The Millennials, pt 4: What to do about them?


Today, we reach the end of the series about the Millennials – that big generation born in the 1980s and 1990s that employers, media, and consultants all vehemently wish to understand. In three consecutive blog posts, I have tried to scrutinize widely held beliefs about this generation from a scientific point of view. We have looked at the big problems attached to studying generations in research, and we have reviewed a number of commonly held assumptions about Millennials’ work values and work attitudes. So after this intense deep-dive in research – what are the implications? How can managers, HR departments, and employees for that matter, make use of a more nuanced research-based view on the Millennials? In no way claiming to have some definite answer, I have tried to distill some food for thought from the literature and my own experience as a researcher.

  • It’s evolution rather than revolution. A lot of actors have a lot to gain from depicting the Millennials as a tidal wave now splashing into the workplace, since the implication of that would be that companies need to get ready for them now (read: spend a lot of money on books and consultants in order to please this new species). But what research shows is that most of the characteristics displayed by Millennials only represent the latest step in long-standing societal trends – such as increasing individualization, decreasing acceptance for authority and hierarchy, and an increased mingling of the work and leisure domains. Thus, in most respects you don’t have to apprehend a radical shift from one day to another – rather, make sure your organization is engaging in a long-term job to adapt to the mega-trends in working life. They will likely continue well beyond the Millennial generation.
  • Distinguish between attraction and retention. Research seems to indicate that what draws Millennials to a certain organization is not necessarily the same as what keeps them there. Some of the notorious buzzwords surrounding this generation – such as social awareness, making a difference, and value congruence – seem to be more important when it comes to attracting them in the first place. In order to make them stay, however, there is little sign of Millennials being any less interested in pay, recognition, and benefits than any prior generation. Strengthening intrinsic motivation is clearly very important for long-term motivation and happiness – but that has little to do with generations; it is more of a universal value. Stated differently: Social responsibility and good values are probably growing in importance to get you a foot in the door with the Millennials, but once you have managed to hire them you will likely have to rely on the old classic – a nice mixture of extrinsic and intrinsic inducements.
  • Happy now, not later. One of the broad trends that seems to emerge from research findings is that Millennials are living more in the present than previous generations. They value their leisure interests, they want work to be fun, and they want to have good working conditions in the here and now. And although evidence is still inconclusive, it does seem like this generation is also more prepared to jump ships if not happy in the workplace. Hence: Don’t expect them to do years of struggle in order to perhaps get some attractive position later on. Don’t expect them to want to ”pay their dues” at your company. At least not if you are not very clear with why they should do it, and what type of coaching and support they can expect during that time. Also, this means that direct supervisors can no longer wait to act on employees’ discontent. If someone is unhappy with work, you will have to act as fast as possible to show you are addressing the issue.
  • Set a routine for managing expectations. There seems to be at least some support for the notion that Millennials enter the workplace with higher expectations, that they are more confident about their own value, and – as mentioned above – that they are less prepared to wait for gratification. To some extent this is a good thing, since it forces employers to step up their game. However, reality does not allow for all these high expectations to be realized. Managers and HR need to have an agenda for how to manage junior employees’ expectations from day one. In my experience, one of the most effective ways to do this is to work with gap analysis: Set goals together with the employee for what skills and competencies he or she needs to develop in order to take on the next challenge, and continuously assess how far along the person has come in acquiring those skills. This way, you can help the employee form a realistic view of career development and opportunities, while also getting a routine for discussing his or her development at work.

To conclude, it is clear that the Millennial generation does bring some changes to the workplace – and most of them are for the better. This generation seems to be better than previous ones at demanding management practices that are already known to be effective, such as frequent feedback, swift interventions to remedy work environment problems, and a focus on providing engaging tasks. At the same time, we have learnt that reality is a lot more nuanced than the image often painted in the media: These people still place a lot of value on pay and benefits, they are no more intrinsically driven than previous generations and we are not sure that they are less interested in job security than their predecessors. And also remember: The Millennials are still young. As they increasingly enter their childrearing and family years, some work values – albeit not all – are likely to evolve too.



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