The truth behind millennial myths

There's two sides to Gen Y, and HR has to know how to appease both, expert says

The truth behind millennial myths
Entitled, needy, naive, wired, and flighty – there are a lot of myths about millennials clogging the airwaves and making headlines.

We sat down with David Altman, COO of the global non-profit Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), to discuss the research his team has done on generations, and debunk a number of urban myths about millennials in the workplace.

Citing from CCL’s ‘What Millennials Want From Work’ by Jennifer Deal and Alec Stevenson – the most comprehensive research on millennials to date – Altman explains that the only way to understand this hot-topic generation is to stop buying into the hype, and accept that they’re just like everyone else.

According to Altman, millennials are a generation of polarities:
  • Millennials are entitled and hardworking.
Millennials want their voices to be heard. They refuse to do repetitive, boring work and want to have a life outside of it. They expect flexibility. “You can label that entitlement, if you want,” Altman said. “But other generations would say the same thing.”
So as needy as they are perceived to be, millennials are also incredible workers. “They work long hours. They don’t expect to stop work when they leave the office. They want to contribute beyond their job descriptions. They want to work hard and move up in the organisation,” Altman added.
  • Millennials are needy and independent.
According to Altman, millennials do, indeed, work best in environments with open lines of communication. But with feedback and guidance, they grow into independent powerhouses in the workplace.
“Give them feedback,” he said. “Provide them with mentoring. Allow them to do reverse-mentoring. When things get tough, give them support. But give them control and decision making latitude.”
  • Millennials are determined to do good and do well.
Millennials want to make money and succeed in their careers. They want to be able to afford certain luxuries for themselves. According to Altman, that’s doing well.
But millennials also want to do good, he says. Firms should make sure that millennials see a connection between the business strategy and the impact that the business is having on clients, on stakeholders, and the world at large.
  • Millennials are high-tech and they’re also high-touch.
“Millennials are comfortable with technology; they’ve grown up into it. Their friendships in part are connected to technology. They love technology at work because it makes boring work less boring, it saves time,” Altman said. “And yet, that does not mean that they don’t want to be with people.”
He suggests firms embrace technology as a tool, but not to forget that it’s not the only one.
“Don’t assume that all they want is communication via technology,” Altman said. “They are human. Create opportunities for human interaction. And facilitate, or allow them to make friends at work.
  • Millennials are committed and they’re leaving.
Like every other generation, Altman says that millennials have certain standards. “If they’re getting what they want, if they’re being developed, if they feel like they’re being paid fairly, if they have friends at work, if they have mentors – they’re gonna stay in the organisation,” he said.
“But they don’t have blind loyalty. And they’re not gonna stay no matter what.”

So how can firms make the most of these findings, and best cater to this new generation of workers? For starters, they can throw their millennial-specific strategies out the window, and adopt a broader, more inclusive HR strategy.

“In broad terms, pay attention to three categories: the people, the work, and the opportunities,” Altman said.

“Create an environment so that millennials and people from other generations can develop friendships, positive relationships that provide opportunities for learning,” he said.

“Workers want to feel a sense of community at work. That, for all generations, creates the stickiness that would facilitate lower turnover and higher staff engagement.”

“This is overly simplistic and easier-said-than-done, but structure work so that it’s interesting, meaningful, and flexible in how and when workers can get their work done,” he said.

“You don’t have to structure jobs from 9 to 5 for everybody. If you can build a workplace that accommodates the different interests and different needs of workers across generations, you’re more apt to retain and engage your workforce.”

“Millennials, because they’re young and in lower levels in the organisations, surely worry about stagnating and not being competitive in the job market,” he said.

“So if they’re in an organisation wherein they feel stuck, they’re not advancing or developing new skills, they’re not getting feedback, they’re not being compensated, they’re going to leave.”
Fundamentally, millennials want what every other generation of workers wants.

“They want to do interesting work,” Altman said. “They want to work with people they enjoy working with. They want to be paid fairly for the work that they do. And they still want to have time for life outside work. Is that any different from people in their 60s, 50s, 40s, or 30s? I say no, that’s pretty much what the rest of people want out of work.”

“When you label a generation as needy and entitled, that creates conflict and draws readers in. What you can do is bring data, research, and science into it. There’s more to the story. They hold our future. So let’s deeply understand them and don’t just superficially stereotype millennials with these labels.”

For a deeper dive into the science behind CCL’s landmark body of research, you can learn more about ‘What Millennials Want From Work’ here.

Related stories:
Is it time to ditch millennial stereotypes?
The one thing millennials and boomers both want at work

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