Millennial workplace matters made easy

Wondering what the deal is with those mercurial millennials? Gabrielle Jackson Bosché has the answers.

Photo by James Kim

When’s the last time you blamed something on a millennial? Admit it—it probably wasn’t that long ago. Heck, it might have been as recent as this morning while you wondered when your favorite coffee shop started serving avocado toast or last night when your new employee sent you a work email at 10:30 p.m.

Like every generation, this often misunderstood crop has become a favorite scapegoat for those who came before them—in this case, baby boomers and Generation X. But Gabrielle Jackson Bosché, president and founder of The Millennial Solution and best-selling author of 5 Millennial Myths: The handbook for managing and motivating Millennials and The Millennial Entrepreneur: Side-hustlers, Startups and Disrupters Restarting America, says this cohort of kids born between 1982 and 2002 (give or take) shouldn’t be dismissed as merely being a crew of flighty, social media-obsessed narcissists.

“Everyone has an opinion about millennials,” says the 29-year-old Sterling resident. “They’re either the best generation or the worst generation, depending on who you’re talking to and how much they like their kids. We distance ourselves from the next generation by thinking, ‘I would never talk that way or say that thing or dress that way.’ And that’s the way the older generation talked about you.”

Bosché isn’t just speaking anecdotally—she has turned the generational wars into a career, working through her company to thoroughly research and identify ways corporations can hire, retain and train the large swath of millennial Americans who are already flooding the workplace. In fact, The Millennial Solution’s website touts such clients as Audi, The Catholic University of America, PNC Bank, Honeywell, Northrop Grumman and Inova Health System.

“The top challenge we’re brought in to help with is job retention,” says Bosché, who adds that millennials in the D.C. area leave a job within 11 months, on average. “It’s one of the shortest turnaround times in the country. There’s so much opportunity here; we’ve been fairly shielded from the past recession; and the typical person who comes to the area is a Type A personality with a competitive nature.”

That last trait sounds a lot like Bosché herself, which would explain how she turned a college curiosity into a successful career.

According to Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, Bosché’s former professor and adviser during her time at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California, the entrepreneur’s interest in generational studies took shape while she was still a college student. As a public policy major and theology minor—“the two things you’re not supposed to talk about at Thanksgiving dinner,” Bosché jokes—she wrote three term papers about young people and focused her senior thesis on millennial voting patterns.

“I encouraged her to keep working on that subject because she seemed to be very passionate about it,” says Samuel-Burnett, a Gen Xer who served as the department chair and taught several of Bosché’s classes. “It was something that could be a real focus for her future work.”

Like everyone, Samuel-Burnett has opinions about millennials. And like many of Bosché’s colleagues and confidantes, Samuel-Burnett seems to be more comfortable with and hopeful about a future shaped by millennials. “One of the key things is understanding that millennials have a ‘both/and’ philosophy,” she observes. “Unlike older generations, they can merge them a little bit better. … They recognize that everything doesn’t always have to be in one box. The environmental issue doesn’t have to be a left issue, it can be a left and right issue. That’s one of the ways we’re seeing progress.”

Samuel-Burnett says her former student had many qualities that served as a natural foundation for Bosché’s success—qualities that are quickly apparent to anyone who talks with the friendly and energetic millennial. “There are many college students that have capacities and potentials, but there aren’t that many who know what they want to do with their lives,” says Samuel-Burnett. “She has a strong base both in her family and education, [and] a second motivation is herself, her personality, this built-in thing she has—ambitious and industrious. In college, that put her ahead of the game in many instances. She’s so motivated and has that clear picture of where she wants to go.”

Bosché agrees that her time at the university fostered her obsession with figuring out how to make different generations work together better. “That was when I fell in love with generational theory and understanding who my generation was,” she says. “And, quite frankly, weaving through the stereotypes surrounding it.”

She also says she was inspired by often being the youngest person in the room, the one doomed to answer the perennial question of “What’s wrong with your generation?” Bosché found herself regularly in the position of defending millennials. Debunking and providing context surrounding those stereotypes motivated her to publish her first book, 5 Millennial Myths, in 2014. (She later released The Millennial Entrepreneur in 2016.)

The book led to an obvious next step in starting her own company about four years ago. “I had been attending different conferences and doing different talks, and everyone wanted to talk about millennials—but they usually weren’t millennials,” she says. Bosché credits her success in part to “the personal experience of being a millennial, marrying the research side with the application side delivered in a way that’s authentic because of who we are and what we represent.”

What partly explains how Bosché became the bridge—maybe even the lifeline—between her generation and those that came before, is that this young daughter of baby boomers is basically the walking embodiment of the “both/and” philosophy to which Samuel-Burnett alludes. As a Christian and Republican, Bosché bucks the stereotype of those who think millennials are automatically anti-faith and liberal. In a way, she says, part of this journey started with the question of how she could square her generation with who she was.

“The three aren’t at odds,” she says of being a millennial Christian Republican. “I started to realize how beautifully they all reconcile themselves in me. It’s a myth that millennials don’t want to have faith or join a faith community, but what really turns them off—whether it’s a faith or party or any organization — is a lack of authenticity. Those are principles I help leaders understand about our generation: If you want them to trust you, they have to like you. And if you want them to like you, they have to become more like us.”

She credits the fact that her mother had her at the age of 42 and generally treated her like a small adult with her ability to walk the line between generations. “I’ve always had a good relationship with people who are older than me,” she says.

Her anachronistic tendencies perhaps even explain how Bosché ended up married to someone who describes himself as being the opposite of a millennial. “I am less like a millennial than you would probably find,” says Brian Bosché, 29. “My wife would agree, too, that I’m more likely to pick up the phone and call someone than text.” But Gabrielle is quick to jump in and point out that he also once “quit his job as a journalist to move down to Florida to work on a startup that lasted about a year.” Plus, they met on Facebook—a very millennial thing to do.

Married for two years, the former head of an e-learning company called 60-Day Solutions recently signed up to serve as COO of The Millennial Solution. “Honestly, we’ve been working together since we got married,” he says. “Sometimes, it was on a per-project basis. We’ve really worked as a team growing both businesses, and now we’re growing one business.”

Brian says a typical day for the couple mirrors that of anyone who works in an office. The two make sure to spend dedicated face-to-face time each morning and evening to gather their thoughts, and the hours in between might be filled with working in their two home offices or meeting offsite or through Zoom, a video conferencing service, with clients and employees. And while the nature of owning your own business means every day is different, Brian says they both thrive on structure.

“Both of us pride ourselves on being proactive business people,” he says. “It’s hard to be a visionary when you’re a reactionary to what everybody else wants you to do, [so] we map out everything when we do any sort of project. There’s structure behind the madness.”

Gabrielle Bosché is not only a pioneer in the field of intergenerational dialog, she’s also busy creating more experts by training folks around the country to do what she does. Dr. Jeremy Graves is a trainer, coach and millennial strategist who works with Bosché. The Gen Xer is a professor at Boise State University who achieved certification from The Millennial Solution last year. Since then, he has used his teaching background to strengthen the curriculum.

“I said, ‘I think we need a more robust look at this,’” he says of the training component. “We changed it to add hands-on pieces, assessments, rubrics, a presentation.”

“It clones me,” adds Bosché, “whether they’re companies that certify HR people internally or coaches and trainers who want to present on the materials.”

She’s also currently very excited about a yearlong research project expected to be released this summer on how to pique millennial interest in trade and manufacturing jobs. As the daughter of a roofer, it didn’t take long for her to notice that industries typically referred to as “blue collar” were having a tough time recruiting and retaining the next generation of talent.

“It’s really the heartbeat of our economy,” she says. “Whether it’s the men and women building houses or building our sewage system or assembling a car, this is what our economy was built on. … Millennials are really well-positioned for these jobs because they pay very well, they’re incredibly fulfilling and they’re very tangible.”

Randy Wolken, the president and CEO of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York and the president of the Manufacturers Alliance of New York, was desperate for insight on how to hire and keep millennials when he saw Bosché speak last fall.

“I’m a boomer, I lead organizations primarily led by boomers and we have a whole lot to learn about intergenerational dialog,” he says. “What’s fascinating [is that] she’s not talking about some distant future, she’s talking about today. I already have companies that are 50 percent millennials. … We’ve got hundreds if not thousands of job openings, and these are great-paying jobs—and millennials are going to be the ones who are going to have to fill them.”

Some changes he’s implemented since hearing Bosché’s talk include hiring more millennials on his own staff and talking to other boomers about how they can better understand the younger generation. For instance, he points out that even though the millennial career trajectory sometimes differs greatly from that of a traditional baby boomer, there’s still much to be gained by hiring them. “They may not have a linear path of experience—[instead spending] five years doing this, 10 years doing this—but those experiences are just as valuable as someone who has spent many years in your industry. In fact, since millennials are your customers, they might have more relevance for your company.”

Wolken encourages hesitant boomers to “pause, listen and try to understand.” And while many of them get it, that doesn’t make the necessary changes any easier.

“We have to think about our job descriptions; we have to expand the opportunities that are available if we want to hire and keep them,” he says. “They learn differently and live differently and work differently, and that’s something we boomers have to learn. … They’re looking for work-life integration, not work-life balance.”

On the flip side, Wolken says, he’s learned much from his millennial employees—including how to lighten up a bit. “If it’s not fun, they won’t be doing it for long,” he says of millennials. “They’re teaching me that I have to have passion for my work and I have to enjoy it. … The world is changing around us, and we’d better change with it.”

He’s also learned that millennials and boomers work together better when the elder generation leans more on discourse than on sermons. “When you’re having a dialog, it’s a whole lot more fun than dad giving a lecture,” he says. “We have to have conversations. It’s not a one-way speech.”

Bosché says becoming greener is another way old-school industries can speak to her generation, since they typically prefer jobs that offer a sense of global responsibility in making the world a better place.

Another vocation benefiting from the Bosché treatment is law firms and the legal career field, which she’s also studying. Her research so far reveals that millennials graduating from law school balk at the idea of the traditional partner track, often quitting law firms after about a year.

“They said to themselves, ‘I don’t want to spend seven years working so hard to get my name on a door,’” she observes. “They have different expectations for what work means to them. So, these patriarchal industries that really rely on employees joining and following the rules are being fundamentally threatened by a new generation.”

And now to answer the question you’ve been asking yourself since the beginning: So, what is up with those millennials? While it’s impossible to stuff years of research conducted by Bosché and her team into a tiny sound bite, she is obviously quite used to answering this question.

“There are really three reasons millennials are a unique generation,” she says. “First and foremost: technology, which has really changed the game as far as how each generation interacts with each other. Millennials are also a very global generation, and that’s led by technology, but we have this citizen-of-the-world mentality that other generations didn’t have access to. The third is our need for speed, so what some call our short attention span, it’s really us expecting the world to move as quickly as our internet connection.”

And while many are quick to roll their eyes and mutter, “Ugh, millennials,” each time they hear about someone quitting a job via text message or wanting to take off for the beach on Tuesday but work on Saturday, it’s important to note that this sometimes infuriating generation wasn’t formed in a vacuum.

Wolken, the president of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, was confronted with this uncomfortable reality when he heard Bosché speak. “Gabrielle said boomers oftentimes have a negative idea of what the millennial generation is, and it struck me that the millennial generation are my kids,” he says. “I raised them this way. They learned from me, and they want more. We need to remind boomers that this is the generation you raised. ‘Reach for the stars, you can do anything’—these are things we said to our kids and this is the generation we’re hiring.”

Bosché also notes that baby boomers weren’t the only elders who had a profound influence on her peers.

“We wouldn’t even have the audacity to expect to work from home if it wasn’t for Gen X, especially Gen X women,” she says. “Baby boomer women were all about working just as hard as the guys and never letting them see you cry. Millennials have witnessed Gen X demand a more balanced lifestyle. Gen X started to ask for that in their 30s after they had kids and sort of earned that right. Millennials are asking for that in their 20s.”

And if this next bit of insight from Bosché doesn’t hit a little too close to home, give yourself a pat on the back for being a truly enlightened individual: “Parents are always trying to make their kids’ lives better than theirs were, but something happens when we enter the workplace where the opposite happens—we want it to be harder for the next generation.”

Hopefully, Bosché’s work will help change that too—and not just in the workplace.

“I love helping companies retain millennials,” she says, “but my two favorite things that ever happen is when a millennial comes up to me and says I help them understand themselves better, or when a parent comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you so much. You help me understand my kid better.’”

(March 2018)