Is Your Firm Ready for the Millennials?

Published: March 08, 2006 in Knowledge@Emory

Since the Sixties, the news about young people has almost always been bad, with each generation described in turn as more violent, more alienated, and more selfish than the generation that preceded it. But two scholars at Emory University's Goizueta Business School and other demographic experts say that the generation born since 1982 seems to be breaking the mold. The Millennial Generation, as they're now dubbed, are apparently a nicer bunch in many respects than the prior two –  less violent, less alienated, and less selfish. Not only are the kids all right, but some pundits predict that they will go on to become another "Greatest Generation," the World War II era cohort now mostly of sainted memory.

Yet in spite of their many positive qualities, integrating Millennials into today's workplace may not be straightforward, warn Andrea Hershatter, a senior lecturer in organization and management and the associate dean and director of the BBA program at Goizueta, and Molly Epstein, an assistant professor in the practice of management communication. Brimming with self-confidence, Millennials want positive work that offers much more than a chance to earn a living, the professors say. They want attention from their bosses, a workplace with clear rules, and a chance to do work that will offer some benefit to society. Their desires are so different, in fact, and the group is even larger than the Boomers – 80 to 90 million Millennials, according to some estimates – that Epstein says that smart companies are now trying to adjust their recruiting tactics and their work environment to meet the group's very different needs.

Why are they so different? Part of it may be that these young people have been raised very differently than the Generation Xers before them. "The original research comes from William Strauss and Neil Howe," says Hershatter.  One of the issues they have pointed to is major differences in their upbringing. A lot of the things that people perceived as problematic outcomes as the result of how GenXers were raised – latch key kids, lots of autonomy, lots of freedom, not a lot of attention to their care and well being – was completely reversed with the Millennials," says Hershatter.

Hershatter and Epstein say that this group, born between 1982 and 2002, is very different as a result of that upbringing.  "Anybody who deals with [Millennials] as students at the college age notes very specific changes both in behavioral patterns and expectations, certain conducts and attitudes that are incredibly, incredibly prevalent," says Hershatter.

Millennials see themselves as part of the institution, and consequently, extend that relationship into their lives in ways that GenXers, the generation born between 1961 and 1981, have not.  "It is not unusual for me to get an update from a Millennial graduate that starts with ‘You would have been so proud of me…'" Hershatter says. "Of course I am proud, but I am additionally struck by the fact that they actually care what I think. I see this as part of a generational desire to maintain a lifelong link with the institutions that have shaped them on a very personal level."

Over the past year, Epstein has surveyed more than 800 students at Emory University and four other institutions, about half of whom are Millennials, and half GenXers. Among the most striking findings of her survey:

  • Nearly 70% of Millennials agreed with the statement that "Authority figures should set and enforce rules" – compared to around 40% of GenXers.  
  • 60% of Millennials agreed with the statement, "I trust authority figures to act in my best interest." Only 40% of GenXers agreed.
  • Nearly 60% of Millennials said they "felt comfortable asking for special treatment," while only 40% of GenXers felt that way.

The biggest difference for employers, professors say, may be that they are looking for work with much more meaning and significance than the prior generation. "Work for work's sake is not going to cut it," Hershatter says. "They need to understand what the organization stands for and what their role in it is; they are much less likely to be focused on their next step in terms of career progression, and more likely to care about making a meaningful contribution in their workplace."

This interest in doing good appears to be very deep-seated, according to Hershatter. Millennials have already shown an unusual tendency toward good works. In the past few years, there has been "an unprecedented rate of high school volunteerism, unbelievable achievement in terms of individuals and clubs gathering together to make things happen," she says. "As a collective, they have already proven to be both socially conscious and very action-oriented, with measurable results."

Epstein says that on many campuses right now, service sororities and fraternities are extremely popular. "They are growing like gangbusters because this generation has been told their whole lives that they're special, they're privileged, and it's their duty to give back," observes Epstein. "When I tell my fellow GenXers about the growth of service organizations among college kids, they're very surprised. GenXers were very inwardly-focused during our college years, and helping others was not high on our list of priorities. Millennials seem to have a stronger sense of self and confidence.  Volunteerism is just one of the many ways they show it."

Among the Boomers and GenXers, it's become common for people to try to vote their social concerns with their wallet, buying recycled paper and hybrid cars, for instance, because of the environmental benefits. Hershatter says this next generation may extend this thinking to their choice of company. "I think more and more you're going to see employees who need to know: what are the larger goals of the company, what does it stand for and how does that fit with my own definition of self," she speculates.

Beyond this penchant for doing good, Epstein and Hershatter say employers should expect that Millennials will bring about many other changes in the workplace as well. Some of the most positive changes, coming soon to an office near you: 

Women will take charge more often.  The majority of leadership roles in elementary and high school organizations are now held by girls. "These boys have been watching the girls take charge on and off the playing field ever since they were in kindergarten, and that will surely have an impact on their expectations in the workforce," Hershatter says.

Teamwork will be stronger.  "Millennials are unbelievably gifted at building, maintaining, and tapping into networks. I think that is a very interesting resource that more companies will figure out how to use," notes Hershatter.

Racial and ethnic tensions will be lower. "One of the things you would find is a very high comfort level among these students in working with others who represent different ethnic and racial backgrounds," Hershatter concludes. 

However, it's not all good news. Their formative years may have shaped them in ways that present challenges to companies as well, according to the professors:

Class tensions will be higher. Although they appear to be more relaxed than previous generations were in multicultural settings, Millennials may be more anxious about mixing with people from a different socio-economic class. Among the college-educated who have been polled, Hershatter says they seem "not to be particularly comfortable around populations less educated and less well off than they are."

Sense of personal responsibility may be lower.  "I think they're very reliant on people to tell them what they need to do," notes Hershatter. "The least positive thing I can say about this group is that they're not very good at accepting end-line responsibility."  Many students have grown up in an environment where, even in college, parents and professors give them constant reminders about what they need to complete and by when, according to Hershatter. "I tell them they have to learn to be personally accountable. What happens when you're at work? Is your manager going to have to be your babysitter?"

Risk-aversion will be greater. Hershatter says that one of her favorite observations from William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Millennials Rising: The next generation, is that Millennials tend to believe "they'll either be on the platform on time with their ticket punched or they'll miss the train and never be on the platform again."

Hershatter fears that this group, which has had such a structured life so far, may have difficulties if they run into situations that are less structured and ambiguous than their life experiences have been thus far. "They don't do very well in situations of ambiguity," Hershatter says. "They have been protected and directed since early childhood.  The helmets they have worn during every potentially dangerous physical activity are a great symbol of their early years.  From nanny-cams to after school programming to teaching-to-the test curriculums to early and binding college admissions, they have been shielded from unstructured time and unknown outcomes their whole lives. They have not had to be big risk takers thus far."

Epstein, who has consulted with major companies on how to adjust their workplaces to make them more Millennial-friendly, says that with Boomers now beginning to retire, employers need to make some adjustments in order to attract and retain the workers they need.

‘If [companies] maintain the status quo, Millennials are very likely to up and leave. They will leave a job in the first month or months and they have the confidence to do that. They have the confidence because they have very high self-esteem, they also are very confident in their ability to find another job," Epstein says.

Nor will the risk of being out of a job deter them from moving on, because they have a strong support network, starting with their parents. "So if a Millennial employee, a 22-year-old right out of college in her first job, says to a parent, ‘I'm not thriving here,' or worse yet, ‘this is an abusive environment,' the parents are likely to support their child in any way that they can." And the parents won't be providing only moral support: with so many two-earner families, "more parents can afford to keep on supporting their children until they find a happier situation," she says.

What do Millennials want from an employer? Epstein and Hershatter say that they care less about the money – Epstein says that many of them grew up with money, and take economic security for granted – and may be more motivated by other kinds of compensation.

"The Millennial generation likes money, is used to it, but they place a premium on their psychic income," Epstein says. "They will be more attracted to employers that provide that psychic income. Millennials will choose workplaces and employers that provide an environment where Millennials feel valued, have freedom to work on projects that are important to them, are recognized as individuals, and have opportunities to be mentored and to mentor others."

Millennials like companies that make community outreach projects not only part of what they do, but part of the work day. For a Millennial who may be torn between a business career and a career in community service, such programs can be very attractive, Epstein says.

Flexibility is also important to Millennials, according to Epstein. "For example, one of my students [in Atlanta] is in a relationship with a man in another city. She wants to work one week a month there, and her employer allows and encourages her to work remotely-- they want to keep her. It is a win/win situation: the employee feels valued and has a flexible work location; the employer retains a highly-talented specialist in a competitive market."

Epstein says her work has shown that Millennials crave special treatment and close contact with their supervisor. "They want someone who is a mentor, a guardian, someone who gets in the inside track, who provides individual guidance/special treatment," she says.

"Organizations that are doing well in this area are generally those that have a mentorship program. Mentorship programs have been growing in popularity over the last ten years, but they really address a lot of the Millennial's concerns," Epstein says. (Goizueta's Alumni Mentor Program continues to grow with a total of 800 members in the program. There are approximately 400 mentors and 400 mentees. Some mentors have more than one mentee and, in addition to attending mentor program events, they provide jobsharing experiences, and communicate via email and telephone.)

Strong diversity policies are attractive to them as well, because the group joining the professional world is more diverse than past generations of educated professionals. Millennials "have an eye towards who advances minorities," says Epstein. "To Millennials, the advancement of minorities sends a very positive message that this organization embraces all types of people. A board of directors comprised of solely white men may convey a message that to succeed at this organization, employees must fit a certain mold. And the absence of diversity might alienate anyone who values individuality."

Most of all, Millennials seem to want people who will go on telling them what to do and when, as their parents and teachers have told them up until now. "What we have here is a desire for leadership. Millennial employees want leadership," says Epstein. "They are very comfortable in an established, articulated hierarchy where they know exactly what the rules are, as well as the steps required for success."

Boomers and GenXers are likely to find working with Millennials positive, at least on balance, Hershatter predicts. However, she says, there are likely to be some tensions.  "I think that GenXers will be pleasantly surprised at their positive attitude, high work ethic, and respect -- and perpetually frustrated by their lack of initiative, their fear of ambiguity, and their need for constant reinforcement," Hershatter says.

Hershatter was beginning to notice Millennial behaviors in her classroom and office for a few years when she attended a presentation by William Strauss and became fascinated by the study of generational attitudes. She has since gathered all the information she can find on the topic and applied it to the business and academic environments.  She has been a frequent presenter around the country on the subject.

Epstein's interest in Millennials began when she realized her teaching style was not connecting with this new generation of students. Thus began her study of the generation. Read more about her research and the changes she's implemented in the classroom in next month's issue of Knowledge@Emory.

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