What happens when tech-savvy, hyperconnected narcissists take over the dental profession? Hang on tight because we’re all about to find out.

By 2020, a new generation will assume control of our nation’s workforce. “Millennials” is a popular name for this group, coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1987. Loosely defined, millennials are those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000. Millennials have been a hot topic across newspapers, blogs, and business magazines alike. The business world is trying to figure out who we are, how we think, how we learn, and how we function in the workplace.

Stereotyping millennials

Countless articles have been written about millennials. Many of the early analyses depict millennials in a negative light – as a bunch of self-absorbed, coddled 20- and 30-somethings who refuse to grow up and who have never held real jobs.

In response, countless more articles have been written in defense of the generation, describing its members as entrepreneurial optimists who are community-conscious team players with big dreams and even bigger drives.

The consensus on millennials, or Generation Y, seems to be that we are ambitious multitaskers who don’t try to separate work from play and who never disconnect from technology or from one another.

Compare these descriptions to those of members of Generation X, who are stereotyped as self-reliant and skeptical with strong work-life balances. Compare them, too, to baby boomers, who are stereotyped as competitive and disciplined workaholics.

Keep in mind that stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. Sweeping generalizations cannot and should not be used to prejudge individuals. With that said, a large body of reputable research has taught us much about generational patterns. Researchers such as Strauss and Howe have developed generational theories that predict cyclical patterns with a surprising degree of accuracy.

So, what can we expect as millennials take the reins of the dental profession?

Millennials in dentistry

As more baby boomers plan retirement, millennials are arriving in dental practices as associates or partners. Generations clash when millennial dentists must share their work environments with hiring/selling dentists who are often of the baby boomer generation and an office staff that can span across two or even three different generations.

What’s more, millennial dentists interface with a variety of patients every day. As the population ages, the traditionalist and baby boomer generations will have the greatest needs, making them the primary demographic millennials serve.

Millennials entering dentistry must be prepared to perform (and lead) successfully among a group of people who are very different from them. In addition, millennials must be prepared to operate under certain rigid realities of practicing dentistry.

Will millennial stereotypes prove to help, or will they be hindrances? Let’s take a look at the millennial mindset.

Workplace flexibility

Millennials crave flexibility and variety in their work environment, and with those come creativity and autonomy. Unfortunately, flexibility does have its limits. No matter how badly we may crave it, we millennials just need to accept that we will never have the option of performing dental procedures from Starbucks (at least I really hope we won’t!).

Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, is the quintessential millennial workplace – complete with pool tables, spa services, and gourmet dining. Some “Googlers” have reported living on campus for months or years at a time, although Google’s human resources department says it’s technically not allowed. While your dental practice may not be the next Google headquarters, more and more offices are blurring the lines between work and play by providing conveniences and niceties to their office teams and patients. I once interviewed with a practice that offered workout facilities and a locker room; it’s not hard to understand the appeal.

Nonetheless, I’m sorry, fellow millennials: Dental practices are (generally) not portable, so we won’t be able to take our patient bases to Costa Rica with us during our quarter-life-crisis sabbaticals, and we won’t be able to negotiate working remotely from home.

Work-life integration and 24/7 connectivity

All kidding aside, the example of Google perfectly illustrates many millennials’ iconoclasm toward work-life balance. Jamie Gutfreund of the Intelligence Group found that 88% of millennials want “work-life integration,” and 74% want flexible work schedules.

We are a generation that lives in public. Having been brought up in a world of constant connectivity, it is no wonder that we millennials have embraced an on-demand lifestyle. Through technology and social media, we are a more connected generation than any before.

With our hyperconnectedness comes a somewhat unfair expectation for instant gratification and immediate response. In our world, everything is urgent. Problems are likely when millennial bosses hold team members, suppliers, or colleagues to this expectation.

In turn, we millennials may be more willing to make ourselves available to our patients. These days, it would not be uncommon for a patient to contact his/her dentist by email or text message and receive a response within a few minutes, even at odd hours. While this should not be the standard, it does give patients a greater level of access to their health-care providers and, perhaps, greater peace of mind. All of this could cultivate stronger relationships between doctors and patients.

As the need for work-life segregation decreases and the desire for flexibility increases, millennials may offer nontraditional office hours that break from the typical eight-to-five, four-days-a-week schedule. Depending on their goals and commitments at home, some Generation-Y dentists may find this to be a favorable way to operate.

Ubiquitous technology

Many of our Generation-X and baby-boomer counterparts are equally tech-savvy; it is a false stereotype that these generations do not understand or use technology. However, there are still many “digital immigrants,” or people who were born in a time without cell phones and computers, who are still learning the language. It’s up to millennials to assist team members and mentors with technology tasks that are not intuitive.

We are more visual in our learning styles, gravitating toward mobile options and video-based learning. The way millennials learn is changing the landscape of continuing education. As such, comprehensive online resources are on the rise.

Millennials readily embrace the technologies that are improving dentistry’s clinical and business practices. Even sophisticated levels of technology prove to be intuitive and easily approachable for millennials, making them an asset to modern dental practices.

It’s all about the team

Millennials are collaborative and team-oriented at the core. Is this our greatest strength or our greatest pitfall?

There is no denying that solo-practice dentistry can be an isolating experience. This type of day-to-day work experience may not be tolerable for the 88% of millennials who prefer a collaborative work culture, according to Gutfreund’s research.

Might this mean a shift in practice models toward more partnerships or larger group practices? Perhaps this will lead to a changing dynamic for the dental team, away from the traditional authoritarian model of leadership toward a more participative, democratic leadership style.

To satisfy a need for collaboration and a desire to build a “work family” culture, a millennial employer may practice a very different style of management and leadership than the previous boss.

A generation of dreamers

The hallmark of the millennial generation is optimism. Millennial leaders see today’s business conditions as favorable. As a result, they are hiring more actively and performing better in business than many of their baby-boomer counterparts. We’re sensitive to our communities and environment, find fulfillment and happiness through our work, and genuinely strive to be agents for positive change.

Gutfreund found that nearly three-fourths of millennials wish to be their own bosses. If so, then what are we to make of millennials who aren’t buying and running their own practices? The growing number of dentists seeking employees for salaried positions is likely due to millennials who are burdened by debt and value the flexibility and predictability available from larger employers. These millennials may still be entrepreneurial at heart but direct their energy into leadership within these organizations.

Make no mistake: Millennials are anything but lazy. We’re a creative, entrepreneurial, high-achieving generation ready to work hard for our ambitious goals and a sense of purpose. It may not be a perfectly smooth transition, but dentistry can look forward to strong leadership from the next generation.

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