It's hard to read anything about business today and not trip over references to millennials and the changes they are bringing to the workplace. It has everyone in something of a lather.
It is true that there are major changes afoot in modern business and they have happened with the influx of the latest generation of workers. But those changes are bigger than any one cohort.
This Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 1999, has created an enormous amount of anxiety as employers scramble to figure out what will attract and retain them. Generation Y will, after all, constitute 75% of the workforce by 2025. Those who win the hearts of millennials will win the war on talent. No question.
But there are those on the flip side of the issue who argue that nothing is new under the sun, that the differences cited in generational attitudes are fiddle faddle, and that the uniqueness we see in this younger group is largely age and development related. That is, the thought is that millennial attitudes will shift as they age and eventually fall into the same patterns as older generations.
Both sides are missing the real story. It is true that our youngest workers have ushered in a lot of new ways of thinking about old ideas. But the truth is, we are ALL becoming millennial. Take this Pew test for yourself (How Millennial Are You?) and encourage those around you to take it as well. You might be surprised at how little the results correspond to chronological age. (I scored 97% millennial although I belong to Generation X.)
The fact is, we're looking so hard at this new generation that we are failing to reflect enough on the changes that are sweeping the rest of us–traditionals, boomers, and Gen Xers included.
I've been crunching data recently for our upcoming Workforce Mood Tracker report and I have to say that I've been surprised that millennials do not differ from the workforce at large in as many areas as you'd think.
Consider these seven qualities that we tend to attribute to our youngest workers, and how they really describe the way we've all changed:
Millennials are digitally connected 24/7. I'm a Gen Xer and I sleep with my phone next to my pillow. So does my Mom. I was in a large meeting yesterday with mixed generations, and it dawned on me that not one person out of the group was wearing a traditional watch—but every one of them had their phone on the table or in their pocket. According to the Pew Internet Project, 91% of Americans now own cell phones and 55% now own smartphones. That number is expected to grow to a near 80% share by 2017. The average person checks their phone 10 times an hour. That's person... not just millennial. We are ALL connected by mobile devices, and those of us who aren't will be soon. Any attempt to connect with your workforce that doesn't take this into account will fail.
Millennials don't stay for the gold watch. No one stays for the engraved gold watch anymore. (No one even wants an engraved gold watch anymore, and if they got one they'd probably put it up on eBay). When employees do stay, they stay for their co-workers and their work. When I started my career, a respectable resume had you spending at least five years in every job; then the statistic dropped to two years. Nowadays, some employers even react the opposite way–if you have too few listings on a resume they may worry you might be complacent, in low demand, or resistant to new ideas. Average tenure rates with millennials in the workforce are around 4.6 years–but that number has remained more or less the same, with some economy driven variation, since the 1980s. That means if you're waiting around to reward and thank people until they hit their five year anniversary, they have probably already moved on–regardless of what year they were born.
Millennials desire continuous positive feedback. Guess what? No one likes negative feedback... even when it is constructive. And we all like positive feedback. In fact, according to Gallup, managers who give little or no feedback fail to engage 98% of employees. Those who concentrate feedback on strengths reduce employee disengagement to less than 1%. The power of feedback is a recurring topic for us on this blog, so I won't get into too much detail on it, but suffice it to say that all employees are hungry for ongoing, real-time feedback that confirms they are doing good work and shows they are appreciated for it. When we get positive reinforcement, we are more satisfied, more engaged, and happier.
Millennials demand flexibility and choice. The Millennial Generation certainly didn't discover individuality or flexibility, but their advent has coincided with a broader recognition that employee well-being–physical, psychological, and developmental–is good for business. That recognition, combined with the millennials' expectation to be treated like special snowflakes, has opened up a realization that our work lives can be much richer if we are given more control, choice, and ownership over them. Companies, too, have begun to understand that when we trust employees like responsible individuals, they will behave like responsible individuals and will work all the harder for it. Most forward-thinking companies have begun to adapt this more flexible way of thinking about their workforce–designing more choice into their total rewards and talent management strategies–and are reaping the rewards.
Millennials want meaningful work and to give back. Morality and responsibility have re-entered our cultural dialogue with this generation, but they are not alone in caring about these ideas, which long pre-date them. They want to work for companies with a strong mission and cultural values. They want to work for companies who have strong moral standing and practice virtuousness. Well, so do we all. According to Don MacPherson from Modern Survey, "employees are now 37 times more likely to be fully engaged if they know and understand their organization’s values." Meaning and mission have grown in importance for us all and do not belong only to our youngest employees.
Millennials expect to be developed and groomed. Again, desires for advancement and development are highly associated with millennials. Only companies with strong L&D plans have a hope of keeping this generation on board. On the other hand, this is also true for all employees. When BlessingWhite asked workers why they leave companies, the #1 answer was a "lack of opportunity to grow or advance." Stagnation affects employees in every life stage, and we all respond positively to hopes of learning or advancing in our careers.
Millennials need social approval and crowdsource everything. Anyone who has a relative under the age of 30 will no doubt have witnessed firsthand the intensely social nature of the Millennial Generation–especially in how they use electronics and the internet to rate and share experiences and to gauge their own success through the eyes of their peers. Social connections and crowdsourcing are advancing not only because of adoption by milliennials, but because technology has finally made them possible. Connecting with one another benefits us all, and the more workplaces make that possible, the more workers in every generation will thrive.
Academic research bears this out. A recent meta-review of academic studies on generational differences found that "leaders should view generational differences not merely as idiosyncratic inter-group differences, nor as a reflection of age differences at a moment in time, but as manifestations of broader trends in society and work that continue to evolve as the generations move through their respective life courses."
The study, published by Sean Lyons and Lisa Kurons in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, goes on to conclude: "This means that past management practices cannot be assumed to work in the modern context and today's practices cannot be presumed to work in the future. The generational trends evident in this review suggest that workers are becoming more independent and self-focused and less committed to their organizations and, as a result, are more mobile in their careers. Workers are increasingly seeking personal fulfillment in their work, and leaders and employers who can satisfy their individualistic growth needs will have a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent. Employers may accept these trends and adjust to a new reality of transactional, short-term employment relationships, or must work to provide flexible work conditions, job offerings, and leadership to simultaneously meet the needs of multiple generations." Now to be sure, millennials are further ahead and leading the charge on all of these things I listed above, and Lyons and Kurons' article makes it clear there ARE proven differences among cohorts. But these are changes that affect us all. Millennials are clearing a path to make all our work lives better. It's time we stop thinking of this as a generational shift, and start thinking about it as a workforce shift. We are all millennials, now.
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Darcy Jacobsen is a content marketing manager at Globoforce, the world’s leading provider of SaaS (software-as-a-service)–based employee recognition solutions. Through its social, mobile, and global technology, Globoforce helps HR and business leaders elevate employee engagement, increase employee retention, manage company culture, and discover the power of real-time performance management. Contact Jacobsen or follow her writing at www.globoforce.com/gfblog.
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