The Generation Factor

How the rise of the millennial generation could mean changes in the way veterinarians do business
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Your birth year may not seem to have any connection with the way you interact with co-workers. But consider the stereotypical baby boomer workaholic who may be critical of others who do not share the same ethics and values. Or the independent Generation Xer who may not appreciate the team orientation or understand others’ desire for seemingly constant feedback. Or the social-minded millennial who may not understand the priorities of other generations.

Generational differences are nothing new, but as millennials become a greater presence in the workplace and marketplace, older and younger generations alike are learning how vital it is to engage with one another. This year’s Banfield Pet Health Care Industry Summit, held Aug. 12-13 in Portland, Oregon, focused on the topic of generational differences and how they apply to the veterinary profession.

Twenty-three veterinary colleges, 11 national veterinary organizations, two national student groups, 10 animal welfare organizations, six state VMAs, and 26 commercial providers were represented at the 13th annual summit.

“Millennials are the largest living generation today. They are an incredibly important and influential demographic,” said Tony Ueber, Banfield CEO. “There’s an endless fascination with them, and they are now entering the prime of earning and spending, which makes them very important to all of us in this room.”

Late bloomers

So who are millennials (ages 14-34) and Gen Xers (ages 35-49) and what are they like? Well, for one, they’re not much like baby boomers (ages 50-68).

That’s because they were raised in much different times than baby boomers, that is, during a more resource-rich and prosperous era. And during times of affluence, people transition to adulthood at a later age, said Cam Marston, president and CEO of Generational Insights, a business firm that provides research and consultation on generational issues. He gave the keynote address during the summit.

Infographic: Baby boomers
Source: Generational Insights

The mean age of first marriage in the United States was 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men in 2011. That’s up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 and 20 and 22 in 1960, according to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

From 1970 to 2006, the mean age of first-time mothers increased by 3.6 years, from 21.4 to 25 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“All the life stages you (baby boomers) all have gone through, the millennial is likely to go through, but at a much older age,” Marston said. “It is our tendency to want to say, ‘I remember when I was your age; this is what was important to me or what I wanted out of life. So I will treat them how I wanted to be treated.’”

But that may not be the best approach. Millennials are not younger versions of baby boomers. Instead, he says, “they need to be accepted for what they are, and they are not you.” A better understanding of millennial employees by boomer bosses will lead to greater insight into what drives them to succeed.

Dr. Dan Aja, senior vice president of medical operations for Banfield, echoed those sentiments during a panel discussion.

“Millennials are maturing later. They aren’t us getting to be us later. They are different than we are, and if we expect otherwise, we’re going to lose. It’s a different culture. You can’t change them.”

Navigating the workplace

Delayed maturity isn’t the only difference.

Millennials don’t like to be at the office any longer than they have to be. They base their productivity on completion of tasks.

Dr. Erin Epperly, a millennial who is an associate veterinarian at Peak View Animal Hospital in Fowler, Colorado., explained during a panel discussion, “We do have a strong work ethic. We can work hard when we’re there (at the clinic) and play hard when we’re not. Don’t think we’re trying to shirk our responsibilities. Understanding this is helpful.”

On the other hand, baby boomers’ work ethic is measured in hours worked, and they wear it like a badge of honor. They feel the need to be seen so people know they’re working, Marston said.

What these two generations do have in common is that they enjoy connecting with people and consensus building. But Generation Xers are the opposite. They lead from afar and don’t like meetings or having to hear about co-workers’ personal lives.

Infographic: Generation Xers
Source: Generational Insights

In the workplace, he said, “when millennials are led by Gen Xers, the teams don’t come together. They underperform. That’s because they (Gen Xers) are very hands-off.” Marston said to be more effective, Gen X managers must become more visible, reaffirm people’s roles and provide encouragement, have meetings for the purpose of building consensus, and take a personal interest in their staff.

At the same time, millennials should anticipate that work may not fulfill all their needs and that their Gen X bosses may not appear interested in them, but not take it personally, Dr. Aja said. Just prepare for it.

As for baby boomers, Marston said they often have been mentored but are less likely to mentor anyone themselves, which is ironic because training and development is what millennials want.

Elizabeth Johnson, a third-year veterinary student at the University of Tennessee, said during a panel discussion, “We want to feel needed and (be able to) make a difference. Millennials value feedback so much, not just positive but constructive as well. We want to know what we can work on so we can get better at what we do because we know we don’t know everything.”

Boomers should not consider mentoring to be an added time commitment or chore, but instead, Dr. Aja said, as a benefit to themselves, too.

“We have to remember mentoring is a two-way process. Millennials can teach us things we don’t know. The key is we need to use that knowledge. Mentoring shouldn’t be talking down and (saying) ‘This is how you survive veterinary practice,’ but to bring out the best in the mentee and (learning from) what can they teach us,” he said.

Infographic: Millennials
Source: Generational Insights

Other work incentives that speak to millennials include creating opportunities to “do good,” such as conservation or charity work, and offering flexibility.

“I firmly believe that we need to embrace job sharing. Millennials in our profession are mostly female. Sometimes we talk that it’s a good thing, but we don’t live that,” Dr. Aja said.

The medium is the message

When it comes to techniques for marketing practices, it should come as no surprise that each generation responds to different messages.

What appeals to baby boomers is the history of an organization, its name recognition, tenure in the marketplace, and perceived quality of its goods or services.

“The thing you can use to persuade them is your history and your story, how you earned your stripes and built your credibility,” Marston said.

They trust face-to-face communication over telephone or email.

Information and lots of it is what matters to Gen Xers. They distrust anything too promotional or saleslike. This cohort just wants to know where to go for more information, such as websites and product reviews. “They stalk products. They will have met you before you have seen them. The social media world is their yellow pages,” Marston said.

When communicating with Gen Xers, “they probably will prefer email updates while they let your calls go to voice mail and then check the message to see how important it is and how quickly they need to call you back,” Marston said.

Millennials respond to how things will affect their lives, how what you offer will make them distinct, and how you’ll impact their future.

“Your online portals must be teaching tools. Teach them to be an educated consumer. The more information you can provide, the more you will be perceived as an expert,” Marston said.

Transparency and two-way communication are also vital for attracting millennials and Gen Xers, Alex Abraham, senior vice president of 8095 Millennial Insights, said during a panel discussion.

Chart: Percentage of U.S. civilian labor force
The U.S. millennial generation is made up of roughly 84.3 million people. It is the largest living generation and compares with the baby boomer population of 73.9 million and Generation X population of about 61.5 million.

Of the approximately 154 million people in the U.S. civilian labor force, millennials account for 25 percent compared with baby boomers at 38 percent and Gen Xers at 32 percent.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau

“It’s nice packaging a perfect message but much harder when you have to respond to critical messages. But it’s important. It’s transparency and authenticity. When you do it well, it can really help you. Be human and show personality, and you’ll be rewarded,” he said.

When marketing to or communicating with millennials, businesses should be present on the primary social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Abraham said millennials, who are like media companies in their own right, “share experience in quick order with their network. It used to be top-down marketing, and now it’s about a culture where people rule the roost and define brands.”

That’s why Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of the Found Animals Foundation, advises veterinarians not to underestimate the power of customer service. “If your clinic has two (out of five potential) stars on Yelp, you won’t get as many new customers. By far in the veterinary realm what people complain about is customer service. If they have a bad experience with the front desk staff or you didn’t explain a treatment option, that’s what’s showing up in those reviews. I would like to emphasize that, at the end of the day, giving a great product and service is hugely important.”

Marketing has changed more in the past 10 years than the past 50 with digital technology, she said, adding, “There are some who will thrive in that and others who prefer stability. Owners need to be able to embrace change and evolve with it.”

Marston encouraged veterinarians to discuss generational differences with their employees and co-workers to identify potential biases and unfounded assumptions that could also affect marketing and client communication, and to prepare for change.

“Most of us articulate our product or service for our customer base through our own lens: ‘This is how I see the world, and you should see it the same way. This is why we like it, and I presume you will, too,’” he said.

“So when dealing with these individuals, are you pitching through your lens, their lens, or a combination?”

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect hometown for Dr. Erin Epperly.