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Millennials at work: Generation Y to reshape Generations A-X

June 26, 2012

The age of Generation Y has begun, and with it looms the dawn of a new era, a soft but strong fresh breeze heralding the potentially most fundamental shift in 21st century socioeconomic thinking, if not outright world domination: Millennial self-empowerment.

The millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000 now entering employment in vast numbers, will shape the world of work for years to come. Attracting the best of these millennial workers is critical to the future of your business. Their career aspirations, attitudes about work, and knowledge of new technologies will define the culture of the 21st century workplace.

Millennials matter because they are not only different from those that have gone before, they are also more numerous than any since the soon-to-retire Baby Boomer generation – millennials already form 25% of the workforce in the US and account for over half of the population in India. By 2020, millennials will form 50% of the global workforce. But although they will soon outnumber their Generation X predecessors, they remain in short supply, particularly in parts of the world where birth rates have been lower. They will also be more valuable – this generation will work to support a significantly larger older generation as life expectancy increases. CEOs tell us that attracting and keeping younger workers is one of their biggest talent challenges.

It’s clear that millennials will be a powerful generation of workers and that those with the right skills will be in high demand. They may be able to command not only creative reward packages by today’s standards, but also influence the way they work and where and how they operate in the workplace. They may also represent one of the biggest challenges that many organisations will face.

Are millennials really any different to past generations?

It’s true to say that some of the behaviour and attributes of millennials can be explained by their age and relative lack of responsibilities. Our behaviour and priorities change and adapt as we age, but to dismiss the issues entirely on that basis would be a mistake.

  • Millennials’ use of technology clearly sets them apart. One of the defining characteristics of the millennial generation is their affinity with the digital world. They have grown up with broadband, smartphones, laptops and social media being the norm and expect instant access to information. This is the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of a key business tool than more senior workers.
  • It’s more than just the way millennials use technology that makes today’s youth different – they behave differently too. Their behaviour is coloured by their experience of the global economic crisis and this generation place much more emphasis on their personal needs than on those of the organisation. And employers should be wary – nearly three-quarters of millenials in our survey said they had compromised to get into work – something we believe will be set right as soon as economic conditions improve.
  • Millennials tend to be uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures and turned off by information silos. They expect rapid progression, a varied and interesting career and constant feedback. In other words, millennials want a management style and corporate culture that is markedly different from anything that has gone before – one that meets their needs.

The particular characteristics of millennials – such as their ambition and desire to keep learning and move quickly upwards through an organisation, as well as their willingness to move on quickly if their expectations are not being met – requires a focused response from employers. Millennials want a flexible approach to work, but very regular feedback and encouragement. They want to feel their work is worthwhile and that their efforts are being recognised. And they value similar things in an employer brand as they do in a consumer brand.

These are all characteristics that employers can actively address. The companies that have already been the most successful in attracting talented millennials – Google and Apple among them – are naturally innovative employers who are never restrained by ‘how things used to be done’. These companies are not specifically targeting millennials, but their culture, management style and approach to recruitment and retention naturally appeal to the millennial generation. And because of that, they are able to take their pick of the best younger talent around.

Irrespective of the long-term aims and ambitions of an individual company, the ability to attract and retain millennial talent will be a vital step to achieving it.

“My career will be one of choice, not one chosen out of desperation. It will align who I am with what I do.”

Graduate employee, USA

Intergenerational tension

Managing the often conflicting views and needs of a diverse workforce that may cover a wide range of generations – from the Baby Boomer generation to Generation X and millennials – is a challenge for many organisations. The palpable tension between highly experienced Baby Boomers who are approaching retirement and the ambitious, technologically savvy and collaborative millennials who will replace them has been a subject of intense discussion. But the intergenerational tensions that do appear and can often be explained by a lack of understanding between generations. Some commentators suggest that a large part of the antipathy comes from older generations. One hiring manager’s comments typified this:

This generation has a sense of entitlement. They look for higher starting salaries, flexible work schedules and company-provided iPhones…they want constant praise and promotion almost the minute they join.”

It’s not unusual to hear millennials described as “smart but lacking in motivation” but this may well be shorthand for “they do things differently from me”.

So who’s right?

Employers need to beware of unconscious bias from older workers and take care that they judge millennials on results rather than preconceptions. From their perspective, most millennials are happy working alongside other generations. 76% of those questioned said they enjoy working with older senior management and only 4% disagreed. 74% said they were as comfortable working with other generations as with their own. But questioned more closely they recognise the tensions; 38% felt that older senior management could not easily relate to younger workers and 34% felt that their personal drive could be intimidating to other generations. Men (38%) were more likely than women (31%) to say this.

Bringing generations together should be a priority task for HR. Employers face two primary risks with a multi-generational workforce.

  • The first is the willingness of millennials to move on quickly when they feel that their needs are no longer being met. It’s increasingly likely that employees will work longer and retire later, blocking the path for many millennials who want to rise as quickly as possible up the corporate ladder. If their ambitions are frustrated, they will not hesitate to seek to fulfil them elsewhere.
  • The second risk is that over the coming years, millennials will find themselves managing older workers, some of whom may be resentful of the fact. Managing a multi-generational workforce demands strong leadership, recognition throughout the organisation that different generations may need different styles of management, and a transparent performance management system that clearly demonstrates how performance is rewarded.

In an effort to help managers to put themselves in younger employees’ shoes and to coach senior executives in IT, social media and the latest workplace trends, many organisations are pairing top management with younger employees in a programmes of ‘reverse mentoring’. Workplace mentors used to be higher up the ranks (and older) than their mentees. No longer, as social media skills become increasingly valuable. Companies say another benefit is reduced turnover among younger employees, who gain a valuable glimpse into the world of management via top-level access. These programmes also help to transfer corporate knowledge to millennials, which will become increasingly important as Baby Boomers retire in greater numbers.

“With Generation Y coming into the business, hierarchies have to disappear. Generation Y expects to work in communities of mutual interest and passion – not structured hierarchies. Consequently, people management strategies will have to change so that they look more like Facebook and less like the pyramid structures we are used to.”

Vineet Nayar, Vice Chairman and CEO, HCL Technologies, India

What can employers do?

Whether millennials are entirely different to previous generations is immaterial in many ways. The demographic challenge means that businesses need to deal with the problem in front of them – that is, to ensure they understand the millennial generation and are acting to attract and inspire the best of them.

Business leaders and HR need to work together to:

  • Understand this generation:
    It’s particularly important to understand and address generational differences and tensions. Use metrics and benchmarking to segment your workforce in order to understand what millennials want and how these desires might be different from older workers. Ensure that employee engagement results can be cut by age group and consider how you might use predictive analysis to highlight potential retention issues. Look ahead for talent pipeline issues and make sure your strategic people planning is up to the job.
  • Get the ‘deal’ right:
    It’s important for employers to explain what they are offering a potential employee, but also what they expect in return. Think creatively about reward strategies and what motivates millennials. For example, is it time to shift focus from cash bonuses to other things. And remember, the vast majority were attracted to the prospect of customising their benefits. There is also significant gap between perception and reality when it comes to the promises made by employers on diversity and work/life balance. If employers want to continue to attract millennials, this has to be addressed – companies should review the messages they are sending out and test them against the reality of the employee experience.
  • Help millennials grow:
    Managers need to really understand the personal and professional goals of millennials. Put them on special rotational assignments more frequently to give them a sense that they are moving toward something and gaining a variety of experiences. Challenge them to come up with new ways to streamline processes and to exercise creativity. Millennials have a strong desire to work overseas and this is a rich potential resource for organisations focused on global growth. Less desirable locations could be positioned as an important career path milestone. Every opportunity should also be taken to mix teams generationally.
  • Feedback, feedback and more feedback:
    Millennials want and value frequent feedback. Unlike the past where people received annual reviews, millennials want to know how they’re doing much more regularly. Give honest feedback in real time — and highlight positive contributions or improvements on key competencies.
  • Set them free:
    Millennials want flexibility. They work well with clear instructions and concrete targets. If you know what you want done by when, why does it matter where and how they complete the task? Give them the freedom to have a flexible work schedule. Does it matter if they work from home or a coffee shop if that’s where they are most productive? Set deadlines and if they meet them, don’t worry so much about their tactics and the time they clock in and out.
  • Encourage learning:
    Millennials want to experience as much training as possible. If your organisation is more focused on developing high potentials, or more senior people, then you could risk losing future talent if you fail to engage millennials with development opportunities. Build and measure the effectiveness of mentoring programmes alongside other learning and education. Consider allocating projects to talented millenials which fall outside their day job. Let them connect, collaborate, build their networks – and most of all innovate.
  • Allow faster advancement:
    Historically, career advancement was built upon seniority and time of service. Millennials don’t think that way. They value results over tenure and are sometimes frustrated with the amount of time it takes to work up the career ladder. They want career advancement much quicker than older generations are accustomed to. So for the high achievers who do show the potential to rise up the ranks quickly, why not let them? A relatively simple solution, such as adding more levels, grades or other ‘badges’, could be enough to meet their expectations.
  • Expect millennials to go:
    It’s inevitable that the rate of churn among millennials will be higher than among other generations, especially since many have made compromises in finding their first job, and this should be built into your plans.

Millennials are a talented and dynamic generation, and the best of them are hard to find and even more difficult to keep. The finest of them are already in high demand and employers that meet their expectations will be able to take their pick of this generation’s talent.

This research suggests that there is a significant gap between what millennials want and expect from their employer and career and their experience of the workplace. Superficial changes that are intended to connect with younger workers, such as unconvincing social media outreach programmes, ‘greenwashed’ corporate values and diversity tokenism will not work.

Millennials may have made some compromises during the downturn but their ambition and sense of self-worth has not diminished. Before long this generation will form the majority of the workforce and they will look for employers who are truly acting on their promises.

Are you ready for millennials to reshape the workplace?

I am. 😀

Sources: “Managing Tomorrow’s People”, Global PwC Portal (PricewaterhouseCoopers)


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