Coming of age in an era of economic uncertainty, global instability, and profound technological change, Millennials are confounding to their employers. The generation is characterized as exceedingly narcissistic and lazy, and business leaders routinely express exasperation at the difficulty of integrating and engaging young professionals in the workplace.
Countless studies have been published examining this cohort's wants and needs, and several truths have emerged. As we explore how to engage with Millennials in a workplace learning context, it's important to understand their professional motivations, expectations, and perspectives.
Here are 10 facts about Millennials, along with corresponding advice on how organizations can better engage them from a learning and development standpoint.
Demographers typically define Millennials, also known as Gen-Y, as being born between 1980 and 1999. It goes without saying that even within this demographic, there is quite a disparity of life experiences; people born at the beginning of that period watched 9/11 unfold from their college dorms, whereas those born at the tail end of the period were in diapers when the Twin Towers fell. For the purposes of this analysis, we'll consider the attitudes and perspectives of older Millennials—those born in the '80s and early '90s who are already in the workforce.
Another caveat: as with any attempt to classify large groups, there will be many, many exceptions to this generational assessment. Consider this a rough profile of the "typical" working professional aged 23 to 34.
1. Millennials want their work to be meaningful.
Compared to older workers, Millennials place a greater emphasis on the perceived importance of their work and the sense of accomplishment that they get from it. In fact, Millennials care more about the meaningfulness of the work than about compensation—most would rather earn less money if it means doing a more important job. The vast majority of Millennials, 88%, say they're seeking work with a greater purpose.
Kelly Damery, 33, a human resources business partner, feels empowered when her company provides opportunities to make a positive social impact on the world. "At the snap of a finger, I can reach out to my leaders and form a group to give back to our community with the help of Habit for Humanity, or by participating in an all-office blood donation drive. One person really can change the world."
And we needn't think of meaningfulness strictly in terms of social consciousness. For Michael Egan, a 31-year-old business analyst in the insurance industry, meaningfulness comes from being able to see a positive end result from the work. "I feel a sense of accomplishment when I can really understand the value that my work brings to the customer."
Learning & development takeaway: Take time during training to illustrate connections between job roles and the positive outcomes that ultimately result from the work.
2. Millennials are motivated by money.
This may seem contradictory with the preceding, but even though compensation isn't at the very top of young workers' concerns, it's still a major motivator. This is a generation that is graduating college with record debt (currently averaging $27,000) while facing a largely dismal entry-level job market. In fact, despite being the best-educated generation in history, this hasn't translated into higher wages: Millennials on average are earning salaries comparable to Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers at the same career stage.
As much as they want meaningful work, economic realities are not lost on this group. They want to be able to afford to move out of their parents' house just as much as their parents want them to. (Nearly a quarter of Americans between 25 and 34 live in multigenerational households, twice the rate of 35 years ago, and many of them will tell you it's not by choice.)
L&D takeaway: Show the correlation between learning paths and potential compensation gains, and between professional development opportunities and intraorganizational mobility.
3. Millennials perceive job insecurity.
Job security is a major concern for Millennials, many of whom struggled mightily to find employment during and after the Great Recession, and who live with lingering unease that they'll be the first on the chopping block should the economy again falter. It's hard to blame them; even if they were fortunate enough to gain and/or maintain employment in the years after the global economic meltdown of 2007, their Facebook feeds were filled with friends who weren't so lucky. Three years ago, the share of young adults who were employed hovered at just 54%, the lowest figure since the federal government began collecting such data in 1948.
If there's a silver lining for employers, it's that workers worried about losing their jobs aren't going to slack off. That isn't sustainable, though, as workers looking over their shoulders can't really focus on their jobs. As ultra-successful companies like Google have proven, a happy worker is ultimately more productive and less likely to bolt at the first opportunity.
L&D takeaway: Be cognizant of this ingrained trepidation when rolling out a major change initiative. Organizational change is scary enough without it being compounded by a perpetual fear of impending unemployment doom. If layoffs aren't in the plans, make that abundantly clear.
4. Millennials crave recognition.
Yes, this plays into the derisive cliché of Millennials expecting trophies just for participating, but it's not that simple. It's true that this generation was raised in an everyone-is-special environment, but by and large, Millennials don't want recognition that isn't earned or deserved.
And perhaps as a rebuke to that everyone's-a-winner philosophy they grew up with, Millennials aren't interested in recognition that is perfunctory and predictable. "I feel most proud of myself when compliments come in from places I least expect," says Nicole Adrian, 32, a PR account executive. "Not necessarily my direct manager, but the higher-ups in my company and on my team, from the client, from the client's customers I work with, et cetera."
L&D takeaway: Commend young workers for a job well done, but do it in ways that are personal and genuine.
5. Millennials expect companies to keep up to date.
This generation has grown up in a world of rapidly advancing technology, and rather than being intimidated by or apprehensive about new tech, Millennials embrace it. More than three-quarters of Millennials say a company's openness to innovation is a deciding factor in whether they want to work there. Being forced to work with old hardware and outdated systems is akin to professional purgatory. Millennials expect their employers to provide access to the latest and greatest gadgets—along with the training to use them effectively.
JR Radcliffe, 33, a newspaper editor, feels frustrated when his older coworkers protest new technologies and different ways of doing things. Among his more senior colleagues, "'The way we've always done it' seems like an unspoken mantra, even when I know they're capable of trying something new. When we finally do achieve progress, I find the workers love using new mechanisms, such as Twitter, and it makes me wonder aloud why they needed so much time to embrace it in the first place."
L&D takeaway: Keep in mind that this embrace of the new extends beyond technology to include creativity and new thinking. Everything from processes and best practices to changes to regulations, and even evolving industry ethics, need to be regularly modernized. From the perspective of Millennials, if an organization doesn't provide the best tools, information, and processes to be successful, then it doesn't value them as employees.
6. Millennials want career paths, but aren't tied to them.
This is both a symptom of and a reaction to the "helicopter parenting" that defined their upbringing. Many Millennials experienced childhoods that were scheduled down to the minute—they always had somewhere to be and they always knew exactly what was expected of them. In many cases, they were specializing in sports or other extracurriculars from a young age, and it wasn't uncommon for them to have a college major picked out before they were even old enough for an after-school job.
Meanwhile, structural changes to the labor market, caused in large part by ongoing technological shifts, combined with diminished corporate loyalty, have all but destroyed the concept of a lifetime job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average Millennial can expect to have a whopping 15 to 20 different jobs of the course of their lives.
The result is a generation of workers who feel the need to visualize exactly how their career path will play out, even as they intuitively know that such a predictable trajectory is probably wishful.
L&D takeaway: Help young employees clearly visualize their short- and long-term options for mobility within the organization, complete with objectives, achievement milestones, and associated learning requirements. And provide them access to training outside their current discipline, even informally, so that when it comes time for them to inevitably change jobs, they are at least staying within the organization.
7. Millennials yearn for responsibility.
Indeed, one of the reasons Millennials job hop is a sense that their upward mobility within an organization is stymied. According to a recent Deloitte study, 53% of Millennials aspire to become senior executives within their organization, and nearly three out of four young workers feel their employer is not making full use of their skills. Whether they are actually ready to take the reins of leadership is a separate question, but they are clearly confident, ambitious, and champing at the bit for an opportunity to prove their worth.
L&D takeaway: Look for ways to ease high-achieving Millennial workers into positions of responsibility, even if that means blurring job descriptions or carving out areas of oversight. They'll be energized by the challenge and appreciative of the show of loyalty.
8. Millennials enjoy being mentored.
Appreciation for sage wisdom is hardly exclusive to Millennials, but it's worth noting, given the perception that they are me-first know-it-alls. For some, like 33-year-old event coordinator Julie Kuligowski, mentoring and recognition go hand in hand. "I love performance review time because I can look back at my accomplishments for the year and see what I can improve on for the next year. One-on-one praise is preferred, but a shoutout during a meeting with my other colleagues is also welcomed. Any feedback I can receive to help improve myself is what I’m mainly looking for in my employer."
L&D takeaway: An organized mentoring program is ideal, but any opportunity to share wisdom with less experienced coworkers is valuable to individual and organizational growth. Feedback, whether from direct managers or senior colleagues, should be a mix of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism—but most importantly, it should be actionable.
9. Millennials undervalue soft skills.
There is a disconnect between the types of skills that Millennials believe are important and the skills that more experienced professionals know to be valuable. Business leaders rank integrity, professionalism, and positive attitude as the most important characteristics for success in business, according to a Bentley University study. Recent college grads were far more concerned with building technical skills, something that only 40% of business leaders deemed important for success.
L&D takeaway: There is a need for more soft skills training, from how to interact in an office setting to how to communicate effectively with clients, as well as more emphasis on the importance of these skills.
10. Millennials favor asynchronicity and flex scheduling.
Older generations may perceive Millennials' preference for email and texting as aloof and even a bit antisocial, but to them, asynchronous communication is a matter of time management and efficiency. A phone call or in-person meeting on an urgent matter is one thing, but they're annoyed at being interrupted to deal with questions or issues that can wait. Moreover, this is a generation for which multitasking is a way of life, for better or worse; at any given moment, they may be holding conversations over SMS and instant messaging while writing an email and participating in a conference call.
Additionally, Millennials prioritize a flexible work schedule more highly than their older coworkers, and they bristle at the arbitrary temporal confines of the traditional workday. This is especially an issue for today's young parents, who are more likely to be raising kids while both holding down full-time jobs. "I have young kids, and my husband and I both work full time, so I highly value a flexible schedule," says Melanie Hinchey, 34, a system administrator for a software company. "I come in at 9 and work until 5 without taking a lunch break, which allows me to drop off my son at school and saves a lot of money in before-school daycare. I am also glad that I can usually leave work on a moment’s notice—if my daughter gets sick, for example. Accordingly, I don’t mind working irregular hours if a project needs to be done."
L&D takeaway: Consider whether in-person training is truly necessary, or whether it could be done remotely or asynchronously. And offer a wider variety of training modes and options, something Tony Schroeder, 34, a call center engineer, wishes his employer did. "Have a traditional classroom experience, but also make the web-based training available. Most of the training I go through, I'm doing something else at the same time and need to go back to it, so recorded sessions are helpful." Similarly, explore opportunities to make job aids and just-in-time training more broadly available.
Inevitably, the kneejerk reaction by some organizational leaders is to scoff at the different perspectives of the younger generation and wonder aloud why these kids can't work and think and learn the same way they did. Besides being unproductive—wishing Millennials would change won't make it so—it ignores the reality that every generation has been resented and misunderstood by the ones that came before.
Heck, even the Greek philosopher Socrates once threw up his hands in frustration about the kids these days: "The children now love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are tyrants, not servants of the households. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers."
The most important takeaway, one that applies as well to differences of culture as well as age: Empathy, not demonization, is the true key to engaging young professionals.