All three of my kids, their friends, and my daughters’ spouses are Millennials (roughly those people born between 1981 and 1996). A great many of the employees in our client companies are Millennials. These young employees now make up 35 percent of the US workforce, and are predicted to be close to 50 percent of the worldwide workforce in 10 years. Over the past decade, as they’ve moved into their working, buying and household-forming years, Millennials have become a potent force in the marketplace.
And yet, often they’re a mystery to those of us in other age groups. When I hear folks in their 40s, 50s and 60s talking about this generation, it’s almost always with a combination of irritation and confusion. They make negative assertions about the generation as a whole (“They’re so lazy and entitled!” “They expect too much attention,” “None of them think the rules apply to them”) or ask puzzled questions (“What do they want?” “Why do they act like that?” and “How can I get them to do what’s needed?”)
I’d like to offer some insight about this newest adult generation in our companies and families in order reduce this confusion and irritation. Last year, an executive at Facebook mentioned to me that in the research they’ve done of their largely millennial workforce and users, the three things that consistently show up as most important to Millennials at work are meaning, flexibility and challenge. That really resonated with my observations of these young adults. Here’s how to understand more about what these three things mean to them, and how to offer them as key elements of the job in a way that works both for your millennial employees and for your company:
Looking for meaning: A survey done recently at YPulse found that “76% of Millennials would rather have a career they are passionate about but doesn’t earn a lot of money than have a high earning career that they are not passionate about.” I’ve seen this too: For most Millennials, if they don’t feel a personal connection to their work, they’ll see it as a temporary way to put food on the table and pay the rent while they look for something that’s more meaningful to them. If you’re feeling frustrated about your millennial employees’ not-all-in job efforts (putting in just what’s asked and no more) it may well be that they’re not seeing anything in the job or the company that inspires their best efforts.
What can you do about this? If you believe an employee has a lot of potential, but isn’t demonstrating it, work together to craft a job that will deeply engage his or her interest. I’ve seen Millennials go from “OK” employees to superstars, once they’re paired with work they’re passionate about doing well. Another important element is to make sure millennial employees have a clear sight-line from what they’re doing to the success of the company. Too often executives think that young workers in junior positions don’t need to see the bigger picture – but for Millennials, this is often a key to motivation and focus. They want to feel a sense of connection to their company – to understand what the company does, and to like and believe in its services or products – and, just as important, to see how their day-to-day efforts support the success of that service or product.
This focus on meaning is part of what leads their bosses to tag Millennials as “entitled.” For instance, when I’ve shared this advice about helping Millennials find meaning in their work with many executives, they’ve responded with some version of “meaning, schmeaning – they should be happy to have a good job.” Note to my peers: You can think all you want that Millennials “shouldn’t” be caring about whether their work is meaningful – but that won’t change the fact that they do care about it. And if you don’t acknowledge this and act accordingly, you’ll continue to lose your best young employees to companies that respond to this yearning for purpose.
Requiring flexibility: This is another place Millennials get tagged as “entitled” or “unrealistic.” Because they see work as an integral part of the life they’re trying to build for themselves, they – unlike previous generations – are largely unwilling to let the demands of work negatively impact the life they want. So, for instance, a single millennial who enjoys traveling might love a job that requires being on the road 50 percent of the time. But a married Millennial with two young kids could very well refuse to do travel that much – and, in fact, might lobby heavily to be able to work from home for part of each week. The same survey I cited earlier in YPulse noted that “77% of Millennials feel they can be more productive with flexible schedules and 84% are ‘always connected’ and continue to check their work email after leaving for the day. They want to be trusted to get the work done but they’ll do it when they feel the time is right.”
If you want to attract and keep the best Millennial workers, you may have to re-think your policies about when and how work gets done. If you’ve been convinced in the past that full-time jobs conducted from your office are the only way to work – I’d suggest you start looking at that assumption on a case-by-case basis. Be willing to experiment with new arrangements. I’m not suggesting that you be flexible about whether the work gets done, or to what level of excellence–you can, and should, hold the line on those things. But be willing to try out new approaches to getting the results you need. For example, one of our employees works 32 hours a week because she has a small business on the side that she wants to keep going. She’s great at what she does for us, and we love having her–and we accept that she wants to have a “portfolio job” that includes more than one focal point. Our flexibility increases her commitment and dedication, because she feels as though we understand and support what’s important to her in every part of her life.
Wanting challenge: One of the big complaints that boomers have about Millennials is that they have unrealistic expectations about career progression. Many of my coaching clients complain to me that their young employees start lobbying for promotion long before they’re ready. My response: They’re looking for challenge, and it’s your job to help them understand what challenges are realistic for them to take on at their level. For example, if a new Millennial employee who is at the coordinator level comes to you and says they’d like a promotion to manager, it’s not helpful to say “talk to me in a year” (the knee-jerk reaction of too many bosses). She’ll just think you’re stuck in old ways of doing things, and blowing her off. If, however, you share the skills and experience she’ll need to develop in order to be considered for a promotion, and talk with her about how to develop them, she is much more likely to accept what you’re saying as reasonable, and start working on what you’ve outlined.
When you’re working with Millennials to define reasonable challenges for them, you can take advantage of the fact that most Millennials are open to feedback — and they want it to be really clear and specific. Remember, these employees have grown up in an era where feedback about everything is flying around 24/7 — from the reviews on Amazon to the auditions on American Idol; from the commentary on every blog post ever written to the ratings for every TV show. When they say, “Why can’t I get promoted now?” they are not, for the most part, being entitled little jerks who expect instant gratification (as our negative self-talk would have it) – they really want to know. So if you tell them the specific ways in which they’ll need to do their current job better; help them create a plan to learn the new skills they’ll have to develop; outline just what senior management will expect to see from them that they’re not seeing now… they’ll be satisfied, and they’ll get to work on those things. (Generally speaking. There are some people in every generation who just aren’t capable of developing a realistic self-image or taking responsibility for their own growth… but that’s a whole other post.)
So, in short, if you want to attract and keep the best employees in this new generation of workers, remember that meaning, flexibility and challenge are key to engaging their hearts and minds. And if your self-talk starts to derail you with its curmudgeon-ish and resistant “Why, in my day we didn’t expect…” grumbling, remind yourself that figuring out how to balance these core millennial needs with your business goals might just position you for success while leaders in other companies are still complaining.
To learn how to work better with Millennials, check out Erika’s new book, Be Bad First – Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future
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