With 55 million millennials now forming the largest contingent in the U.S. workforce, it’s no wonder companies are clamoring for advice on how to attract and retain members of this tech-savvy generation.
But it’s important to remember there are other people in the workforce, too. Lots, actually. Generation X, at nearly 53 million strong, still has decades to go on the job (and are actually more likely to found a startup than millennials), and 44 million Baby Boomers are still showing up to work every day.
Building my own startup, I’ve learned the hard way that millennial tunnel vision comes at a cost. Early on, our company, Nestio, was powered almost exclusively by youthful enthusiasm, Red Bull and adrenaline. It was enough to get us off the ground, as we launched a totally new platform for marketing and leasing apartments. But, eventually we hit a wall. The limits of our experience meant we were constantly reinventing the wheel as we worked to scale up.
We needed people who had been down this road before and knew the curves waiting ahead. For other startups struggling with the same issues, here’s a look at why thinking outside the millennial box when hiring can make all the difference.
The overlooked perks older employees bring
While millennial workers are energetic, hard-working digital natives, we are all, myself included, limited by our lack of time spent on Planet Earth. In short, we just don’t know what we don’t know. People who’ve seen the startup movie play out before -- with both happy and not-so-happy endings -- bring some key strengths to the table:
- They can flag potential opportunities -- and pitfalls: My own blind spots came into sharp focus when our CFO, Scott Wolfgang, a Gen X’er, came on board. Not only could Scott run circles around me when it came to building financial plans, he helped me realize the potential danger in making even simple-seeming decisions. Take choosing software, for example. It might seem like a small detail, but making a wrong move there can cost a company dearly in productivity and revenue. It’s not a sexy topic, but confronting it with Scott's help has saved me hours -- months even -- of headaches.
- They don’t just believe in the vision, they know how to get you there: There’s a reason Facebook tapped Gen X’er Sheryl Sandberg, 46, as COO, and Hootsuite founder Ryan Holmes stacked his leadership team with players more than a few years his senior. Advancing your startup from Point A to Point B takes more than hard work and energy. It all has to be channeled in the right direction. Veteran employees with more years under their belts tend to know which steps to take to ensure you’ll meet that milestone that's months or even years down the road. Whether it’s coaching younger hires, delegating day-to-day tasks with confidence or building internal systems that can scale, veteran employees' ability to break down the big picture into achievable chunks is an invaluable skill.
- They invest on a deeper level: Simply put, more seasoned workers often have more to lose than millennials. The Gen X’ers on my team have partners, mortgages and kids. For them, retirement is a visible point on the horizon, not an abstract concept looming in a distant future. If the company goes bust, they can’t just crash on Mom’s couch, or backpack around Europe while waiting for the next job to come their way. And that reality shows in everything they do, from the questions they ask about a risky move, to the fact that they’re more likely to be available after hours or on weekends.
Challenges to a multigenerational workforce
It’s clear that experienced staffers bring tremendous value. But what’s often overlooked is that they also bring very different needs and desires compared to millennials. Ignoring those differences can lead to serious issues, and getting this multigenerational dynamic right is anything but child’s play.
According to a report from the Incentive Research Foundation, different generations require different rewards and recognition at work. While millennials are happy to receive praise publicly in the form of a shout-out at a group meeting or a glowing Tweet, Gen X’ers I know prefer praise to be delivered in a more low-key way, such as a simple thanks in an email or a private conversation.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, while millennials are motivated by instantaneous and tangible perks -- hence the stocked beer fridges and foosball tables that have become the norm in startup headquarters -- veteran workers are more concerned with substantive offerings. Endless craft beer doesn’t mean much to them if you don’t have a decent health insurance package and a healthy 401(k).
Then there’s the challenge of convincing more seasoned workers to join a youth-driven startup in the first place. While many of our younger hires are bought into the dream of revolutionizing the real estate space from day one, older team members often need to see some hard proof of where we’re headed before getting on board. The hiring process for our CFO, CRO and VP of Sales -- all Gen X’ers -- was more like a courtship. I had to build my relationship with them over months, or even years, and earn their trust by providing the data that showed our company wasn’t just about dreaming big, it was capable of delivering that dream.
In the end, the advantages of having a multigenerational workforce vastly outweigh any challenges. I’ve seen some of my youngest and oldest employees, with about 20 years separating them, come together to build new systems that simply wouldn’t have been possible without that cross-generational exchange. When you can harness the energy of youth and pair that with the perspective that comes with a little experience, the results are often greater than the sum of the parts.