Understanding Millennials

Feb. 13, 2015
Years ago, as a single mom, I often referred to my sons affectionately as "the animals." At six and eight, they were energetic and busy as massive laundry generators and active food disposals.

BYDorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

Years ago, as a single mom, I often referred to my sons affectionately as "the animals." At six and eight, they were energetic and busy as massive laundry generators and active food disposals. Single parenthood had descended upon me like a sack of potatoes, weighing me down and throwing me off balance. But it is said that necessity is the mother of invention ... and I can attest that we do whatever it takes when it comes to providing for our families.

In those years, multitasking for me involved: raising "the animals," maintaining the house and property, working as a clinical hygienist, and running a photography business. I see now that I was living in manic mode. In fact, I lay claim to having founded The Maniac Society, a society which has grown exponentially as working mothers became the societal norm.


Other articles by Garlough


Running a business from our home afforded not only additional needed income for my family, but also enabled me to keep a pulse on what my sons were doing and with whom they were associating. I recognized that their peers would necessarily influence them, and I wanted to know their friends. Therefore, our home became the "go-to" house for my sons' buddies. Many a weekend would pass with two or three extra boys holed up at our home, filling even the queen-size bunk beds to capacity.

Now these boys are young men launching their own careers, starting families, and changing the world with their outlooks, demands, and innovations. The millennials, also referred to as Generation Yers or nexters, were born between 1982 and 2000 and have entered the workforce. By 2025, they will account for three-quarters of the workforce.

The other three generations in the workplace today lack understanding of what makes these youngest workers tick - resulting in chaos, disruption, and anger in many businesses, including dental offices. In order to bridge the gap of the generations, we need to understand each age group and work collaboratively and creatively to tap into each generation's resources and strengths.

The millennials, like all generations, are defined by the time and era in which they live. Millennials grew up in a scary world with the Oklahoma City, Atlanta Summer Olympic, and September 11 attacks; school violence in suburban and rural America; designer drugs; overplanned lives; violent video games; and sexually-charged advertising and technology. Movies, music, TV, social media, and Facebook bombarded their lives every day and still do.

Negative attitudes are not uncommon toward the youngest generation of workers. Many claim - Generation Xers (born 1965-1981), in particular - that millennials are self-absorbed and lazy. They have grown up with affluent baby boomer parents (born 1946-1964), labeled "helicopter parents" for the way that they hovered near their children at all times, ready to swoop in and save them from whatever peril by contacting professors, bosses, and HR to correct grades, salaries, and working conditions.1

This has given rise to millennials having no lack of self-confidence and no hesitation in questioning authority. Infuse this with their facility for technology, and you have a generation on fast-forward in terms of self-esteem. Middle and high school students today collaborate with teachers on how to use technology in the curriculum, thus shaping how and what they learn. They easily create websites and blogs to share information and make their voices heard, and they have instant access to people and information around the world.2 The result is a sense of empowerment that baffles adults who are older and less tech-savvy.

Values of Millennials

Autonomy: Millennials want freedom to pursue their interests and strengths.

Work-life balance: Millennials want meaningful work with time for family.

Collaboration: They value input from others and work well on teams.

Fun: Members of this generation expect work to be punctuated, at least occasionally, with humor and fun.

Technology: Millennials work and live fluidly with technology.

This flip-flop-wearing, iPod-toting, multitasking generation wants to be connected 24/7, much to the baby boomers' and traditionalists' (born before 1946) chagrin. Their priorities are different. Millennials want fun in the dental environment. They want to work with their friends and crave continuous feedback on how they are doing.3 They respond more positively to dentists, office managers, and trainers who present information and requests in a coaching manner, as opposed to a dictatorial way.4

While the media would have us believe these young adults are hopelessly derelict, the evidence points quite clearly to the contrary. Teen arrest, pregnancies, abortions, and drunk-driving accidents are actually down. Overall, millennials are doing better than most adults realize or admit, and the optimistic views of these young people are about to change the workplace and the world. They are the first true cohort of the global citizens. With the arrival of social media, millennials are more connected to the issues of the day. They are the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s, and they are out in record numbers working for social causes - from the environment to poverty. Dental offices that support meaningful causes are more likely to attract these bright, forward-thinking, and energetic "movers and shakers."

I worked clinically alongside a millennial hygienist for years and had an opportunity to mentor her. She was a positive and bright young woman. She realized that my having worked for over a generation in dentistry afforded me knowledge through experience, and I recognized that she could teach me a great deal. Her ease with technology was apparent, and unlike "the animals," who were often impatient when teaching Mom the language of technology, my young colleague and mentee willingly rose to the challenge. Not only was she patient, she was progressive and inventive in her teaching style.

Millennial hygienists recognize that technology will lead to best practices in dentistry today. If their operatories are not equipped with piezos, lasers, intraoral cameras, and computers with software for treatment planning, scheduling, treatment input, and voice-activated periodontal screening exams, they are quick to point out their inability to deliver optimum care. They dream of tablets in the operatory, loaded with multitudes of downloadable educational materials to assist them in educating their patients. They prefer texting for appointment confirmation and question the status quo of not having an online appointment booking system. Educationally, they prefer online and interactive learning to traditional lecture styles. Fueled by their facility for technology, they are positioned to learn anytime, anywhere.

A refreshing twist to millennials is their appreciation of others' perspectives. They were raised to participate in team sports and group activities and therefore value teamwork. Members of this no-person-left-behind generation are loyal and committed. They want to be included and involved. They seek diversity, inclusiveness, collaboration, and feedback.

This generation does not want to join The Maniac Society that I founded years ago. They want a work-life balance. They know that fulfilling work in dentistry or another profession is one element in a happy life. In addition to a challenging work life, they want a home life. While older generations may view this attitude as narcissistic or lacking commitment, millennials have a different vision of workplace expectations and prioritize family over work.

My generation parented the millennials, and I can't help but ask myself, "How did we do?" It would seem that "the animals" and the other young people that I know are a force to be reckoned with ... a positive force. They not only have the energy of youth, but they have the passion to drive change. They are smart, have fresh ideas, and care deeply about global improvement. With all the negatives in the world today, this generation offers hope. They are proactive in living their lives with purpose, and driving meaningful causes is part of their formula for a better world.

I look forward to seeing the world they create! RDH


1. Zemke R, Raines C, Filipczak B. Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, Xers, and nexters in your workplace. New York, NY: AMACOM. 1999.

2. Martin CA, Tulgan B. Managing the generation mix: From opportunity to urgency. 2nd edition. Amherst, MA: HRD Press Inc. 2006.

3. Achievers. Class of 2014: Your next generation of top talent. 2014. http://go.achievers.com/rs/iloverewards/images/Achievers_WP_Classof2014_v2.pdf

4. Gattari T. Gen X, Gen Y, & baby boomers: Their values & characteristics. http://www.producersesource.com/featured-bottom-right/gen-x-gen-y-baby-boomers-their-values-characteristics/4/#sthash:5jzeBWt4.dpuf

Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] .