email wondering about availability, Adette used Calendly, a calendar program that showed all available times. As far as booking sales meetings were concerned, it seemed that the strategy with the least human interaction delivered the most success.
By creating new rules of engagement that emphasized a more modern sensibility around communication, Adette pushed the more experienced and older team members to learn new technology and catered to her digitally savvy clientele as well.
Geriatric millennials are valuable because they have a varied skill set to refer to — one that lets them cater to the needs of people with different degrees of understanding of (and patience for) the digital world. Being fluent in both analog and digital communication styles is a key skill for today’s leaders. Consulting your geriatric millennial colleagues is a great way to polish your fluency so that you can meet the needs of everyone.
Why I Call Myself a “Geriatric Millennial” — and Why Our Micro-Generation Matters
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Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st-century teamwork and communication. She is an award-winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on LinkedIn.