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Boomers Out, Millennials In. But Who’s The Boss? And Who Makes The Rules?

Most millennials probably aren’t familiar with the 80’s television show Who’s The Boss?, but the question that show poses might be one that will be tossed around quite a bit in the energy industry in the coming years.

It’s also a phrase that may become popular with this generation in the oil and gas workforce.

What’s occurring now is that the two generations who defined the oil business (the Traditionalists, those born between 1925-1945; and the Baby Boomers, those born between 1946-1964) are either leaving or have already left the oil and gas industry, leaving the current generation (millennials, born between 1981-2000) to be trained and managed by the Gen X’ers (1965-1980).

There’s just one problem: Not many Gen X’ers went into the oil industry (think Tech Boom, computers, and fast megabucks).

So now you have millennials who either must train themselves, or make their own rules and roles in an industry that has seen massive layoffs in light of the current downturn in oil prices.

It would take someone who really knows the psyche of the different generations to sort this one out. Luckily, there is such a person.

Karen McCullough, sometimes called “The Millennial Maven”, has made a career out of explaining and clarifying the difference between the generations, and how today’s workforce situations require ingenuity, patience, and some new tools.

“We have a scenario now like we’ve never seen before,” McCullough said. “Oil companies run by Traditionalists have the attitude that the generation of people at the top of their organizations are the ones that matter, and the rest need to grow up or shut up. And it doesn’t change dramatically with the Boomers. Their feeling is that the generational change is an emerging issue within their organizations, but they haven’t done much about it yet.”

According to McCullough, the attitude change within organizations is going to have to come from the millennials, who generally view generational change as an opportunity.

“Those are the ones that are going to actively change the work culture to harness the power of the generational changes,” she said.

It all comes down to the differences in values, attributes, and work ethic between the generations. McCullough sees major differences from the first two generations to the last two. “The Traditionalists included those we call ‘The Greatest Generation’. They went through the Great Depression, fought a world war, and came home with a very military sense of values. They believe in conformity, authority, and rules. They have a very well defined sense of right and wrong, and they have extreme loyalty and respect for authority. These are people who went to work for a company and stayed there for 40 years or more,” McCullough said.

The Boomers, on the other hand, are the same group who made up the “peace and love” movement of the 60’s and early 70’s. They believe in individual choice, community involvement, self-actualizing, health, and wellness.

“This is the generation that wanted more for their kids than they had, and they were very goal-oriented in their work ethic, but now they are hitting that retirement age and leaving the workplace in enormous numbers,” McCullough said.

So where does that leave management? Well, McCullough believes that the Millennials entering the workforce now are being managed by, in many cases, Generation X, sometimes called the “me” generation, who have an entirely different attitude and work ethic than both the generations that came before them and the one coming into the workforce now. She refers to millennials as the “me, me, me, me” generation.

“Generation X is still goal-oriented, as were their predecessors, but they are much more independent, self-reliant, and more of a do-it-yourselfer,” McCullough said. “That doesn’t necessarily jive with millennials, since they require feedback, instant gratification, and reward for a job well done, and not necessarily monetary rewards. They feel that self-expression is more important than self-control. Work needs to be fun or they will leave. Unlike Traditionalists and even Boomers who might have only three or four jobs on their resume after 30 years, the millennial resume might have about 18 months per job. This presents a real problem for companies who are spending lots of money investing in training and benefits for these employees, only to have them leave after a short time.”

So how does the problem get fixed?

“It’s not a simple solution,” McCullough said. “It’s going to require new rules and new tools. Today’s employer is going to have to be open to building a non-traditional workplace for millennials. They have to exhibit flexibility not seen before. Things like child care, time off, better benefits, paternity leave, and the ability to work from home when needed are going to have to become commonplace, not just a scene from the movie Nine to Five. The fact is, this is the generation’s hands we’re putting the future of the oil industry in. We have to acknowledge the differences and embrace them.”

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