The impact of Millennials on the workplace

Key takeaways

  • Millennials now make up more of the workforce than any other generation.
  • As the first to come of age in a digital world, they operate in significantly different ways to their older counterparts.
  • By adapting corporate culture to accommodate the Millennial mindset, businesses can attract new talent and gain a competitive edge.

Society often tells us that Millennials are a unique cohort. Believe what you read, and they’re a generation of job-hopping, entitled, narcissistic, distracted and lazy young things.

For the last decade, the term ‘Millennials’ has been used to generalise what’s right and wrong with young people. By now, however, Millennials are well into adulthood. Born between 1981 and 1996, the youngest are 23; the oldest are around 38 and nudging into leadership roles. Since 2016, there have been more Millennials in the workforce than any other generation1 and by 2020, they’re forecast to make up 35% of the global workforce.2

Millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in history. Empowered by digital platforms, they’ve witnessed the force of large-scale action and continue to spearhead some of the greatest social movements of the day: think of Black Lives Matter, or Occupy Wall Street. But they also came of age at the height of the economic recession, meaning that career compromises were made and choices became more heavily influenced by personal needs, purpose and values.

A generation riding the wave of digital

It’s not just society that’s changed under the weight of the Millennial generation. In the workforce, Millennials seek a management style and corporate culture that is significantly different from anything that has gone before.

Meanwhile, many companies are struggling to attract or retain top talent. According to PwC’s 22nd CEO Survey, conducted in late 2018, availability of key skills is now the third biggest threat to growth, with 34% of business leaders saying they are extremely concerned by lack of talent.3

Salaries and titles are no longer the defining feature to attract the best people. The employer-employee relationship is beyond merely transactional. Work isn’t seen as something you can leave at the door. By understanding and adapting to the culture of today’s workforce; by inspiring them and responding to their needs, businesses can remain not only competitive but also relevant.   

Here, we look at some of the features of the Millennial workforce.

They are social

With social media really kicking off in the early noughties, it’s been a constant presence in the lives of most Millennials.

Social media is about building and sustaining connections. It’s a place where individuals often strive to present a better version of themselves. The same attitude is creeping into professional personas, too.

In what The New York Times refers to as “toil glamour”, “In the new work culture, […] merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers.” With a Millennial’s employer aligned to their public persona, organisational values are incredibly important.

Social media also drives other behaviour that may seem unusual to older generations. In a recent panel event, Andrew Bassat, co-founder and CEO of Australian recruitment portal Seek, commented on what has now become the new normal, saying: “People are so used to posting on social media, that stuff that would once have been called boastfulness has become so common. It’s now OK to post something and say, ‘Look at wonderful I am,’ and someone else says: ‘You’re wonderful’. People today are very willing to push themselves forward.”

So what?

Harness this new way of ‘social’ thinking for your organisation. How can your business enable communication in a way that is relevant to the current workforce? How does your organisation put itself forward in the context of social media, or attract talent via its social presence?

A study published in Harvard Business Review found that “employees who engage in online social interactions with coworkers through social media blogs tend to be more motivated and come up with innovative ideas.”4 Think of ways to set up digital forums for colleagues to connect and collaborate.

There are also a number of social-media based peer recognition solutions on the market — such as 7geese or Kazoo — which allow staff to highlight and reward their colleagues for excellent work.

They want transparency and feedback

Historically, workplace feedback has been a formal, structured process, and most certainly delivered in a downwards direction. Today, thanks to the internet, people are immersed in a hyper feedback culture: accustomed to others commenting on and validating their actions in real time.

This mirrors the shift in workplace expectations. Millennials seek agency and honest, in-the-moment feedback. Not only do they wish to receive it, they also expect to give it. Feedback has become a two-way street.

Sites such as Glassdoor have paved the way to shift power dynamics away from the employer and towards the employee. These public avenues enable employees to anonymously post opinions about their company and its management. This transparency extends to sharing previously guarded information such as salaries. Workplaces themselves are following suit, with many companies now proactively choosing to publish such information.

So what?

Transparency for today’s employees means regular feedback and recognition, both formal and informal. In a data-driven, fix-it-quick world, they’re after specific examples of good performance, targeted development areas and advice around how to close development gaps.

As working environments have changed (think communal work spaces, hot desking and the shift away from closed offices) so too have the expectations around information sharing. Commercial conversations are expected to go beyond the boardroom. Good practice around transparency should extend to offering regular business updates to ensure employees feel engaged in the broader company’s commercials, goals and performance tracking.

They aren’t afraid to seek work/life balance

While Millennials take more senior positions in the workplace, they’re also reshaping expectations around personal life.  

One of the first generations to share parental responsibilities, Millennials are turning away from the traditional five-day week. And with the technology readily available to support it, remote and flexible working isn’t seen as a privilege — it’s a requirement.

The flow-on effect is that delineation between work and personal lives is frequently blurred. People are accustomed to being ‘always on’ and setting their own parameters around how and when they work.  

Millennials are not necessarily the first generation to want a better work/life balance. In 2012, PwC surveyed 44,000 of its employees and discovered that Millennial staff didn’t object to long hours outright, nor were they less committed to their work than older colleagues. The only difference, “was that Millennials were willing to speak up about their dissatisfaction, and to opt out when problems couldn’t be resolved.”5

So what?

Getting the technology right is crucial to enable remote working. Set your teams up with tools that support effortless collaboration and flexible working. Where possible, shift the emphasis away from time-based value to output value. Recognising staff for the work they do and not the time they spend on it will support them to achieve the balance they crave without the artificial optics of face time as a measure for effort.

There is opportunity to re-think the types of roles offered. Explore part-time, contract work and job-sharing for what may have previously been viewed as full-time roles.

Mobility is key

Millennials have very different attitudes to mobility and the number of careers in their lifetime than previous generations.

While debate rages over whether Millennials really do job-hop more than previous generations, they can certainly expect to see more diversity in their careers. They also plan to work for longer: globally, 27% expect to work past 70, and 12% say they will likely work until they die.6

With such a long road ahead, Millennials don’t think of career advancement in terms of seniority and time of service. Progression is not necessarily linear — results matter more than tenure.

So what?

Provide staff with the opportunity to rotate within your company, in areas that interest them — postings that LinkedIn’s co-founder Reid Hoffman famously calls a “tour of duty”7. This allows them to advance their career and build their personal brand without leaving the organisation.  

Hoffman suggests a ‘statement of alliance’ before a person commences employment.8 In it, the employee shares their anticipated tenure at the company and both parties state what they hope to achieve in that time. They also agree to act to “maintain a long-term alliance, even if the employment relationship ends”, with the goal of the alum performing as ambassador for the organisation in later years.

Finally, accommodate the reality that staff will have side hustles and portfolio careers — potentially multiple income streams and business interests. How can your organisation support that?

They’re hungry for training and development

Millennials taught themselves digital skills during their teenage years. They’re used to constant, iterative improvement, and want to apply this to their working processes.

Unlike previous generations, Millennials don’t subscribe to the idea of a specialised professional that stays in lane. They see the solution to a longer working life as continuous skills development.

Globally, CEOs say ‘significant retraining and upskilling’ is the answer to closing the skills gap. This presents great opportunity for the employee to grow in order to help the organisation reach its potential, and the business to invest in the employee’s long-term career goals by enabling training.  

PwC 22nd CEO Survey

When asked about the most important way to close the potential skills gap, business leaders in PwC’s 22nd CEO Survey flagged ‘retraining and upskilling’. Millennials are constantly seeking opportunities to grow — presenting an opportunity for organisations to find the right resources from within.

So what?

A stiff environment that offers no shortcuts or room for improved practices presents a frustration for Millennials. Is your organisation truly open to change and transformation?  

Have strategies in place to ensure your people are provided with constant opportunities for development. Short-term, skills-based e-learning might present a more economical solution and rapid way of acquiring the desired skills. Think creatively about how a culture of learning can be nurtured. From workplace learning delivered by mobile phone, to informative flyers pinned to the door of a toilet cubicle (a tactic we’ve seen at Google9) — what’s important is that staff are inspired to develop their knowledge and skills.

Building a Millennial bridge

In every organisation, there are inevitably generational differences and tensions that will need to be addressed. (Segmenting employee engagement results by age group may help define these.)

However, much like the sweeping societal changes driven by this first generation of digital natives, organisations, too, are faced with adapting to new behaviours and ways of working.

Not only will businesses gain a competitive advantage by building a culture for their workforce to thrive in, but it presents a valuable learning opportunity. Millennials are now in the majority, and most likely make up the majority of your customers, too.

Recognise also that every generation is different and change is a constant. The next generation will no doubt have even more surprises in store.