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What Everybody Needs to Know About Managing Millennials

By November 4, 2016 September 21st, 2021 4 Comments

managing millennials

The Millennials are coming.

Sure, you’ve probably heard it before. You might even be a little sick of hearing about it, and we know it’s easy to assume that all the hype around the impending Millennial invasion is… a bit overblown.

But the numbers tell a different story – the modern workplace is being reshaped by an influx of Millennial talent.

In just the last 5 years, 87% of Millennials took on management roles, and by 2020, Millennials will make up approximately half of the global workforce. By 2025, that number will be closer to 75%.

It’s a demographic shift that organizations can no longer afford to ignore, but the perception of Millennials is still fraught with stereotypes and misconceptions.

Millennials continue to cause confusion and frustration for CEOs, HR leaders, and middle managers alike.

That’s why we’re sharing this presentation from SnackNation CEO and Millennial expert Sean Kelly.

This engaging talk looks at Millennials through a scientific lens, helping identify the group’s defining characteristics, and digging deep into the sociological and biological mechanics that have shaped this much maligned and oft-misunderstood generation.

Through thought-provoking examples, Sean helps demystify the Millennial generation, and offers strategies to help you adapt to and more effectively engage younger workers so you that your organization can thrive.

What makes Sean an expert?

Besides the fact that he leads a mostly Millennial staff of more than 100 people, he speaks around the world to HR pros and other business leaders about culture and engagement in the Millennial age.

He also hosts The Awesome Office Show, an award-winning podcast that examines leadership and business through the lens of culture and engagement.

Oh, and born in 1983, Sean is a Millennial leader himself.

As this talk will show, what many have perceived as laziness, apathy, or entitlement, is really something quite different. Millennials are a civic generation, born during an unraveling, coming of age during a crisis.

Since this presentation is from last year, we asked Sean to revisit these ideas and provide additional commentary throughout the transcript below the video.

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Today we’re going to be talking about the Millennial divide and how we close the gap so that all of us perform better and experience more in our businesses and in life.

Who here has strong feelings towards Millennials? What words come to mind? Entitled? Delusional? Narcissistic?

Well, I’ve got a few – these are some quotes I found on the internet that shed light on how we think and talk about Millennials.

“When you get as much praise and attention on your birthday as an average Millennial feels entitled to every day.”

Here’s another one.

“Never before has a generation so diligently recorded themselves accomplishing so little.”

I’m getting some nods in here like, “That’s true. #truth.” (Actually the only people that are saying #truth are the Millennials.)

“I’m calling in sick because I have an eye problem. I can’t see myself coming into work today.”

Now, why the heck am I talking about Millennials? I have the fortune of being the CEO of a company called SnackNation. Our mission is to help people become better versions of themselves by supporting increased health, productivity, and happiness.

We do this by delivering healthy snacks to thousands of offices across the U.S., powering engaged cultures and thriving workplaces. Over half of our employees are Millennials, so we have to do all the crazy things that you need to do to maximize the return, happiness and productivity of Millennials.

I myself, believe it or not (and please do not think less of me), I’m a cusp Millennial. I was born in 1983, so I’m officially a Millennial, but I used to think I just had bipolar disorder.

I have a little bit of Gen X and Millennial combined. Hopefully not the two bad sides, hopefully more of the two good but that’s for you guys to judge.

It’s no longer about work life balance when you’re managing Millennials. It’s now about work life integration and blending everything together.

Headshot-SeanWhat Millennials understand better than most is that this original work/life distinction is completely artificial. In our adult lives, we spend more time at work than anywhere else.

We see our co-workers more than our spouses or our kids. There’s no separate work life and home life. It’s all just life. That’s why work-life integration is so important to them.

Here’s a little bit more about what we do at SnackNation. We’re looking to reinvent workplace wellness through healthy snacks – but it’s not so much about the snacks.

I mean, it is. We really do live and breathe health and nutrition.

We’re definitely food and drink geeks, but we know how important healthy snacks are for employee engagement, employee productivity, employee health and all of those things. Those overarching things are what we really care about. I think that’s why I’m talking to you today.

Why all the fuss regarding Millennials? Why all this talk? Well, by 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce, 75% by 2025. That’s just five years, ten years away.

In the last five years, 87% of Millennials took on management roles verse 38% for Gen X and 19% for Boomers. This is only accelerating.

stats on millennials in the workplace

The average tenure of a Millennial worker is just two years versus five years for Gen X and seven years for Boomers – meaning that if we do not figure out how to change that, every time that occurs every two years will incur an average of $24,000 in costs.

But my goal is not to convince you of the importance of understanding Millennials. You guys know this. You’ve known that for a while.

What are my goals today if that’s not it? My goal is first to show you why, why Millennials are the way they are through sociological and biological lenses.

Some people think that Millennials just need to change and “grow up.” I’m telling you now – they will not change. In fact, what’s happening right now probably won’t change for another 30 to 40 years.

You cannot escape our demographics. That’s why I’m going to provide you with some how-to strategies to more effectively engage Millennials and maximize return.

Headshot-SeanNot long ago, I interviewed my friend and Millennial expert Jane Buckingham for my podcast The Awesome Office Show, and she said something that really reinforced this point. She pointed out that, if you’re a Gen Xer, you have to judge Millennials for who they are – on their terms, not your own.

They aren’t going to magically change and start thinking like you. Instead of fearing them for who they are, use them to make you look good! Partner with them, learn from them. Don’t fear them.

Why is all this important? I believe that if you understand the forces that influence the future, you’ll have the ability to shape the future. If you don’t understand those forces, you’ll just be shaped by it. Would you rather shape it or what’s more fun? Shaping the future, right? That’s a lot more fun.

The Fourth Turning (The Sociology)

Has anybody ever had the pleasure and the chance to read the book The Fourth Turning? I would definitely add it to your recommended reading list.

Headshot-SeanThere’s so much more in the Fourth Turning that I wanted to touch upon, but didn’t have enough time.

One of the most fascinating findings isn’t just that these generational archetypes recur, but that they recur precisely because of their reaction to the situation wrought by previous generations. It’s an amazing work of sociology and couldn’t recommend it any higher.

What William Strauss and Neil Howe talk about is that the way that we act as generations has actually repeated itself for the last 500 years or so. One key to understanding their argument is the concept of the saeculum – a period of time that is equivalent to the complete renewal of the human population, usually about one hundred years.

Within that saeculum, there are four generations or four turnings. We just wrapped up our fourth turning. A generation in an era is determined and defined by the group that’s coming into age, into adulthood at that time. As of 2008, Millennials are coming of age and are defining the period that we’re in now.

What Strauss and Howe found is that these generations come and go in cycles, based on the Four Turnings – High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis.

Crisis is typically when there’s some major societal crises that we have to get together and act socially, and where togetherness and community are far more important than individual needs. That moves into a period, after you solve the crisis together, of a High, a cultural high.

One example from history – the G.I. generation coming together and figuring out some pretty tough stuff, during the depression and the world wars, moving into the silent generation where there was this cultural high, marked with optimism and pride.


In this high, there is also conformity. There’s both high social order and a high desire for social order.

We then move into an Awakening. An awakening period is more defined by the individuals. Society turns and says, “Okay, everything is good in terms of society, in terms of institutions, but what about me? What about the individual? What about our culture?”

That then leads to an Unraveling and again to a Crisis. We are now again in a crisis period, and the interesting thing is that every two generations, every second-generation, is a mile marker where society turns.

Let’s take a look at some of the defining traits of the different generations.

The silent generation, there’s a high in the air. This is after World War II, institutions were strong, and trust in these institutions was strong. The individual was weak. There was a great deal of conformity. Career corporate jobs were the standard.

That’s what people did. People worked for 30, 40, 50 years at the same place. People love that institution and the stability it provided, but there wasn’t as much individualism.

Then you had the Boomer generation. They value Individual expression and want to express and define their culture. They want more than their conformist parents.

Notice the invention of monetary commissions during this generation. They gave more to their kids and at the end of the day, Boomers are defined, in their minds, by the work that they do and that they produce.

Then we have Gen X, the second consecutive “me” generation. Individualism is strong and flourishing, but social disorder is pervasive. Civic authority feels incredibly weak. Culture feels exhausted.

Everybody looks around and says, “Really, is this what the government’s doing? Really, this is what’s happening?” People have more faith in the individual than they do in institutions or in government.

Then came Gen Y, the Millennials. Civic and cultural expression are revived. They find community purpose and people locate within a larger group. The group becomes more important than the individual.

infographic - millennials and purpose


40 Years of “Me” to 40 Years of “We”

We are currently in the midst of the most difficult sociological transition, because we’re going from 40 years of “me.”

Headshot-SeanAgain this, type of transition isn’t new. Far from it.

This has been a pattern that’s been repeating for roughly the past 500 years.


We’re going from 40 years of “focus on the individual” to the next 40 years of “focus on the group.”

All right, so what do we think? Is it more difficult to go from “we” to “me” or from “me” to “we”?

It’s definitely harder to go from “me” to “we.” This is the reason. This massive step that’s occurring right now, this massive social turn, this is why Millennials feel so foreign and why so many people, especially baby boomers, say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. We are literally going downhill. The world’s going to come to an end. Our country’s certainly going to fail if these Millennials are going to be leading.” The truth is, these feelings aren’t new. Because this has all happened before.

Millennials are a civic generation, born during an unraveling, coming of age during a crisis. Their role in society is to re-create social institutions that are broken. That’s their number one purpose in society.

They’ll typically do this after large crises. They yearn for purpose, for community, for something bigger. They simply don’t care about a lot of the things, or at least care to the extent that we want them to, in terms of being a Boomer or Gen Xer.

It’s imperative that Millennials love to share and be social. It’d be really bad if the people who are in charge of creating our new social institutions hated sharing and hated being social and didn’t value community above all else.

That would be a really bad thing for our society. This isn’t just about sociology. The cool thing is it’s about biology too. It’s amazing how sociology and biology are tied in together and how all this works.

Selfish and Social Chemicals (The Biology)

There’s four chemicals that create drive and happiness in each one of us – endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.

The only reason that endorphins exist at the end of the day is to mask pain. Endorphins are why you get that runner’s high. That’s actually just preventing your body from experiencing pain.

You also get it from laughter, which what is laughter? It’s actually the convulsing of your organs. That’s why laughing feels so good. Has anybody ever had it where you laugh so hard it hurts? It’s because your body has run out of endorphins, literally.


Dopamine is released with the feeling of accomplishment. It’s why in the Western world we love our phones. Every time we check it, we get little dopamine shots. The problem with these “selfish” brain chemicals is they don’t last, they do not last.

Nobody feels good or is excited about the numbers they hit four years ago. You don’t care about the metrics you hit four years ago.

It has to constantly be replenished and they obviously can be experienced completely alone. You don’t need anybody else. You can be on a deserted island and feel this way, building your hut.

Oxytocin and serotonin are the body’s “social” chemicals. Serotonin is associated with pride, status, and leadership. It’s the reward we get from receiving respect from others. It’s what allows us to sacrifice for one another.

Oxytocin is what we get from loyalty, trust, and love – and touch as well. That’s what releases oxytocin. That’s why athletes give each other a high five. It’s all from touch and it’s the strongest social chemical.

Headshot-SeanOxytocin and serotonin actually have analogues to two of the most powerful street drugs out there – heroin and ecstasy, respectively. Heroin lights up the exact same brain centers that oxytocin does.

We are currently in the grip of the most devastating opioid addiction crisis this country has ever seen. Could it be because our society is devoid of the things that naturally provide this feeling? Things like loyalty, love, and trust?

These social chemicals exist well into the future. If I develop a bond of serotonin, oxytocin with one of you, if we form a positive relationship, the next time I see you, I’m going to feel that again. It keeps giving.

“Me” vs. “We” Businesses

You might be thinking, “Why is he talking about that? This is weird.”

Well, most businesses are “me” focused. In other words, they’re dopamine-based. Current incentive systems in businesses give a target and then offer a bonus. It’s the primary means, especially in “me”-driven businesses in society to drive behavior.

The problem is that when you have too much dopamine, you get addicted to it and when you don’t have that dopamine, you search for more dopamine and dopamine makes you selfish and it makes you not work well with others.

“We” generations need something else, especially when it’s a civic generation. It’s the leading “we” generation in an era. Millennials thirst for social chemicals. How do you get serotonin? Well, they thirst for public recognition.

Who’s experienced Millennials really needing public recognition? There’s a reason for it.

It allows for massive sacrifice, far greater sacrifice from your employees and from your friends, far greater sacrifice than they would be able to contribute based on money alone, far greater.

But if the serotonin doesn’t exist, they won’t sacrifice at all. If you act like the leader is sacrificing for the group or you as a manager have their best interest at heart, you as their manager care more about them than you do for yourself, if you do those things, you’re going to see phenomenal things happen.

If you don’t – or if you’re inauthentic about them – it’ll backfire. That two-year average stents for Millennials will come down to 18 months, will come down to 12 months.

Oxytocin – it’s achieved by being trusted or trusting, by giving, through laughter and being a part of a close-knit community. It’s the strongest of all the happiness chemicals.

What Millennials Crave in the Workplace

So why should you care about all this? Because again, it’s not going away anytime soon.

Today’s company will fail without significant change. You hear the stats. I don’t know them right offhand, but what is it? Of all the Fortune 500 companies today, by 2020 only 50% will exist.

Society is transitioning out of the old era, “me” to “we,” and the importance of new is only becoming more important. What is the new focus? What do Millennials care about at the end of the day?

Community and relationships, purpose and social responsibility, trust and enjoyment, work-life integration. It’s no longer about work life balance. People say, “I want to blend everything together. Everything’s the same to me. It’s not work and life, it’s all life.” Flexibility and autonomy and, believe it or not, selflessness.

What are the differences in “me” versus “we,” in Boomer and Gen X versus Millennial? Boomers, Gen X want money. Millennials want time.

Millennials want time more than anything. Money is a threshold for Millennials. They need it for a threshold but it’s not a scorecard. It’s not a scorecard.


Community and relationships trump money and material stuff. I as a Millennial would rather drive a 14-year-old Toyota pickup as long as I can go to dinner and hang out with my friends every night than I would buy a new Lexus.

Personal growth and development is a requirement for Millennials. If they’re not growing, if they’re not developing for the sake of what they want to do in life, and there’s a lot of different things within your organization that that can happen, their time with you is short-lived.

It’s a requirement, growth is. It used to be where as long as you were getting paid well, you’d stay maybe for 30 years, as long as you’re getting paid well and getting that paycheck. No longer the case.

Culture, environment and experience trump most. These people care more about experience and engagement.

If they are engaged and they are having a good experience, wow, what they will do is unbelievable. Then obviously purpose and “why” is a prerequisite to success.

Who’s seen this before? Most companies know what they do. If you don’t know what you do, you’re in big trouble. What do you do? I don’t know.

How you do it, that’s your value proposition, like how do you get customers, how do you go about it? A little bit more difficult. That requires some strategy, but why, which is really the bull’s-eye.

1. Know Your Why

Why is, “Why do you do it? What’s your purpose? Why do you get up and dedicate every single day to what you do? Why does it matter?” That’s what Millennials care about. What can you do to maximally engage Millennials?

You must connect what you do to a higher purpose. I don’t care what type of firm you have. I don’t care how tactical it is.

I don’t care how much of a commoditized industry it is, you have to connect to a higher purpose. You have to connect to a higher purpose. You’ve got to know what your core values and not just put them on the wall.

You’ve got to talk about them. You’ve got to hire by them. You have to have a vision statement that you believe in, and that you lead with and that you talk about every day. You have to have a purpose and figure it out.

2. Create a Culture of Recognition

Start simple. Instead of sending an email that says, “Great job,” you walk into their office. You say, “You know what? Great work on that phone call, on that conference call. You knocked it out of the park.” What else? No, that’s it. “Good work.”

3. Understand Their Personal Goals

What a concept, right? You actually know what they want in their professional and personal lives. It doesn’t mean you have to know everything about them, but you actually know and you care about a couple things that they care about personally.

Maybe personal cards, every single time that there’s a birthday that maybe that they had a kid, that it’s their wife’s birthday, it’s their anniversary, you write them a note.

4. Create a Flexible Environment Preceded by Accountability

People say that, “You know, we shouldn’t have to do this. Millennials are lazy.” I think we’re being lazy. The problem is that we love to measure time because it’s so easy. “Be there from 9 to 5.”

But what’s hard? That’s actually developing metrics and determining what behaviors produce success and then measuring and monitoring those behaviors. You can say, “Hey, as long as you hit your results, I don’t care about these other things.”

You may not be able to do it in one, two or three strategy sessions, but you’ve got to get there if you want to succeed tomorrow. Create individual development and growth plans.

These do not have to be crazy.

They can mean that in your quarterly reviews, in your direct report meetings, that the manager is just checking up with the individual on what their personal goals are. “Hey, you know what? I know that you really wanted to learn Tae Kwon Do. How’s that going?”

“Hey, you know what? I really want … I realize that you wanted to take flight lessons. Have you been able to check up on that?” Also, just regarding that too, don’t be scared.

There’s so many baby boomers and Gen X people that are scared of teaching their employees too much or giving them too many skills.

They’re scared to have them move laterally across the organization because once they’re picking up all these skills and developing and getting better and better, what’s the fear? They’re going to leave, take another job.

The exact opposite is true. If you provide them with growth and you give them that flexibility and that ability to expand themselves – remember, these people are not the ones that are always just leaving for the higher paying job -they’ll actually bond and they’ll produce more for you and they’ll stay a year or two, three years longer at your company.

Just remember culture, experience and relationships trump all. Nothing is more important than that.

Headshot-SeanIf you’re struggling with your own company culture, don’t fret – everybody does. Culture always ebbs and flows. Even at SnackNation – where we focus on it so much and have what I consider an exemplary company culture – sometimes it’s better than others.

But I will tell you, I feel it every single day. It’s a practice, that has to be thoughtfully directed. And it grows with every new hire. Every person in the company contributes, so while it’s consistent, it also grows and evolves over time.

The Impact of Millennials

Imagine the future for a second. People talk about, “Oh my gosh, if we allow Millennials to take over the world, it’s going to be terrible, like the world is going to melt,” and I’m here to say, let’s imagine this environment.

Is it really worse, an environment where trust is omnipresent, an atmosphere where sacrifice is welcomed because it’s connected to a higher purpose, a space saturated with serotonin and oxytocin? That sounds like a fun spot, where it’s enjoyable to go to work, you like your boss and your boss likes you.

An office where money is a threshold, not a scorecard. The scorecard is social impact and achievement as a group.

Sound like a pretty cool environment? It’s a place I want to work. I bet they get a lot done. I bet they create a lot of magic at that place. I bet they crush their competition.

Let’s look at those Millennial stereotypes again.

“When you get as much praise and attention on your birthday as an average Millennial feels entitled to every day.”

Maybe when we first saw this we said, “Entitled and lacking toughness.” Well, I challenge you to say … Or is it expecting something better and socially minded? Just the type of person we need to create new social institutions.

“Never before has a generation so diligently recorded themselves accomplishing so little.”

So are Millennials lazy and social media obsessed, or are they serotonin, oxytocin facilitators? As long as they’re let out of their bag and at-caged animal and technology experts, just the type of person we need to carry our companies into the new age.

“I’m calling in sick because I have an eye problem. I can’t see myself coming into work today.”

Then lastly, I’ll say employees that just don’t care, they don’t care like they should.

“Well, what do you mean? Why don’t they care?” “They should care because I pay them and give them directions and they should care,” or is it someone that demands purpose in something bigger thus making all of us better?

Just ask yourself those questions next time you have a thought about what Millennial, next time you think about maximally engaging them and taking your company to the next level and that’s it for me. Thank you so much.


What Say You?

What are the biggest challenges you face with your Millennial workforce?

How have you addressed them?

Has this changed since Millennials have begun to move into managerial and leadership roles?

Let us know in the comments!


  • Laura C says:


  • Sean says:

    Great summary bud, you are one of my favorite Millennials J$$ Murphy

  • Becky S says:

    I appreciate you tying in the biological affects as well as the sociological. I work in a very large, 150-year old company and trying to move the needle on some of this is painful. Our goal is to create an amazing employee experience I think that resonates with your perspective – it’s not about 9-5, b/c I pay you to do it – it is about how the individuals create a collective, which can inspire purpose, change, and hopefully fulfillment.

  • Steve McD says:

    The concept is as vague and more generalised than Horoscopes. We have some fantastic, energised, super creative Millennials in the office and lots ‘not so’. We also have the same with Gen X’ers. But because most HR departments love ‘Bibles’, like that written by William Strauss, the prophecy becomes self fulfilling and sure enough there are Diversity targets that insist on a high % of Millennials, and guess what the stats start to work!

    You yourself just scrap into the category, so you did not go through teenage years or even your early twenties with smart phones, tablets or Social media because they didn’t exist until your where over 21.
    Big respect to what your achieving and your ethos is general!

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