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Millennial employment: Do we finally understand them (us)?

July 13, 2022 - 23 min read

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Who is the millennial workforce?

What is important to millennials in the workplace?

6 myths about millennials in the workplace

How to attract and retain your millennial workforce

Leaning into millennial employment

In recent years, the topic of the millennial workforce has left some leaders scratching their heads in confusion. 

One thing is clear — millennial employees have disrupted the workforce like no other generation before them. Unfortunately, this change often means that millennials are met with confusion, resentment, and even stigma. They’ve been described as an entitled, tech-obsessed, self-centered, and job-hopping generation.

But is all of this (or any of it) true? Or should managers, executives, and previous generations consider a different perspective? 

The answer is a resounding “yes.” To recruit and retain this rising generation of young adults, leaders should adopt a more inclusive approach. Let’s debunk some common misconceptions and understand what millennials in the workplace are really like.

Who is the millennial workforce?

According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are a diverse group of people that were born between 1981 and 1996. Today, they are anywhere between 25–40 years old and represent ⅓ of the U.S. workforce

As of 2019, the millennial population surpassed baby boomers in the U.S., becoming America’s largest generation. By 2025, they’re expected to make up 75% of the labor force. Learning what it takes to attract and retain this growing workforce has never been more important for leaders.

What millennials value in the workplace

So what matters most to millennials in the workplace? Despite their reputation, the expectations millennials have of their employers are quite reasonable. Here are the most common things that millennials value in the workplace: 

  1. Work-life balance: According to recent data, 73% of millennials work more than 40 hours a week, and 26% juggle two or more jobs. Yet as hardworking as they are, millennials also value a healthy work-life balance. They put in the work, and in return, they expect their employers to offer them the flexibility to enjoy the things they’ve worked hard for. 
  2. A sense of purpose: When IMB asked people why they changed employers in 2021, 27% of respondents said they wanted to find more purposeful and meaningful work. A quarter of those were younger employees, like millennials and Gen Z.  A work culture that gives them a sense of purpose is a millennial’s real priority. If you want to win their loyalty, your organization must have a clear mission and purpose. 
  3. Ability to make a positive impact: Millennials aspire to make a positive impact on the world. In fact, according to a recent Deloitte survey, 44% of millennials choose to work for an organization that aligns with their values. Ideally, they want to work for an employer that puts the well-being of people and the planet above their profits. 
  4. Modern use of technology: Technology isn’t just embraced by millennials — it’s demanded. Out of those surveyed by Zapier, 1 in 6 have left an employer that didn’t provide them with the right technology to do their job. Keeping up with technology is a basic requirement for any employer that wants to retain its millennial workforce. 
  5. Opportunities for advancement: In Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey, insufficient opportunities to advance and develop were a top reason that millennials left their jobs. They expect their employers to offer them professional development opportunities, coaching, mentorship, and chances to upskill
  6. Inclusive culture: Millennials expect a culture of diversity and inclusion when they enter an organization. They are a generation that’s accepting and inclusive of all races, cultures, sexual orientations, and gender identities. 
  7. Ethical workplace and leadership: Based on data collected by Gallup, the  expectations millennials have of their future employer include an ethical workplace and open and honest leadership. Millennials put a high value on working somewhere with a culture of accountability and integrity.

Millennial employee engagement statistics 

If you know how to give your millennial employees what they need, you’ll increase employee engagement — and that’s always a good thing for an organization. 

So where do millennials stand right now? 

According to a 2016 report from Gallup, only 29% of millennials were engaged at work — that made them the least engaged generation. Since then, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has happened, making remote work the new normal. In 2020, just four years later, Gallup found that 37% of millennials in the workplace were engaged

But it doesn’t stop there — a shocking 75% of millennials who reported the following were engaged: 

  • Working from home
  • Had a supervisor that kept them informed 
  • Felt well-prepared to do their work 

Workers who felt their employers communicated a clear plan of action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were also highly engaged. Plus, 65% of remote millennial employees who agreed that their employer cared about their well-being were engaged. 

Clearly, millennials who are disengaged at work aren’t disengaged just because they’re millennials. This generation needs to have managers they can rely on, the right tools to do their work, and the flexibility to live a balanced life. They also value a workplace that cares for their well-being and keeps them informed during times of crisis. No matter your generation, those are things that we all need to do our jobs well.

6 myths about millennial employees 

There’s no shortage of misconceptions when it comes to millennials working today. You might have bought into these yourself. However, if you don’t learn to separate the truth about millennials from the myths, you won’t be able to retain or attract this valuable generation. 

Let’s look at some of the myths about millennial characteristics and why they’re not always true.

1. Entitlement

According to recent empirical research, millennials do tend to be more entitled than their generation X and baby boomer peers. But there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. 

The truth is that millennials feel disillusioned:

  • Young, well-educated, and often over-qualified millennials have entered a job market dominated by several recessions and an older workforce that’s reluctant to retire. 
  • As a result, they have fewer opportunities for advancement and are paid less for doing the same work as their older superiors. 
  • On top of that, 14.8 million millennials carry student loan debt. That is more than any other generation. This puts them under a lot of financial pressure. 

In other words, millennials don’t feel like they’re owed more than other generations. They’re trying to come to terms with the (not so great) hand that they were dealt. As a result, they might make more demands at work — but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

2. Disloyal 

Millennials have been dubbed the job-hopping generation — but this isn’t unique to them. It’s actually quite normal for younger employees to change jobs more often than older ones. The numbers show younger employees changed jobs at the same rate as millennials in the 1980s.

Plus, college-educated millennials have longer tenure with their employers than Gen X did when they were the same age. Similarly, baby boomers did as much job-hopping in their 20s as millennials, making them no different.

3. Need constant feedback 

Millennials are often driven by a desire to make an impact through their work. Thus, they value training and development programs, mentorship programs, coaching, and feedback. 

They’re not necessarily “needy” — constantly demanding guidance through even the slightest of problems and uncertainties. Rather, they seek feedback and help because they genuinely want to do the best possible job. 

But according to a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review, studies have shown that this desire isn’t unique to a younger generation. Not only do older workers appreciate feedback, but they actually want more of it, too.

4. Can't or won't listen

Somewhat contradictory to the last myth, some say that millennials are rebellious and not likely to listen to older generations in positions of power. At work, that could mean ignoring instructions from their boss.

However, a 2015 study showed that millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers to believe employees should do what their employers say, even if the employee can’t see the benefit immediately.

When a couple of bad apples don’t listen, it can seem like all millennials misbehave. There are also bound to be miscommunications when older generations and millennials collide. It’s no one’s fault — but it does show the importance of communication skills in the workplace.

employee-using-laptop-and-phone-at-work-millennial-employment

5. Tech-obsessed

Millennials are the first generation of digital natives — and that’s good news. 

The ease with which they use it and their ability to adapt to emerging technology is a major asset to employers. Many millennials, especially younger ones, spent their childhoods surrounded by technology. Even older millennials are familiar with new technology or can pick it up fast.

However, they don’t necessarily have their noses stuck in their phones or laptops all the time, like some say. According to a 2014 study, 80% of millennials say they prefer face-to-face meetings rather than virtual ones. 

Yes, it’s true that a good number are more tech-savvy than older generations. But you can use this to your advantage in business. Your top millennial talent likely has a keen understanding of technology that can pay off for your company.

6. Looking for (too much) meaning and impact 

A misguided belief that only millennials want work that helps the world creates office divisiveness. In fact, Harvard Business Review found in 2016 that millennials, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers are all nearly equally invested in making a positive impact on their organization and want to spend their life working on things they’re passionate about.

So, yes, (younger) millennial workers are idealistic and care about changing the world. But other generations also cared about this — millennials might be the first generation to demand this out of their job, instead of hoping for it as a side effect. However, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, if millennials can find that purpose in their work, it will lead to higher employee retention, more fulfillment for individuals, and ultimately, better results for the business.

5 ways to be inclusive of millennials in the workplace 

Once they’re part of a company, millennials expect a diverse, inclusive workplace and stimulating work culture and environment. Here are a few tips to help you start building that kind of culture today: 

  • Value authenticity and openness: the millennial generation wants to bring their whole selves to work and not be forced to wear a fake professional persona. 
  • Prioritize open communication: make sure there are plenty of ways for employees to share feedback, whether through anonymous surveys or team meetings. 
  • Allow flexible work: the pandemic has shown us that being in the office from 9-5 isn’t required for productivity — let millennials work in a way that helps them get the best results, whether it’s an alternative schedule or remote work.  
  • Provide development opportunities: don’t let your assumptions about millennials prevent you from inviting them to participate in professional development and career growth opportunities. 
  • Share the big picture: millennials want to feel a purpose behind their work, so when assigning projects, make sure they understand how they can have a direct impact on the world and your organization. 

If you can use these strategies, you’ll see the millennials in your workplace thrive.

employees-collaborating-at-work-millennial-employment

How to attract and retain your millennial workforce 

As the older generations eventually retire, millennials will begin to dominate the workforce. The long-term success of your company will depend on your ability to integrate, motivate, and retain this young generation

Recruiting these highly-skilled, educated millennials will give you a competitive edge. It will also bring a new perspective and more innovative, creative ideas to the workplace. 

If your business recruitment patterns are outdated and don’t consider what millennial employees want, someone else will step in and steal your top talent.

But once you’ve managed to attract millennial employees, it’s equally important (if not more important) to retain them.  Taking the time to listen to their needs can improve your retention rates, which has many benefits:

Let’s dive into how you can attract and retain the millennial workforce. 

1. Be more open-minded

If you want to retain and recruit top millennial talent, accept that there are differences between millennials and the preceding generations. On top of that, there are differences among millennials themselves, given the decade-and-a-half range. 

Studies have shown diversity to be a key driver of innovation. This applies not only to people but ideas. Rather than fostering fear and attempting to mold future managers and leaders to your existing models, celebrate differences in ideas and rethink your training programs to foster this diversity

2. Listen & communicate

Diversity and inclusion experts know ongoing communication and education are the keys to helping different groups understand each other and work together. In fact,  a 2019 Workhuman study found that 85% of employees are more engaged when they have weekly check-ins with their manager. A once-yearly performance review is no longer good enough, no matter what generation your employees belong to. 

If you want to increase communication, respect, and collaboration between working millennials and older generations, try these strategies:  

  • Schedule joint brainstorming sessions and reflective debriefs on approaches to previous projects

  • Prioritize open dialogue about preferred management styles and learning styles 

  • Schedule a weekly 1-1 meeting with each team member
  • Actively listen so you can build a richer picture of the individuals that make up this vague ‘millennials’ group
  • Provide real-time feedback, beyond your regular meetings 
  • Commit to learning from your millennial workers — get to know what they are passionate about and what stresses them out
  • Create an open and honest space for two-way feedback, not one-way only

two-woman-talking-millennial-employment

3. Create a culture of coaching

According to a 2016 Gallup poll, only a small subset of people say they report to the sort of leader they actually want: a coach, not a boss. You might not be ready to change your title from CEO to “coach.” However, internalizing the differences between these approaches could massively impact your millennial employees. 

Bill Campbell, one of the most well-known business leaders in Silicon Valley, was famously called “Coach” and emphasized the importance of caring deeply about your people. A commitment to coaching is one of the best ways you can lead a millennial-strong workforce. 

4. Encourage ambition

Studies have shown that individuals who set ambitious goals are often happier. Filled with optimism and a go-getter attitude, millennials are some of your most essential assets if you allow them to be.

Embrace their ambitions. Provide opportunities for open, thoughtful discussions around their goals. Empower them to tackle challenges they aspire to overcome. Let their enthusiasm serve as inspiration to all workers. 

Doing so will have plenty of benefits for you. For one, you get a happier employee. Happier employees are more likely to stay with your company for obvious reasons. Plus, employees will be more engaged at work and go after loftier goals. Those goals likely involve moving up in your company or making a significant impact in some way (which benefits your company).

Leaning into millennial employment 

Millennials represent a massive change in the traditional way other generations work and view work. And change isn’t always easy. 

That’s why employees and even leaders have often met millennial employment with criticism and confusion. 

But in reality, millennial employees are ambitious, have a strong work ethic, and want to leave a positive impact on the world. Most of all, they want to be loyal to a company that can give them the right opportunities. 

To win their loyalty, managers and executives should create a culture of inclusivity that embraces them and what they bring to the table. The future of your organization depends on it. 

Need help building a work culture where every generation feels like they belong? 

BetterUp would love to help you do just that. Request a demo to get started.

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Published July 13, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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