How do you solve a problem like millennials?

Carrie Sue Halsey | 01/21/2016

Begin by recognizing the strengths they bring to the workplace.​​​


On a recent trip to a Redbox movie kiosk, I parked in front of the automated dispenser of entertainment. As I began searching for the Blu-Ray DVD I wanted, my 6-year-old son interrupted my scrolling by calling to me from the open car window. I turned and told him to roll the window back up and sit down, as I didn’t want his movie selection advice yelled at me from my vehicle. He stared at me with a quizzical look, so I repeated my request that he roll up the window. He continued to stare blankly at me, searching for meaning in my statement. Visibly flustered, I walked to the window and asked him why he would not do what I asked. He replied, “I don’t know how to roll up the window.” Finally, I understood. He has never been in a car that had a rotating handle for closing the window. So I changed my request to “Close the window.” He obediently pressed the button, and up it went.

Halsey_Carrie_ID_embed2_SFWMillennials, the WHY generation
I have experienced similar interactions in the workplace. At times, I feel I am clearly communicating my expectations to a younger nurse and then discover he or she is not processing the information. I have been a leader in a variety of settings since 1998, and I can tell you from experience that millennials—those born from 1980 to 2000, also known as Generation Y—are not like previous generations. I hasten to add that, as with any generational cohort, generalized characteristics describing millennials are just that—generalizations—and cannot be universally applied. That said, here are things I’ve personally observed.

They ask why—a lot. They text my personal phone when I am not at work. They want to be friends with their boss on social media. They expect an immediate response to emails. They never put down their phones. They miss deadlines and then are devastated when there are negative consequences. They challenge every direction, yet demand to be closely mentored. They think their special circumstance is more special than any other person’s in the department.

While it’s true that I have personally observed all of the above, it’s also true that millennials are subject to many negative stereotypes—misconceptions that become universalized and regarded as truth. They are viewed as self-absorbed, shameless, pandered to, careless, selfish, screen addicts, stupid, and having a poor work ethic.

It is a lazy leader who believes these characteristics accurately describe all millennials. One only needs to think back 30 years and remember what was being said about Generation X. Generation X members were often viewed as slackers and apathetic. Think Seattle grunge, punk rock, and teens growing up in the commercialism of the 1980s. Prior to that, baby boomers were angst-filled teens riding around in Volkswagen buses and participating in love-ins. It is neither fair nor accurate to judge a generational cohort by its growing pains.

Demystifying millennials
The number of millennials in the workforce is quickly increasing. In just five years, employees born after 1980 will comprise 50 percent of the American workforce. Already, millennials outnumber Generation Xers and, by 2030, will make up 75 percent of U.S. workers.

Millennials bring a multitude of positive qualities to nursing. They are, unquestionably, the most tech-savvy generation, which is a huge asset in a constantly evolving, technological world. As early adopters of new tech, they are a natural fit to become super-users, helping to teach others. Millennials generally place high value on education and, in years to come, will become the most educated generation. Yes, they never put their phones down, but they are incredibly connected to friends, family, and the world.

Millennials operate in multitask mode all of the time. This is a great skill for a nurse. Millennials are the most racially diverse group to date and seek social justice and complex understanding of others. They are smart and able to process information quickly. Millennials bring these qualities and more to the workplace but often struggle to fit into traditional environments. Millennial nurses are looking to their leaders for help in navigating their work environments.

Managing millennials is a challenge, one with which I have struggled. Because of this, I’ve had to reflect on my leadership style in recent years. I am not alone. Nursing leaders accustomed to managing Generation X and baby boomers are often mystified by millennials. It seems that leadership approaches used for other generations simply don’t work when applied to Generation Y.

Working with millennials
Whether you call them millennials or Generation Y, here are some useful tips you may find helpful when working with nurses from that age group.
  1. Although millennials welcome help, they do not want to be micromanaged. From their perspective, leaders are coaches, not bosses in the traditional sense. They want autonomy, to be trusted. Many grew up with attentive parents, coaches, and teachers, an orientation that necessitates an altered approach to mentoring. They need more oversight, more encouragement, more feedback, more help in goal setting, and specific guidance.
  2. Providing input and working collaboratively are important to millennials. If they are not able to work as part of a team and feel ownership, burnout will follow. Unlike their predecessors, they are less inclined to settle for a job that is not fulfilling. To secure their buy-in to workplace changes and management decisions, it is important to explain the rationale behind those decrees. Millennials understand and appreciate mentorship from older nurses, but they also appreciate contributing input and possible solutions.
  3. Communication expectations are quite different for members of the millennial generation. This group expects quick responses from their leaders. They are visual learners and process information best in quick snippets. They want the facts and want to be given more than the company line. They value sincerity.
  4. Although millennials want to succeed in the workplace and will conform to professional expectations, they are an informal group that requires clear communication of expectations to be successful in their jobs. If a millennial nurse fails to perform a task properly, there is an excellent chance that he or she doesn’t understand the assignment. It is important, therefore, that a leader views unprofessional behavior as an opportunity to mentor. When expectations are communicated clearly, millennials adapt well, especially if there are valid reasons behind expected behaviors.

Nursing needs millennials
In coming years, the profession of nursing will rely heavily on millennials to make up for retiring baby boomers, but adding to staff numbers is not their most important legacy. Millennials demand work-life balance, and they get it. They question the status quo and then change it. They expect to enjoy their work and will not settle.

Members of this new generation share many of the same goals of previous generations, but they are confident they will succeed where their parents and grandparents failed. Nursing needs these types of individuals. Millennial nurses will take our profession into the future, where health care teams are truly interprofessional. Nurses will no longer be invited into boardrooms as token representatives; they will be equal leaders in writing health policy, achieving scientific discovery, and determining patient care.

When I was a child, we drove to a store that rented videotapes, and we watched movies on our 19-inch analog television. We ordered pizza from a rotary phone, which was mounted on the wall. I remember watching futuristic television programs that portrayed concepts such as video chatting and thinking that maybe that would happen in my lifetime. That day is now. It is time for nursing leaders to stop managing from the past and reflect on how to become the leaders millennials need.

Carrie Sue Halsey, MSN, CNS-AD, RNC-OB, ACNS-BC, is a clinical nurse specialist and natural birth and breastfeeding advocate who resides in Houston, Texas, USA. She teaches childbirth classes for expectant parents and assists mothers with breastfeeding goals. Her experiences as a mother-nurse—of pregnancy, labor, and birth—have made her passionate about perinatal empowerment. To learn more, visit

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