“Millennials” is a term invented by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1987 and initially it referred to those who would graduate from high school in the year 2000 (therefore, they wore born in 1982). Later on, in 1993, the term “Generation Y” appeared in an Ad Age editorial and referred to the demographic cohort following “Generation X”, i.e. those who were 11 or younger in 1993. Both terms today describe a new generation of executives, who were born in the years ranging from the early 1980s to around 2000 (some define 2004 as the “last” birth year of Millennials).
According to Forbes, approximately half of the U.S. workforce by 2020 will be Millennials. So, what does that mean and why is everyone so interested in Millennials? The truth is that this specific generation of human capital is by far more educated than previous generations. In addition, they are significantly diverse in terms of culture, and their expectations from their employees are remarkably different from and higher than what the business world was used to in the previous decades.
In order to understand how Millennials are different, it is very helpful to go back to what the previous generations of employees were looking for. According to Bev Robb, IT Consultant blogging for Dell, in her article titled Millennials are changing the workplace: “Where Baby Boomers and Gen Xers seek job security and structure, Millennials crave feedback, coaching, and flexibility”. In the years between 1970 and 2000, stability and structure were two basic characteristics of any job. Having a stable daily schedule and working from 9 to 5 (or for more than 8 hours per day) 6 with a physical presence in an office, was perfectly logical. Moreover, employees had specific tasks, a structured workflow and the roles of different departments were perfectly clear and absolutely separated.
But what happens nowadays? Technology makes it very easy to work from anywhere: from home, during a vacation, from a restaurant or a cafeteria. The only prerequisite is Internet access. So, it doesn’t make much sense in the mind of Millennials that they have to be in an office for 8 or more hours every day. Furthermore, technology makes it easier to be a freelancer and collaborate with executives in multiple companies. Thus, it is obvious that stability and structure are not actually desired by the new generation of employees. On the contrary, flexibility is a key feature of the ideal job, since it is viewed as the road to personal and professional development.
And this is why coaching and feedback are so important! Without security and stability, Millennials seek learning and professional development. They need to create their own path towards self-actualization. They need to have clear goals and regular appraisals, so that they can improve the quality of their work. Communicating with peers, analyzing data and informal appraisals during meetings with supervisors are highly desirable. The reason is that corrective action can be taken in case things are headed towards the wrong direction; if not, the employees will continue to do a great job, knowing they do a great job!
Another important change in the workplace brought by Millennials is the use of technology in every aspect of business. In the Leadership section of Forbes, Jacob Morgan writes in his article on The Future Of Work: “This is a group of people that grew up as digital natives meaning they had access to social networks, smart phones, tablets, and pretty much all of the other pieces of technology that we use today and the new behaviors that go along with them.” I couldn’t imagine of a better terminology than “digital native”; this is exactly what millennials are! When they were less than 10 years old, they knew about technology more than anyone who is today over 50 will ever learn. In their eyes, technology – and its devices/ platforms/ networks/ applications- is simply a part of everyday life. The more we use it, the better the outcome. In fact, there is no way not to use it.
And apart from the changes brought in the workplace by the extensive use of technology – to which older executives often find it difficult to adjust- Millennials also alter who does the job and why. They vastly prefer to work in teams, they enjoy undertaking interdisciplinary tasks, and they are looking for creativity in whatever they do. Jay Gilbert states in an article on Millennials in Ivey Business Journal that since Millennials grew up in a time where information was available instantly through a Google or Wikipedia search, they have developed into a group that wants to work on new and difficult problems, and ones that require creative solutions.
Therefore, Millennials need flexibility; need freedom; need creativity; need feedback and coaching. And what do they bring in the workplace in turn? One could argue that they do not contribute as much as older generations of employees, especially since they are less loyal. But who expects someone who has a freelancer mindset to be loyal? And going one step further, how can they be enormously loyal, when they have seen their colleagues, older or younger, their friends, and members of their families, getting fired due to the economic crisis?
In reality, this generation is bringing a lot in the workplace. Apart from solving problems in pioneering ways or using technology in order to complete given tasks faster and more efficiently, Millennials are actually succeeding in achieving critical change in the workplace. As Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a specialist in strategic leadership, puts it in one of her articles at Fortune, Millennials enable all the next generations in the workforce to have access to flexible work arrangements and turns such arrangements in an important talent development strategy. This is definitely the case, since recent research on HR trends places flexibility and employee well-being as key issues in human resources management and as top strategies used in order to attract talent.
In addition, the Millennials’ desire for learning and their participation in interdisciplinary teams have an extreme positive impact on the quality and quantity of skills possessed by a company’s workforce. Their presence in any corporation obviously has remarkable advantages, since they are skillful and knowledgeable in many different areas. Millennials may understand and handle issues in multiple disciplines, not only in their area of expertise; and they can easily understand whether a company is ethical and sensitive to social issues. According to a research conducted by PWC, this generation of employees is looking for employers with CSR values that matches their own values, whereas corporate social responsibility is a key decision making factor when looking for a job.
So, do Millennials want to make the world a better place? It certainly seems so. With less concern about the size of paychecks and more attention on the nature of work, the creativity and the learning associated with it, as well as the organization’s impact on society, millennials are bringing more essence in the corporate world. This characteristic of the new executives’ generation is described, among others, in the BBC article “The millennial generation shaking up the workplace rules”. As Nathan Blecharczyk, co-founder of room sharing website Airbnb, states “Millennials are known to be more purpose-driven”.
To sum up, Millennials are interested in improving the workplace and in turning the world in to a better place. Older executives and business owners should neither avoid them nor be skeptical about them. On the contrary, the business world should realize that Millennials bring a fresh, socially responsible, creative flair in organizations. And this flair combined with the experience of more senior executives can enhance the corporate image, improve employees’ relationships, and boost productivity, as well as benefit the society as a whole. Who could think of a better transformation in the business world?