spiral staircase at the vatican museum

Millennials: Generational Differences

by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17

Remember Lindsey Pollak, the Sophomore Symposium keynote speaker on leadership for Millennials back in 2014? If you don’t remember her or didn’t even come to Champlain yet, Pollak is a leading expert on the Millennial generation, and she’s worked as an official ambassador for LinkedIn. At the conclusion of her keynote address, she gave free copies of her then-new book, Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders to all the students who pre-registered for the Sophomore Symposium.

I happened to be one of the students who received a free copy of her book. Confession time: I haven’t read it. Or at least, I hadn’t until now, two years later. I wanted to read it but could never seem to find the time when there was always more pressing things to read or work on. Finally I decided to make use of the free book, which has great information in it, and to do so by reading and summarizing it in this blog so that others can get the advice without having to read the entire book. So, without further delay, let’s learn about leadership for the next generation (that’s us).

Sophomore Symposium Champlain College Lindsey Pollak millennials

At the 2014 Sophomore Symposium, Lindsey Pollak’s audience holds up the free copies of her book they received.

So, What is a Leader?

According to Pollak, a leader is “someone who has influence over others, with or without formal authority.” Anyone can be a leader, and the most important thing to remember is that “leadership begins on the inside with the way you approach the world and your desire to make a difference.”

How Has Leadership Changed Over Time?

There are some rules of leadership that will never change. Certain qualities – Pollak lists confidence, intelligence, ethics, charisma, presence, and drive – will always be important for leaders. It’s always a good idea to learn from professionals at the end of their careers, which is the perspective most career books are written from. However, it’s also important to hear from professionals who are just starting their careers like you are, or are about to be. So many things in our world are changing quickly, and leadership styles will have to adapt. Below are three major changes that our generation – millennials – will face as we become leaders.

Demographic Revolution

63.3% of current American executives will be eligible to retire in the next five years, leaving a massive vacancy in top leadership positions. On the same hand, by 2020, Millennials will make up 50% of the American workforce. According to Pollak, this means “the baby boomer attitudes, leadership styles, and management practices that have dominated American business and culture for the past several decades will give way to millennial preferences.” These trends are even more noticeable in countries like China, where the workforce is already made up of predominately millennial workers.

Major takeaway: “Becoming the boss in a time of demographic change means that you will need to build your skills in communicating with, and managing, people of multiple generations who have different expectations and different styles of working.”


If you haven’t already heard, it’s very likely that the millennial generation will be leaders during America’s shift away from global economic dominance as countries like China and India shift into center stage. The US has had the largest global economy since the 1920s, but China will take that title by 2030. This change will also affect European economic dominance, as fewer European nations make the list of the top twenty largest economies. What this means is that Americans and millennial leaders will have to adapt to a new economic reality that means achieving a middle-class life will be more expensive than ever. College tuition has surged 1,120% since 1978, triple the rate of inflation, and medical expenses have been increased 601% in the same amount of time.

Major takeaway: “You are becoming the boss in what some economists call a ‘post-employment- economy, in which companies can function and thrive without hiring as many workers or paying them as highly as in the past. From 2000 to 2010, when millennials entered the workforce, median household incomes fell for the first time since World War II. For the next several years at least, you’ll likely need to learn how to lead within the confines of a limited budget and a limited number of employees, both of which may become the new norm.”

Technological Revolution

Millennials are no stranger to technology that advances rapidly without looking back, and this trend will continue into the future. As an example of how massive technology has become, and how widely used it is, consider that if Facebook were a country, it’d be the third largest nation in the world. Even more shocking – for the wrong reasons – is that 45% of American jobs are in jeopardy of being replaced by technology in the next twenty years. It will be critical for you as a leader to keep up with current technological trends and developments, learn how to oversee employees virtually, and keep current with new methods of communication and the etiquette that goes with them.

Generational Characteristics

Though you may not think of yourself as being part of a generation, there are benefits to understanding that you are part of a larger group of people who were raised with similar values and the same time as you. It can help you understand why one of your co-workers, an elderly man nearing retirement, thinks so differently than you do, and has different methods for getting the same work done. This is the first time in American history where four generations are sharing the workplace at one time. Here are the four generations and general characteristics/attitudes of each, which by no means includes everything or describes everyone.


Born from 1922 to 1945, with 50 million living in the American population.

Traditionalists are considered to be loyal, cautious, formal, and proud according to Pollak. They are the GI or WWII generation because half of the men in this generation served in the armed forces. Most traditionalists are retired by now, but the military structure of many organizations is their lasting legacy along with suits and ties. Traditionalists are survivors of the Great Depression, making many of them frugal and cautious about taking risks. They expected to go into the workforce, steadily climb the ladder with the same company, and retire after forty years.

Baby Boomers

Born from 1946 to 1964; 76 million living in the American population.

Baby boomers went in the opposite direction than their traditionalist parents went, and they grew up in a postwar boom time. They are described by Pollak as being optimistic, self-focused, competitive, and forever young. American dominance was the norm growing up, and rock ‘n’ roll was getting its start, as was suburbia. Baby boomers were the first generation to have TV, and as a result, they were the first to have a mass culture, which led to mass marketing,¬†which then turned the boomers into mass consumers. Baby boomers are the generation responsible for the civil rights and women’s rights movements, which both expanded the job market and also created new competition as more diverse peoples began taking jobs that were traditionally held by white men. All baby boomers are over the age of 50 now, and will likely be in the work force for years to come thanks in part to the global recession that damaged many people’s retirement plans.

Generation X

Born from 1965 to 1981; 46 million living in the American population.

champlain college sophomore symposium lindsey pollak millennials

Lindsey Pollak speaking at the 2014 Champlain College Sophomore Symposium.

According to Pollak, gen Xers are independent, skeptical, and pioneers of technology, generally speaking. Many gen Xers are children of the divorce boom that happened between their baby boomer parents. Generation x is the smallest part of the workforce today. Their parents both worked as children, and they grew up taking care of themselves from a young age. They had microwaves and videogames for the first time. The 1970s and 1980s were not all fun and games as disco and rock ‘n’ roll music would have you believe, and gen Xers grew up in a time of AIDS, drug addiction, and urban poverty. Generation X is often overshadowed by the baby boomer generation because their numbers are so much smaller. Pollak guesses that most gen Xers will never rise to fill the leadership positions that are about to be vacated by traditionalists and baby boomers, and she doesn’t think we’ll ever see a president from generation X. We’ll have to stay tuned to see if she’s correct.

Millennials (Generation Y)

Born 1982 to 2000; 80 million living in the American population.

Pollak describes our generation as being self-expressive, group oriented, global, and technology dependent. We are the children of younger baby boomers, and we are an even larger group than they were thanks to new immigration policies and economic improvements. We’re known for the way we were parented: our parents were our best friends, and were heavily involved in our lives (again, a generalization). We’re a generation of digital natives – the first global generation, in fact – and we’re often more natural with technology than we are with face-to-face interactions. Our global connections made possible by technology generally make us more open to diverse peoples and different viewpoints.

“61 percent of millennials are worried about the state of the world and feel personally responsible for making a difference.” ~ Cone Millennial Cause Study, 2012

Millennial Shaming

Many people from other generations criticize us for being lazy and entitled, wanting constant feedback, and thinking we deserve a trophy for our efforts. Of course, our behaviors can be traced back to the way we were raised, and Pollak calls all this negativity “millennial shaming.” It’s something we have to be aware of in the work force, because many people have pre-conceived ideas about who we are.

  • 82% of millennials rated themselves as being loyal to their employers, but only 1% of Human Resources professionals thought their youngest employees would stay for long.
  • 86% of millennials rated themselves as being hard workers, but only 11% of Human Resources professionals agreed with that.
  • 40% of millennials think they can be leaders, but only 9 percent of Human Resources professionals agreed.

Ouch! What this all means is that you might have to work a little harder to prove these stereotypes wrong if you want to become a leader in the workplace.

In part two, we’ll look at a list of leadership texts you should know about if you want to be taken seriously by those who have come before you.

Sources: Becoming the Boss by Lindsey Pollak; find more information about Pollak here.