Millennials & iGen -- The Canary in the Coal mine?

The expression "Canary in the coal mine" originated from the use of canaries as warning signals to miners when entering mine shafts. If methane or carbon monoxide levels in the mine, were high enough, the canary would die--signaling the gases were at levels levels to hazardous to humans. While miners no longer use canaries as their warning system, the expression continues to be used as a metaphor for warnings of impending danger.

As I work with multi-generational workplaces, I can't help but ask the question, "what if Millennials and iGen are the canaries in the workplace?" Those who belong (at least by age) to the millennial generation were raised in a culture different from those who created business structures years ago. The fact that Millennials tend not to stick around in the job if they don't like it may be their way of sounding the alarm to the danger that exists if shifts aren't made.



Not a day goes by when the topic of Millennials in the workplace doesn't come up. Whether working with organizations, at a networking event, in the grocery store or in the stands at a high school sporting event--the statements are almost always the same. "What do we do with Millennials? They don't know how to work--They switch jobs often, They question what we do --They want to be president within six months of being on the job," and so on.

I challenge you to hang with me for a moment and consider a different set of questions:

1. What if Millennials, unlike their predecessors, just won't accept workplace practices which don't allow employees to bring their entire selves to work?  

Why wouldn't Millennials (and now iGen too) expect to question? They were the first generation to be encouraged to ask questions, regardless of the position of authority (including their parents). They were also the first generation of children to be included in making family decisions. The generations prior to Millennials were raised just the opposite -- never question authority, even if you know the person is wrong. When looked at with this lens, rather than saying Millennials don't want to work, isn't it more accurate to say the culture surrounding the workplace today is different than the culture which existed when Baby Boomers and Gen X were entering the workforce?

If our workplaces refuse to recognize this shift, didn't we set Millennials up? Without shifting workplace culture, the message to Millennials is clear, "Ask questions until you get to the workplace, then become complacent."  

2. What if Millennials have the opportunity to work smarter, not harder because of the accelerated pace of technology?  

As a developer of people, it would concern me more if Millennials wanted to work exactly like we did fifteen to twenty years ago. Baby Boomers were the primary designer of our workplace systems, based on the technologies available at the time--largely, TV, radio, early-stage Internet and the large PC Computer. In 2017, we can't even count on all our fingers and all our toes (in case you are not good at math, that's 20) the disruptive technologies developed just in the last 5-7 years.

Millennials (and iGen, just now entering the workplace) grew up in and are living in a very different world than their three living predecessor generations. With tools at their fingertips 24/7 (Internet, laptops, smart phones) they can streamline their work and access it anywhere. Prior to widespread access of the Internet and Wi-Fi, being "at work" was more precise and tangible to measure.

The assumption that Millennials don't know how to work just because they don't want to do it the way we've always done it is counterproductive and undermines any possibility of working together effectively. We should be celebrating the fact that they don't. If we want the businesses of the past to exist in the future, we need people who are adaptable, willing to try new things and  ask the questions necessary to ensure the relevancy of how and why we do the things we do.

3. What if the real shift came from the role businesses play in the development of their employees? 

It used to be that business took responsibility for the role of training employees on technology. If a person started a job and didn't have experience in Excel or Word, the business happily trained the employee on that. No questions asked. Today, if employees walk in the door without professional and interpersonal skills,  education systems and families frequently get the blame for not doing their jobs. Have any other aspects of businesses shifted? Why not in this area? 

It used to be critical thinking, reasoning and long-term planning skills were organically taught, through day-to-day tasks (before technology took those over), within the family (one parent was almost always home) or naturally through arts and cultural programs within the school day (funding for many of those programs have been cut). Schools now teach technology and incorporate it into nearly every subject. If they didn't, we would tell them they are failing our youth. Schools didn't get to drop any core subjects, gain revenue or gain more time in the classroom to accomplish it. Again, today's realities are different. We must recognize the shifts that have taken place in our culture and re-align the roles and responsibilities of the organizations within our society to ensure they are being covered. We all play a role and we all may need to adjust our roles to get the job done.

It is from this lens that I believe generational conflict is merely an easily recognized symptom (the pain point) within organizations but the drivers of that conflict have more to do with the cultural realities of today's society than it does with how Millennials are ruining our workplaces.

What if we are asking the wrong questions and focusing on the area of the organization and workplace that needs to change the least? Existing workplace culture issues become obvious when Millennials and iGens enter and disrupt the status quo (thus, the canary).


1. Don't let your first thought be your last thought. Ensure your organization doesn't stop with the generational stereotypes and gains opportunities for new perspectives and insight development. 

2. Shift your organization’s attention away from generational conflict and toward understanding today's cultural realities  surrounding our organizations, including: 

  • Four generations in the workplace at once, six generations alive at once
  • The accelerated pace of disruptive technology creation and adoption,
  • Globalization and the diversity of the United States. For iGens born after 2009, it is the first time ever the majority of the United States population is comprised of people of color with the minority being Caucasian. 

**Disclaimer: My comments are in no way a judgment of how things have operated in the past or what generation did it better. We all do the best with what we have available at the time. If we do it well, we engage the future toward building and developing things that work in relationship to the world around us at the time. There are plenty of challenges to go around and we need all our perspectives, skills and knowledge areas at the table to make sure we get it right. If you are interested in having INspiring SIGHT work with your organizations around these issues, please contact

Mary Kay Delvo