Diversity Dialogue Broadening Business Perspectives

Let’s Talk About Black Millennials

In my four and a half years of working at the Commission on Professionalism and speaking around the state and country, absolutely nothing has gotten my audience as engaged (read: riled up) as talking about Millennials in the workplace.
Michelle Silverthorn

I talk and write a lot about those 16- to 36-year-olds who have so engaged our social narrative. And I typically begin with the same story that many speakers around the country do. I explain that Millennials generally are young, self-promoting, purpose-driven, team-oriented and job transient. They want more technology in their organizations. They seek leadership opportunities from day one. They want more control over the direction of the company. They live in cities, not suburbs. They’re not as religious as their parents. Money is not the driving force in their lives. Many in this “boomerang generation” can and do rely on their parents for support.

That’s the traditional narrative.


Now, when I talk about Millennials, I always briefly mention a caveat. And it is this: Not all Millennials are the same.

There are 76 million Millennials in the country. They are the most diverse American generation in history. And while they have shared experiences as an age cohort, those shared experiences are complicated by a number of factors, including income, geography, gender and race.

As the Millennial conversation has grown louder and more insistent, I often wonder if we’ve done a disservice by focusing so much on the similarities and less so on the differences. Mentioning a brief caveat and not fully exploring it leaves out an important piece of the narrative.


Take money, for example. The traditional narrative says Millennials are less concerned with money and more concerned with purpose-driven work. Even those with substantial amounts of debt (and there are a lot of us) can use their parents as fallback options.

But look closer. Black Millennials carry 68.2 percent more student debt than white Millennials. Moreover, while young adults from wealthy white families hold significantly less debt than their less affluent counterparts, in black families, not only is the debt higher, but there is no difference between wealthy black families and less affluent black families.

Partly because of that, white Millennials are more likely to be able to rely on parents for financial help, which leads to upward social mobility. Black Millennials, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They often have to give money to their family members, rather than receive.

Moreover, the financial disparity can continue even after death. Across the board, white Americans are five times as likely to inherit money as black Americans. When both groups inherit money, white Americans received around 10 times more.


Millennials like to live in cities (for now). And yet, here again, a different perspective changes the dialogue. Due to the racial segregation in many cities, especially where I live in Chicago, black Millennial professionals might not have grown up or may not currently live in the same neighborhoods as white Millennial professionals, potentially including their bosses and supervisors.

And others’ opinions of their neighborhoods might lead them to be excluded from conversations and activities.

Consider this story about a Washington, D.C., journalist who served on a criminal jury. All the jurors, save for him, were either white or black. The defendant was black, and the incident had taken place in a primarily black neighborhood. At one point, one white juror lamented that she would always lock her doors in that neighborhood because it was just so dangerous. Three of her fellow jurors lived in that neighborhood.


Religion is another narrative: Millennials are less religiously engaged than previous generations; black Millennials might be an exception.

And race, of course, isn’t the only way to break down the 76 million strong Millennial cohort. Women Millennials, for example, add a whole new perspective to the discussion. They are better educated than male Millennials and have a smaller pay gap than their predecessors. What different and challenging perspective do Millennial women bring to the workplace?

See, the reason we talk about Millennials in the workplace is because we want to ensure that employers and employees both understand the perspectives, perceptions and values each generation brings to the table. We want to share how to successfully communicate across generations through understanding those perspectives.

That discussion, however, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For black professionals, the workplace discussion almost always turns to diversity and inclusion. And the considerations for improving inclusion for black professionals in the workplace — evaluating access to resources, feedback process, compensation, work allocation, mentoring and sponsorship, among a host of other issues — should include the considerations for Millennials and other groups as well.

We shouldn’t consider being Millennial as separate from being black in the workplace, nor should we consider being black separate from being a Millennial.

For example, I’m a black female Millennial lawyer. I left my large law firm in 2012. I was 29 years old. You could analyze me leaving from a number of different perspectives — as a Millennial, as a woman and as a black attorney. But if you take each of those separately, then you miss out on a fuller part of the story.

So let’s continue to fill out the narrative. Let’s remember that we’re talking about the most diverse generation in history, on multiple levels. No, we can’t talk about each of the 76 million, but we can do better than mentioning the internal differences as a caveat.

At the very least, it will give people even more to argue about when someone mentions Millennials in the workplace.