What I Learned From Maxine… Advice to Millennials

All this talk about the millennials needing meaningful work to do; only want to be in the office when there is work to be done, don’t want “busy work” – work to live, not live to work.  I get it.

I have been to numerous seminars and read many more articles that tell ME (I straddle the Baby Boomer/Gen X label) how to effectively “inspire” and “motivate” this new generation.  But where are the seminars that tell THEM how to work with ME?   Like it or not, for probably the next decade, my generations are the supervisors, the “bosses” or the more politically correct term “leaders,” and while we may want to change, it’s difficult to not let 15-20+ years of working experience impact how we guide these young millennials.

In order to help Millenials understand, I need to give a little bit of background.

I have been working since I was 16.  First babysitting and then at a very old fashioned department store (so old fashioned that they didn’t even have cash registers, and I had to add up purchases on a duplicate paper receipt pad with a pencil – really!) I worked in “Ladies Clothing,” which meant everything from stretch polyester pants to undergarments.  Every Friday, my hours were from 9 am – 9 pm and every Saturday, 9 am – 5 pm, plus Mondays and Wednesdays, 9 am – 5 pm (the hours of the store) while I took full time college courses.  During the time in the store, I would inevitably get bored, as I was low salesperson on the totem pole, and Maxine, my main coworker, had seniority and got first dib on helping customers (which were sometimes few and far between given the time of year, time of day, etc. to begin with). Maxine, who had been working at the store for eons taught me a lot, lessons that still impact me today.  (Picture what you think a Maxine would look like, and you are most likely right.)

Here’s what I learned from Maxine, and I am happy to share them with you:

  • Punctuality.  On time means being early. Period.  If I got there late or took an extra five minute at lunch, I knew I would feel Maxine’s wrath. I didn’t know what the wrath was, because I was never late, but I knew I would feel it.

  • You stay as long as you are scheduled to stay. Even hourly workers.  We never knew when we might get a rush of customers, so we had to be there.  Kind of like retail firemen.  Leaving early was not an option, not until the security guard locked the front door.

  • Boredom is part of the job…and also a catalyst of creativity.  Often times, I thought I would die of Boredom if I didn’t find the cure.  So I did.  I put up displays, put outfits together and hung them around the department, organized the stock room, begged to help the “pricer” (yes that was her title) put price tags on the new items using this nifty little gun that married the item to its price. I even arranged our sock display as creatively as possible.

  • No distractions on the job. There was no Facebook, no cell phones and no Internet. Even if there was, we wouldn’t have been able to use them on the job.  We did have books, but no reading and definitely no studying, except at break time.

  • You don’t ever sit down on the job.  Literally.  Even though there was no one there, no one watching, the stool behind the counter was not meant for sitting.  Looking back, I am not sure what it was there for.

  • You have to earn your privileges, not just your pay.  Seniority definitely had perks.  Maxine got the customers first, she got to pick her days off first. Her lunch hour determined mine. I had to take what was left, but I didn’t complain. It was just one of work lessons, as taught to me by Maxine.

  • There are times when we were expected to work harder than ever.  We had this crazy, once a year sale, called Dollar Days.  Hundreds of customers, literally stampeding for low, low prices (this was even before Walmart became a famous retail staple).  I worked that Day until I thought my feet would fall off.   We didn’t get “recognition” or “comp time” for working hard one day a year.  It was just expected.

  • Hours Worked = Value. Managers and Buyers stayed after closing time to tally up receipts and order stock.  They spent long days in New York City, visiting the Merchant District and contacting suppliers.  Somehow, my generation equates worth with work hours. I know that technology has made work more efficient, that we are a knowledge-based society, but I bet most Baby Boomers can’t get this out of our heads.  “Don’t leave before me, and don’t come in after me to work, if you want me to think of you as valuable,” is often what Baby Boomers are thinking.  This may seem unfair, but it’s how we were “professionally brought up.”

Every job I have had since working with Maxine, I have always found socks to arrange, displays to make, processes to improve and new ideas to implement. And I am never late to meetings.  Not because creating new ideas has always been part of every job, but because it’s what I use to control professional boredom.

If millennials leave when they perceive their work is done, to go do whatever it is they live for,  I feel organizations and businesses miss out on their contributions and creativity that only come when boredom forces someone to look for things to do, things to improve, displays to set up, stock rooms to organize, socks to arrange. Stock rooms to organize equals processes to improve.  And sometimes, only millenials have the answers and the ability to do this, because they know how to use technical tools much better than my generation can.

What’s the solution to take advantage of the best attributes of both Millenials and Baby Boomers?  Millenials need to meet Baby Boomers half way or at least understand where we are coming from and the experiences that have shaped how we treat you (like it or not).  Millenials must understand that for a while, we are here to stay, and often in positions that determine your pay, if not your future and career. So work with us, but more importantly, understand us, like we try to understand you.  Conversely, Baby Boomers must understand that Millenials always need to feel wanted, valued, and their worth is not tied to hours worked.

I would visit Maxine occasionally for years after I graduated from college and started my career (not in retail, my feet couldn’t take it) at that same store, where she was undoubtedly imparting knowledge on new, young coworkers.

Just a few years ago, they tore down that department store, maybe a euphemism for tearing down those old work values, I don’t know.  I just know there was a blank spot there, until they filled it with a new, modern and contemporary strip mall. I visited those shops, and while nice, just not the same.  I lost track of Maxine after that, but would like to think that she never had a student as astute as me.   But then I doubt she even knew she was providing such valuable lessons.

– by Christine Gardner, who likes to help people tell their professional story through their resume and give job search tips and advice.  She is Executive Director of the Ohio Association for Career and Technical Education, a facilitator for the University of Phoenix, and an online instructor with Southern New Hampshire University.

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