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A Gen X Perspective of the Working Millennial

Today’s post comes from Dan Coates, President of Ypulse. As President of a youth market research company and father of two Millennials, Dan has plenty of experience with this generation. Below, he gives his perspective on what Millennials are really like to work with and gives them some advice to help guide their way.


No matter what generation you belong to, you’ll never forget your first job.  That time when there is nothing but potential and possibilities.  You’re young, energetic, determined and the simple fact is that, at this early juncture, hopes outnumber disappointments.  Freshly minted.  Bright eyed.

While we X’ers and Boomers like to tease, the fact of the matter is that we’re all jealous as hell.  While experience is merely a by-product of age, youth is fleeting and those of us that let it slip away unnoticed realize that we’re never getting it back. Less than a quarter of our organization is comprised of non-Millennials. 

We X’ers would love to tell you how awful it was when we entered the workplace, but it’s hard not to see that, following the great recession, you Millennials have been dealt a pretty dirty hand.  Try to think of this as more of a temporary setback than a defining moment. 

While I’d strongly recommend Lindsay Pollack’s book, Getting from College to Career as great advice on how to get your first job and Neil Howe and Reena Nadler’s Millennials in the Workplace as a primer for where your generation fits in, here’s some inter-generational advice as to what to consider once you’ve gotten in the door:

1. It’s Not About You:  I know, I know.  You’re really focused on you right now.  Totally understandable.  You’ve spent years learning and studying.  You want to flex those muscles.  You have student loans to pay off and expenses to manage.  The reality is that what you need is going to happen after what the company you work for gets what it needs.  In the case of Ypulse, we have to get new clients.  We have to make them really, really happy.  We have to make sure that what we earn is greater than what we spend.   As focused as we are on youth and your generation, we won’t do anyone any good if we cease to be.  In the end, our company’s focus is on survival, then growth, then reaching the highest possible ground where the fewest possible threats can be made to our collective existence.  As the person who is ultimately responsible for Ypulse’s survival, I’ve made many, many tough decisions on who stays and who goes based on sustaining our existence.

2. It’s Not About Us Either: I’ll admit it, some of your new colleagues are going to be pretty self-centered as well.  They’ll focus on what your arrival, your skills and your progress might mean to them.  You can tell who the true leaders are by figuring out whether someone thinks of the company first or themselves first.  You’ll be far better off aligning behind those who map toward the bigger picture.  Millennials are good at separating authenticity from spin, so follow your instincts on this one, they’ll serve you very well.

3. Be Passionate: I’ve never worked in government and, unlike many of my colleagues, the largest firm I ever worked for topped out at 1,500 staff.  That being said, in the more than 20 years that I’ve been in the workplace, I’ve never seen someone with sincere passion for a cause (that wasn’t flawed by selfish interests) lose the war.  A battle here or there, maybe, but being pure of heart and committed to your cause will never fail you.  If it ever does, I’d say this: an honorable defeat trumps a shallow victory.  Moreover, all of those that I’ve met who have defied gravity and launched into the stratosphere were powered by passion.  Millennials were born to dream, so you should be uniquely qualified to make great things happen.

4. Check Your Parents at the Door: We’ve heard the stories and, unfortunately, they’re true.  We negotiated the terms of our first Millennial hire with that person’s mom.  Granted, she was a labor lawyer and imminently qualified, but the rest of us can get a little spooked by helicopter parents.  I’m a father of two Millennials.  I’d like to help them as much as I possibly can, but if I ever thought that I was actually hurting their chances by leaning in too far, I’d back off immediately.  The workplace is definitely that place.  Most of those in higher education would argue that the thin red line is crossed as you arrive on campus, but I can say unequivocally that once you start your career, you should definitely take the lead.  Call them to vent.  Call them for advice.  Don’t ever let them call me … I’ll think less of you for it.

5. Focus versus Balance: An early mentor of mine told me that the second most sacred thing that I had to offer to the world, after the love that I’d give to those around me, was my work.  Work has been my touchstone and the companion that has never let me down.  I may get a call from a thousand shrinks for saying this, but work is my therapy.  Bad relationships, the loss of loved ones and a divorce were all tempered by my ability to just focus down into a moment of calm, focused work.  I totally get the notion of work-life balance.  I’d say that I bring as much energy to my personal pursuits as my professional ones.  I will say that the ability to turn off all of the feeds and tweets and messages in order to simply ‘produce’ is what I see differentiating our Millennial staff moving forward.  We’re a small team and there’s no backwater corner of our firm where being unproductive isn’t readily apparent.  I love my friends.  I love my family.  But work is the one thing that is truly mine and that I’ll always be able to look back upon and proudly proclaim: “I did that”.

6. The Journey Never Ends: I can’t tell you how many times I felt that the game was over.  The times when I felt like I couldn’t possibly experience anything better.  The times when I’d made a massive mistake and realized that I’d have a tough time ordering toilet paper for the company, much less taking on a leadership role.  I kept a small startup going until that third and final mortgage payment due notice (the one they print on pink paper) arrived, convincing me that it was finally time to pack it in and go get a job.  My new colleagues were shocked when I’d snarl ‘lunch is for losers’ … the reality is that I couldn’t afford to buy lunch until my first paycheck arrived.  Highs and lows are relative and I can say that the journey is the reward.  You get better at spotting the brick walls.  You learn to trust your intuition.  Even when you feel like you can’t skate as fast as you used to, you realize that your powers of anticipation put you in a better position to score.  My advice to your generation is simple: dare to dream, give it your all, never give in and treat it like the awesome adventure that it is.


Dan Coates

Dan started his career twenty years ago as a data analyst in Vancouver, Canada’s most beautiful city. Abandoning the idyllic pleasures of the Pacific Northwest, Dan has since lived and worked in Toronto, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Dallas, and now New York. While Dan has worked for big companies such as SPSS (now IBM) Burke, The Angus Reid Group (now IPSOS-Reid) and Millward Brown, his passion lies in bringing new businesses to life. To date Dan has been a founder of three companies: Planetfeedback (now Nielsen Buzzmetrics), Eppointments, and SurveyU as well as an early participant in Polimetrix (now YouGov USA) and Globalpark (now QuestBack). He wakes up every morning, eager to see Ypulse reach its full potential.