Here Come the Millennials: Is Your Workplace Ready for Them? Part I of II

by Jean Marie Johnson

They are the new generation of employees, 58 million strong who will converge upon the American workplace by 2014. Also referred to as Generation Y, these young people are the largest generation since the Baby Boomers took the culture, and the workplace, by storm. That's why researchers are fascinated with the Millennials, exploring questions such as: who are they, what do we need to understand about them and what do we have in common? They are right to ask because as with their Boomer parents, the Millennials are likely to leave an indelible mark on workplace culture. Today, that culture consists of four generations of employees:

  • Traditionalists: born before 1945
  • Baby Boomers: born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation X: born between 1965 and 1980
  • Millennials:  born between 1981 and 1999
Over the next few years, a growing exodus of Traditionalists and Baby Boomers will create a large workforce gap that will be filled by their grandchildren and children. Let's take a closer look.

Snapshot of a Generation

Every individual is unique, of course. At the same time, we are strongly influenced by and identify with the era, or generation in which we came of age. The term "generation" refers to a group of people born in the same general time span who share some life experience—such as big historical events—pastimes, heroes and early work experiences. And, just as much, we share a connection to the key figures, music and styles that defined and shaped our era.

Chaos and Connection

For those born roughly between the years of 1981 and 1999, their era was characterized by the transformative events of Columbine, 9/11, Katrina, and the bliss and despair of the 1990's boom and bust. On a completely different note, that very same era ushered in the ubiquity of social media --Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, along with an increasingly diverse and "connected" global community.

Attention and Affirmation

Researchers are quick to point out that against this rich and complex backdrop, Millennials were raised by hyper-vigilant and attentive parents who devoted vast amounts of time and energy on them.  In addition to mom and dad, Millennials were nurtured and encouraged by teachers and coaches who lavished them with praise and "trophies" often unrelated to actual performance. The bottom line is that they received and became accustomed to lots and lots of adult attention; and much, if not most of it, was positive.

Wired and Wireless

Perhaps most significantly, our Millennial employees grew up with technology at their fingertips. Not only is a "friend" just a tweet away, but so is virtual access to just about anything under the sun. This über-comfort level with all things wired and wireless gives them an unprecedented level of ease and capability with ever-changing technology.

Eight Norms of the Millennial Generation

In the 2009 book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, Don Tapscott provides a fascinating insight into the norms that emerged as a result of the life and times of this generation. Some of these may align with the norms of your organization while others may present an opportunity, or at least "food for thought":

  • 1. Freedom of choice: Millennials are free to choose what they want in almost every area of life, particularly their media and how they use it. I choose…
  • What choices can you proactively offer your Millennial employees? Where is your opportunity to ask about their preferences?
  • 2. Customization: Along with choice they have the freedom of customization. There is no "one size fits all" in their world. I customize…
  • In terms of the tools your Millennials use, what opportunities to customize and personalize can you provide?
  • 3. Scrutiny: Everything must be authenticated. They know that "reality" can be easily altered with Photoshop, etc. As a result, this generation scrutinizes everything. I scrutinize…
  • How comfortable are you responding to validating and confirming questions? What can you proactively "offer up" by way of authenticating?
  • 4. Integrity: The amount of United States youth who are giving their time and resources to help others is at an all-time high. Social justice is a theme of this generation. I contribute…
  • What opportunities does your organization provide for employees to contribute or give back to your community or to specific causes?
  • 5. Collaboration: Millennials want collaboration in all areas, from jobs to information to life. Millennials are less-inclined to capitulate to hierarchy. I collaborate…
  • In what ways can you provide opportunities for team and special project collaboration?
  • 6. Entertainment: This generation wants to have fun. And this applies to work as much as it does to life in general. I expect to have fun…
  • Is your workplace fun? Why not?  What can you do to interject a positive element of fun?
  • 7. Innovation: Millennials are always looking for what is new, different, or innovative. They want to be "wowed" with the next new thing. I want what's new and different…
  • What can you point to that is leading edge, new or innovative?
  • 8. Speed: This generation operates in the fast lane with instant information, instant everything. I want it now…
  • In what ways do you both express and expect speed?

Millennials in the Workplace

While considering the norms of the Millennial generation makes good sense, it doesn't mean that you have to turn your workplace on its head. It means that you are willing to look at questions such as: How and where do Millennials work best? And, how do I best lead and manage my Millennial employees?
These are important questions because it is our responsibility to assimilate them and to help them contribute to our customers and our bottom line. But it's more than that; it is also our opportunity, and maybe even our privilege, to bring out the best in them, to help them align with our mission and to see the unique contribution they can make in our workplace.  

Pay Attention…or Pay a Price

You may be thinking, "Not so fast; don't Millennials need to adapt to the workplace, just as we did?" We get your point; and it may seem like we are suggesting that Millennials should receive preferential treatment, or that all of the adapting should be done by the rest of us. We're not. What we are saying, however, is that if you don't at least consider what will light a Millennial's wick, you may end up with a group of less than fully-engaged employees who are more likely to take flight at the first opportunity. In fact, some researchers contend that workplace attrition amongst this generation is costing companies billions of dollars each year. That's the bottom-line "argument" for considering what works best for Millennials.
At the same time, let's also remember that every generation has challenged the workplace status quo. Work/Life policies and FlexTime, for example, were direct outgrowths of Baby Boomer pushback engendered in part by the juggling demands of working parents and the "sandwich phenomenon" of playing caregiver to children and elderly parents. These and other changes continue to benefit not only the Boomers, but all generations of employees.

Seven Attributes of a Millennial-Friendly Culture

So let's take a look at what Millennials are looking for at work. Dr. Joanne G. Sujansky and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed have identified a number of characteristics of a "Millennial-friendly work culture." As you consider the following, ask yourself how many of these attributes describe your current work culture.  
  1. Earn respect through who you are and what you do, not title or tenure
  2. Make the work meaningful; make it matter
  3. Let them know they are ‘keepers;' they matter
  4. Find ways to balance routine, repetitive or grunt work
  5. Provide continual learning and development
  6. Be willing to reconsider your ‘sacred cows'
  7. Bring fun and joy to the workplace

As you can see, most of these are within your control because they are about how you lead and how you manage. They are also sound practices of effective leaders, managers and coaches, regardless of generation.

The Bridge that Unites Us

While each generation has a unique set of characteristics and norms, let's not lose sight of what we have in common. In terms of the workplace, generational research has uncovered a critical nugget of truth:  Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials have the same expectations of their leaders. According to the recently-published work of Marion White of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, regardless of our age, we want a leader who:
  1. Leads by example
  2. Is accessible
  3. Helps others see how their roles contribute to the organization
  4. Acts as a coach and mentor
  5. Challenges others and holds others accountable


And there is one more thing that we share, regardless of our age. The work of Dr. Huntley Manhertz, Jr. noted that "the top-rated need among all the generations was the need to feel respected."  For Baby Boomers, this means being respected for their experience. For Gen X, it means being respected for their professionalism. And for our youngest generation, feeling respected comes from their manager respecting their ideas.
To read Part II, click here.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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