Let’s start with why we should all be thinking about millennials. By 2025, millennials will account for 75% of the global workforce. They will hold dominant numbers in leadership roles, in most teams, on boards and in the elite groups of new generation founders who will change the world yet again.
Over the next few years, workplaces will be defined by their work ethic, ambition, and purpose. A transition is needed, it is going to happen, and we can make it easier by creating a clearer picture of where we need to go.
Across public and private conversations with leaders in the organizations I consult with, the common themes that come up about millennials, involve the words lazy and purpose. Supporters and detractors are on different sides of the fence and rely heavily on one of these two themes to support their cause. I don’t believe either is true.
1. Every generation is ‘lazier’ than the generation before them.
“We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.” This was written in 1925 in the Hull Daily Mail in an article titled The Conduct of young people. A series of similar judgments, some going back thousands of years puts into perspective the sense of disappointment in the newer generation of the time.
As we think of the millennials, also think of all the data that is telling us that they are the generation with the least amount of downtime growing up. Millennials have made intense amounts of effort in everything they have done in their life. The New York Times recently spoke about the hustle that defines them and the need for Millennials to slow down (Griffith, 2019). The question, therefore, is not about their energy but about the organization’s ability to harness it.
2. Every generation has a sense of purpose
The new logic on the block in understanding millennials is that their sense of purpose drives them. Several surveys back this, for example, PwC’s recent Workforce of the Future survey, which found that 88% of them want to work for a company whose values reflect their own (Ruggeri, 2017).
But if there is one thing common to human behaviour through centuries is the driving force of a purpose. A generation could have gone to war to save the generations to come, another went to work to provide for their family in times of scarcity, and yet another could have toiled in the name of national pride or personal adventure.
So, we are them, and they are us. The difference today is that the millennials are not dependent on the workplace as the only means to fulfil their purpose.
The employment and engagement strategies that we have been using over the past decades don’t seem to be working anymore. A client spoke about the lack of gratitude for the socializing sessions organized by the firm. To them, it represented a lack of investment in creating connections. But when we spoke to young employees, their goal to create connections was high. They were just using different spaces, creating networks beyond the firm and its stakeholders, and creating connections that were purposeful to their long term.
Another client spoke about the millennials’ lack of commitment to their development. Underutilized resources on learning communities and specially curated programs indicated a lazy lack of interest in their future. And as we spoke to the millennials in the organization, we realized that curated information was no longer respected as a learning opportunity. The desire to learn was high, but the learning had to go beyond access to information. We learned that if the firm wanted to offer a learning platform, it must go beyond these opportunities, it must help in making the connection to individual goals and advancement.
Similarly, as we study human resource systems of our clients and partners, we understand that while the fundamentals are still the same, the conversation has changed. And we have to understand what this new generation is looking for from employers to redefine how we engage with them.
In our discussion with organizations, millennials and their managers, here are the four things that we have discovered must be done differently if we want to engage the fastest growing demographic in the workforce:
1. Employee engagement
As I read an engagement survey one after another, I marvel at how little they have changed in the last 20 years. We are still looking at a commitment to work with the same employer as a key measure. We still ask for feedback on items that we have no intention or means of acting upon (compensation, benefits, leadership, to name a few). As millennials take over the workforce, the definition of engagement has to change.
We need to measure how deeply empowered someone is to do what needs to be done and find out what is needed to accelerate success. This is the purpose of the millennials, and if we can bring our focus to this, we will have an engaged workforce.
An organization I worked with spend hours of management time communicating survey results and brainstorming ways to increase long term commitment. They did this every few years as it brought people together, and the team felt their opinion was valued. Fast forward a few years, it no longer worked and attendance to these highly popular-in the past sessions was waning.
At least 20% of the survey participants had reported that they did not fully agree that they had the resources they need to get the job done. This might seem like a low number to some, but this is the issue millennials want to be addressed. Symbolic gestures are meaningless, and an opportunity to achieve is priceless.
2. “The Big Talk – Career progressions
Millennials own their careers. They do not depend on a piece of organizational machinery to tell them what they could potentially do in 10 years. As we speak career progression to millennials, we have to speak about skill-building and potential to grow in their careers regardless of the organization they work with. When they are growing, they stay, and when they stop growing, they will move.
It’s not too different from the generations before them. A generation ago, growth was defined as a promotion, and if you didn’t see it coming, you moved. With market movements driving short term decision-making in organizations, long term employment is a personal responsibility. The contribution of an organization comes in the form of progressive learning and not career progression.
3. Vision statements
Who could differentiate the company they worked in by the vision statement it held dear? As previous generations entered the workplace, they were all ‘adding value in the lives of stakeholders’ whether it was through the sale of soaps, telecom equipment, or real estate. From Enron to Freddy Mae, each scandal took a toll on the value of the vision statement and when Facebook sold your data while convincing you that it was bringing people closer, the value of an organization’s vision diminished yet again.
The new generation entering the workplace has found a fix to this. They each have their vision statement. The organization and the self-aligns for a period of time, and when the parallel paths diverge, it’s time to move on. So, if you’re an organization that is setting a vision statement, don’t write one for your annual report, write one that helps your people understand what you want to do. A vision statement that millennials can see as tangible, real, and authentic aligns strongly with the personal vision and will get you the driven employee who was thus far living with the unicorns.
4. “Position-based authority.”
The decline of position-based authority had started a generation ago and will probably fade away with this generation. Knowledge, influence and roles are anchors for authority, and fluidity of these anchors will have to be the new norm.
In an organization we work with, a young engineer confidently called out the CEO about his lack of technical understanding on the matter. The CEO conceded, and they moved on to the proposed solution. There was no fear and no implication. The effectiveness of the outcome came from an expertise-based authority and the hierarchy, rightly, did not matter. This was a start-up and perhaps more tuned to this kind of discussion. I have seen more traditional organizations struggle with managing this kind of relationship because dependence on positional authority is still high. The change will come not just by drawing flatter organizational structures but by redefining decision structures and accountability metrics.
In conclusion, let’s remember that every generation is capable of intense effort when driven by their purpose. What each generation see’s to be their purpose might be different, and different things may inspire them.
The millennials are here to stay. Organizations that are not able to energize their people together through the fundamentals that define us all may find themselves resting under an epitaph that reads “Lost in the journey from X to Y.”
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