Workforce Management

The Most Common Question About Working with Multiple Generations

HR insights and tips with Jeff Havens

Hello, and welcome to another installment of HR Intervention!  I recently delivered my Us vs. Them presentation about generational differences in the workplace to an audience of 250 healthcare professionals.

When I finished (and it went well, nobody fell asleep or threw food at me or anything), I had a couple audience members come up and say the same thing somebody always says after I talk about generational differences in the workplace.

“Hey, Jeff, I’ve got a question for you.  I’ve got this 20-something I work with, and he/she….”

The sentence ends differently each time, but it doesn’t really matter how they finish. The point is, they’ve got an issue with a younger colleague, and they’d like to know what I think they should do about it.

It’s difficult to offer useful advice in an article like this, since I don’t know the particulars of your situation. But since I’ve found myself including the same piece of information in every response to that question, I do think there’s one thing I can tell you that will help.

You might not like this wisdom, but I think it’s the truth, so here goes.


Young people are supposed to annoy you.

There it is.

That’s not true of all of them, of course. Some of them will come into the workplace and immediately “get it,” and you’ll gape in amazement as they shred through every challenge you throw in front of them. But given enough exposure to enough young people, you will inevitably find yourself frustrated by their seemingly infinite capacity to do things wrong.

And why is that? A hundred reasons, actually. It could be because they’re new to the job, don’t know how to do it, need to ask a million questions in order to get up to speed, and you don’t want to answer all those questions.

It could be because they’re insecure – because, you know, everyone has heard the “last hired, first fired” line – and you eventually get sick of that insecurity.

It could be because they have no vested interest in the way your business normally operates and challenge your methods, and you don’t like being challenged.

It could be because they’re young and think they know more than they really do, and you don’t like dealing with ignorant know-it-alls.

It could be because they don’t really want to work but have to pay for their own shelter, and you don’t like working with deadbeats.

And it could be some other quality of youth that runs counter to the ways of age and experience.

The key here is to understand that nothing new is happening here. This is not a millennial thing. This is not an entitlement thing. This is not a “weaned on technology, can’t put their phones down” thing.

This is called being in your 20s.  

And if you don’t believe me, do me a favor and think about the 60s. Did anybody think those kids would grow up to be worth anything?

Nope. As far as the establishment was concerned, every 20-something in the 60s was a lazy, pot-smoking, living-in-a-van hippie, and there are a billion pictures to prove it. Or the kids from the 1970s, the Saturday Night Fever wannabes and Studio 54 acolytes with their horrible outfits and desperate need to dance. Or the grunge kids from the 1990s who intentionally put holes in their own clothes!

And guess what?  They all turned out okay.

Or most of them did. The big challenge is trying to figure out which of your younger employees will eventually figure out how to assimilate and effectively contribute to your organization, and which ones won’t. Some of those Woodstock hippies never stopped being hippies, but most of them grew out of it. The same is true of the young people you work with today.

So stop thinking that we’ve somehow created a new breed of people.

Yes, there are some differences between the world today and the world of 30 and 50 years ago – but people are people, and 20-somethings will be 20-somethings. If that annoys you, try to take solace in the fact that a few decades from now they will be equally as irritated by the 20-somethings they’ll be dealing with.

But also try to remember that most of your younger colleagues are on track to become invaluable members of your team.

Want more advice from Jeff on working with multiple generations? Check out his Us vs. Them webinar on-demand!

Jeff Havens is a speaker, author, and professional development expert who tackles leadership, generational, and professional development issues with an exceptional blend of content and entertainment. He is a contributing writer to Fast Company, Entrepreneur, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal; and has been featured on CNBC and Fox Business. For more information, or to bring Jeff to your next meeting, call 309-306-1781, email, or visit

Speaker, Author and Professional Development Expert