Millennial Lawyers Are Different, Except When They Are Just Like Everyone Else


Mathew CordellBy Matt Cordell

Most demographic experts define the “millennial” generation as those born in or after 1981. The Young Lawyers Division of the NCBA comprises law students, lawyers 36 years old or younger, and lawyers of any age in their first three years of practice.

This means that the Young Lawyers Division is now almost entirely composed of millennials.

          How are millennials supposed to collaborate in the workplace with their older colleagues who presumably are so fundamentally different? At the 2016 NCBA Mentoring Conference earlier this year, the Young Lawyers Division and the Senior Lawyers Division came together to explore this question.

The discussions which followed, and the lessons from nationally recognized experts, were surprising to some.

Conventional wisdom holds that millennials differ dramatically from Gen-Xers, Gen-Yers (if that is still considered a generational group), and baby boomers.   Millennials are routinely labeled as entitled, unfocused, impatient, narcissistic, and lazy as compared to prior generations.

Despite the prevalence of this “wisdom,” there is little evidence to support it.   Studies repeatedly show that millennials and their older counterparts are much more alike than different, and most studies purporting to demonstrate differences between millennials and older generations merely show differences between young people and older people regardless of their generational label.

Researchers from George Washington University and the Department of Defense conducted a meta-analysis of more than 20 studies on the topic and concluded that meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist in the workplace.[1]

Today’s millennials are simply not so different from Gen-Xers in the ’80s and ’90s or the boomers of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Attitudes change with age, and this fact alone explains most of the differences between today’s millennials and their older counterparts.

Some of the stereotypes about millennials, however, do appear to be true: They are generally tech-savvy, place a high value on finding purpose in their work, crave feedback, and want to have robust personal lives outside of work. These characteristics too are probably just aspects of youth rather than attributes unique to a particular generation.

In my opinion, the “vast chasm” between millennials and older lawyers is a myth.   Perhaps the unique aspects of the millennial generation have been exaggerated to sell books and management consulting services. Perhaps the myth is just a convenient excuse for those who are unwilling to make inter-generational relationships work.

Regardless, it is time we all agreed to stop pretending that millennials are a new species (homo millennialis?) whose experience is entirely foreign to other generations.   Inter-generational working relationships can be productive, rewarding, and profitable, and they are not nearly as difficult as we have been led to believe.

This article appears in the November edition of NC Lawyer, published by the NCBA and delivered to all NCBA members.

[1] “Generational Differences in Work-Related Attitudes: A Meta-Analysis,” by David P.  Costanza, Jessica M.  Badger, Rebecca L. Fraser, Jamie B. Severt and Paul A.Gade, Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol.  27, No.  4 (December 2012), pp.  375-394.