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Millennials in the workplace

A quick Google search of ‘millennials in the workplace’ brings up results such as:

  • How to understand Millennials in the workplace;
  • What Do Millennials Really Want at Work?;
  • 11 tips For Managing Millennials

These results speak to a wider trend throughout the workforce – that many workplaces struggle to lead and retain millennial workers.

There is some debate over exactly what demographic millennials are, but generally the term is understood to mean anyone born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. This same demographic is also referred to as Generation Y.

Unsurprisingly, this generation is more technologically savvy than any of the preceding generations. Broadly speaking, they are more politically liberal than other generations, with a strong focus on social awareness and individual responsibility. And they have brought to the workforce skills that many organisations struggle to utilise and expectations that they fail to meet.

Millennials place a high value on work-life balance and often expect an employer to provide them with ongoing learning and development, career progression and mentoring and strong leadership. Only 2% of millennials view a career as a job for life, compared with 12% of other generations in the workforce. On average, Generation Y anticipate staying with an employer for roughly two to four years, while the average for the remainder of the workforce is over six years.

In turn they are accused by older generations of being entitled, narcissistic and unfocused, sometimes referred to as “Generation Me”.

Leadership expert, author and speaker, Simon Sinek, received a lot of attention for an interview he did in 2016 addressing millennials in the workplace. Sinek spoke about how he is regularly asked why millennials are un-leadable and why so many organisations struggle to meet their needs and hold on to them. Sinek outlined four main reasons why he thinks this is happening.

The first is the style of parenting many millennials were raised in. Sinek argues many of that generation were raised with the attitude “you are special and you can have whatever you want just because you want it”. Their self-esteem was massaged through “participation awards”, which ultimately devalued the effort more worthy award-winners and only made the kids who do poorly feel embarrassed.

Sinek suggests that this inflated sense of self-worth is shattered upon entering the workforce which then fosters low self-confidence and self-doubt.

Sinek’s second explanation is millennial’s unique relationship with technology. For many millennials their use of social media and mobile phones is a source of dopamine, a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine elevation is typically associated with alcohol and drug addiction. The pleasure sensation that the brain gets when dopamine levels are elevated creates the motivation for us to proactively perform actions that can recreate the sensation. Over time, by artificially raising the amount of dopamine the brain perceives is “normal,” the drugs – or social media – create a need that only they can meet. Sinek proposes that because many millennials have no restrictions set on social media use they are learning to seek validation and support from devices, not people. This can lead them to feel very isolated in the workplace, unable to form the type of relationships with their peers that would otherwise help support them.

Sinek’s third explanation is impatience. Millennials have grown up in a world of instant gratification. They’ve never had to learn to wait. They then apply this desire for instant gratification to jobs and relationships.

And then millennials’ relationships with self-esteem, social media and instant gratification are all put into play with Sinek’s fourth reason – the corporate environment. Millennials, without the skills to cope with stress and form connections, and in constant search for immediate results, are placed in corporate environments where their well-being is valued less than profit-making.

He argues it is the responsibility of the current leaders to help millennials by changing the corporate environment. “They blame themselves… but it’s not them. It’s the total lack of good leadership in our world today that is making them feel the way they do.”

Below are some methods for shifting your workplace environment to best welcome millennials, and make the most of their unique skills.

Enable training and career development

Highly-educated millennials have the opportunity to make their jobs a source of personal pride and fulfilment – they are more inclined to view their job as a method of “making an impact” on the world and providing meaning, rather than merely a means to make money. They want to grow, and react poorly to any sense of staticity or stagnancy. Rather than managers and leaders seeing this as a burden, it can be approached as an indication of millennials’ commitment to – and genuine investment – in the role.

Develop a welcoming workplace culture

Snide and petty comments about millennials’ perceived laziness and lack of focus does not create an environment millennials will particularly enjoy. Remember that every generation has had gripes about the generation that comes after it. Instead, take advantage of the millennials’ comfort and ease with working in teams. Make the most of their tech-savviness and ability multi-task. Millennials potential short-comings are usually paired with a skill other generations don’t have – don’t miss out what these skills can offer you workplace.

Adapt your management style

Much is made of millennials’ delicate egos and over-dependence on praise. But it is worth recognising the value of regular recognition of good work – for all your staff members, not just millennials. Rather than dismiss millennials’ needs as childish and unsupportable in the corporate world, look to what aspects of their upbringing and experience could have value. Don’t resist change simply on the grounds that it is unknown – instead make use of what’s now available to you.

Finally, it is important to note that any broad generalisations about an entire generation of people are inevitably going to paint only the broadest brush strokes, and for many these characterisations of millennials will be far from the truth. Indeed this portrait has been regularly criticised for only really encapsulating the traits of largely white, affluent millennials in the Western world. It’s therefore crucial that this commentary be taken with a grain of salt.


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