Millennials: more millennial by the day

By Sarah Gurney

A new generation of employees is poised to reshape the workplace on a global scale.

As the baby boomer generation enters the end phase of their working lives, the newest generation of workers, millennials, are entering the working world in vast numbers. This new generation, born between 1980 and 2000, are very different to their ‘generation X’ and ‘baby boomer’ predecessors; they have different career expectations and are motivated by different things.

Considering the fact that by 2020 millennials will make up 50 percent of the global workforce, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report Millennials at work: Reshaping the work space, it is critical that employers adapt their policies to attract and retain this influential generation of employees, poised to reshape the world of work.

Making a millennial

If you do a quick Google search for millennials, the terms that the search engine predicts are telling of the perceived characteristics of this generation: ‘millennials are lazy’; ‘millennials and technology’; ‘millennials and social media’; ’millennials rising’.

There is the perception amongst baby boomers and generation x, as Google suggests, that, while millennials may be tech-savvy and intelligent, they lack motivation. Whether this stereotype is accurate or rather the result of a lack of understanding between generations is up for debate.

Certain characteristics attributed to millennials may be the result of their age; they are at a point in their lives where they do not have many responsibilities, and their priorities are likely to change as they grow older. However, it is ultimately up to employers to ensure that millennials are judged on performance rather than preconceptions.

According to a worldwide survey conducted by PwC, aimed at providing insights into the career expectations and values of recent graduates entering the workplace, what sets millennials apart is their affinity with the digital world.

The survey report, entitled Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace, explains that millennials have grown up with broadband, smartphones, laptops, and social media being the norm and expect instant access to information. According to the report, this is the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of a key business tool than more senior workers — leading to prominent generational tensions.

It is not simply their affinity with technology that defines this generation, however. They behave differently and are not motivated by the type of incentives that have typically been used to encourage productivity and loyalty from previous generations of workers. They are an ambitious and optimistic generation who have been brought up to believe that they can succeed against the odds, and they expect to progress quickly along their chosen career path.

Amanda Sevasti, Head of Social Media at Native VML — one of the leading digital agencies in South Africa believes that one of the defining characteristics of millennials is their drive. “Millennials are motivated, interested, and keen,” she says, “and the older generations don’t always know quite how to deal with that. They want to learn by being involved in things that aren’t strictly part of their job description.”

A wise move, Sevasti explains, because the job market is changing so rapidly. The new generation of employees will have a lot more jobs over the course of their careers than previous generations. “My father would probably be horrified at the number of jobs I’ve had already,” she says. “I watched my parents in their careers — they followed the rules and made a living. Their jobs made them comfortable, but not happy or inspired.”

This is another key attribute that sets the younger generation apart, according to the PwC survey — for millennials, money isn’t everything. While they value a decent salary, factors such us opportunities for career progression, training/development programmes and a healthy work/life balance are just as, if not more, appealing.

While 44 percent of those questioned in PwC survey said that competitive wages/financial incentives made an employer more attractive, 52 percent stated that opportunities for progression were the biggest draw card when choosing an employer.

Google is correct, it seems; millennials are indeed rising. They expect to climb the career ladder rapidly. They’d like it if that process involved overseas travel. They’d like to work for a company with values they admire. Corporate social responsibility means something to them.

What’s more — and this is what employers need to pay attention to — if millennials feel that these things are not being offered by their current employer, they are likely to look elsewhere for an employer who does meet these needs. Gone are the days where new graduates find a job and settle into it for the next 40 years. Employers not only have to look at new ways to attract millennials — they have to look at how to retain them too.

Mind the generational gap 

 While millennials enter the working world in large numbers, their generation X and baby boomer counterparts are still very much a part of the workplace culture they helped create. Thus, while it is crucial for employers to adapt and streamline their management policies to cater for millennials, they need to ensure that older generations are still taken into account when it comes to company culture, and that a generational balance is maintained.

The tension between generations is greatest, Sevasti believes, when younger generations are not trusted with projects. “Rather than giving millennials tasks with no responsibility, they need to be given something they can own,” she advises.

“They need to be guided and helped, but, at the end of the day, if the project is successful, they should be given the kudos. And vice versa, if the project goes wrong. The biggest mistake that management can make in not understanding millennials is to treat them like children.”

For the most part, millennials enjoy working with their more experienced counterparts. According to PwC’s survey, 76 percent of respondents indicated that they are happy working alongside older, senior management, and only 4 percent disagreed.

However, when questioned more closely, these millennials were aware of the generational tensions and the antipathy which, commentators believe, predominantly comes from older generations. Thirty-eight percent of those questioned believe that senior management struggle to relate to younger employees and 34 percent felt that their personal drive could be intimidating to older co-workers. Interestingly, women (31 percent) were less likely to feel this way than men (38 percent).

Given the rapid growth in numbers of millennial employees, bridging the gap between generations needs to be a priority for HR departments. A solution identified by PwC is a ‘reverse mentorship’ programme, where more senior employees are paired with younger ones in an effort to help the older generation understand the millennials’ perspective.

The older generation learns about the latest workplace trends and about social media, while the younger generation is given a valuable glimpse into the world of management via top-level access. This in turn results in a reduced turnover rate.

This reverse mentorship would be particularly valuable in Africa — a region where generational tensions are highest when it comes to the use of technology. Seventy-five percent of millennials in Africa felt that their use of technology at work was not always understood by older generations (as opposed to 65 percent of respondents worldwide).

Duncan Phillips, a South African millennial who currently works as a software developer at Amazon after a stint working for Facebook in San Francisco, believes that these tensions stem from differences of opinion in terms of priorities.

“I’m sure the vast majority of the older generations don’t care much for keeping up with the Kardashians on Twitter,” he says. “I can understand that a lot of technology these days is seen as noise for them, useless or irritating, and this is probably where the frustration lies — a difference of opinion in terms of how one’s time should be spent.”

Phillips believes that, when it comes to the generational gap, the biggest shift is from a conservative attitude to taking greater risks. “Our generation seems to be happy to take on more risk for more reward,” he says, “often working harder and longer in the hopes of moving up the ladder faster. My career expectations are that the job I have will keep me engaged and challenged, whilst allowing me to support the lifestyle that I would like to lead.”

Attracting (and retaining) the next generation of talent

A good place to start when it comes to understanding what appeals to millennials is to look at the companies considered pioneers in crafting an entirely new kind of company culture.

An international example of such a company is Facebook. Having worked at their San Francisco office for a year, Phillips paints a picture of this new approach to company culture.

“Facebook certainly challenges the previous generation’s approach to the office culture and have grown an incredible culture of their own,” he says. “For me, the big thing they do is to focus on making sure that their employees have everything they needed to do their jobs, including all the small things. Engineers have the freedom to explore interesting product ideas; managers aren’t there to micro-manage, they are there to move your ideas forward. The campus has incredible on-site facilities such as a gym, arcades, restaurants, and a sweet shop.

“The restaurants have become the new ‘water cooler’, and often some of the best ideas and concept projects are born from a group of people having lunch together. They manage to maintain that feeling that you’re a community who are coming together to build something great,” Phillips explains.

Closer to home, Quirk Marketing Agency (based in Cape Town, Johannesburg and the United Kingdom) decided to stop talking about empowering their employees and actually do so in a meaningful way. They formulated a process that allows any employee to suggest ideas via a big notice board prominently displayed in the office, garner support for them, and then have their suggestions implemented (if they manage to gather enough support).

If an idea gets the required 12 votes on the board, the person responsible for the idea writes a one-page proposal which is submitted to Quirk’s leadership team. If the idea is approved, it is displayed on the ‘ideas in motion’ section of the board, and, once implemented, under ‘it’s happening’. Ideas that have not been successful are displayed in the ‘graveyard’, along with the reason why they were not implemented.

Furthermore, if the leadership team does not approve an idea, it can still be put to debate and voted on within the company. This vote can thus overturn the decision of the Quirk leadership. It’s all about democracy — giving people a platform where their ideas are heard in a transparent and real way.

Employers need to shift focus in terms of the benefits offered to employees; to offer new opportunities for growth and development, ways for employees to work their way up the ladder faster if they are willing to earn it, and mentorship from more senior employees. Mix teams generationally.

Let employees learn from one other and see things from new perspectives. Give millennials the freedom they crave to get the job done unconstrained by rigid work styles. Give them positive and helpful feedback in real time — and then stand back and watch them grow.

Ultimately, employers need to understand millennials and plan ahead when it comes to new recruitment and management policies. With this understanding comes the acknowledgment that millennials may not stick around as long as previous generations. They are always looking for ways in which to advance their careers, which means that employers should expect them to move on, and plan accordingly.

What do millennials want?

It’s not all about the money for millennials. So what else is important to them?

· Fast progression: the opportunity to learn as much as they can in order to fast-track their careers.

· Flexibility: the freedom to work where and how best suits them, as long as they get the work done.

· A work/life balance: they will work hard when it counts, but millennials are aware that work is not the sum total of their existence.

· Travel opportunities: most millennials would like their job to include some overseas work experience.

· Regular feedback and praise: annual performance reviews are just too infrequent for millennials. They prefer to know how they’re doing much more regularly, and how they can improve.

· Common values: millennials look for employees with corporate social responsibility values that match their own.

· Democracy: they like to feel like their opinions are heard.

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