Millennials in the Workplace: How to Attract, Engage & Retain Young Talent

Ten thousand baby boomers retire every single day.

That’s a lot of big, experienced shoes to fill in the workplace. It’s no wonder that attracting top talent is frequently cited as one of the biggest concerns of today’s CEOs — particularly when those CEOs are scouring for that talent among millennials. This misunderstood and heavily scrutinized generation has been called everything from lazy, flighty, and entitled to self-involved, impatient, and needy.

One thing is certain about the generation that seems to be struggling with “adulting” — millennials are unlike any generation before them in some pretty interesting ways. Companies looking to remain competitive as this generation permeates the workforce will need to change how they operate in order to attract, develop and retain the best of the bright-eyed millennials.

In this article, we’ll break down who millennials are and how they differ from older generations, share millennials’ workplace priorities, and offer strategies for managing the workforce of the future.

Who Are Millennials?

Although the years included vary, the millennial generation — also known as Generation Y — is loosely defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. Based on that range, today’s millennials are anywhere from 16 to 36 years of age.

Greater in numbers than their Gen X elders, millennials are taking the workplace by storm. According to Forbes, “A full 86 million millennials will be in the workplace by 2020 — representing a full 40 percent of the total working population.” Other projections suggest millennials will account for 75 percent of the workforce by 2025 (source: Fast Company). But millennials are more than just numbers and percentages. They’re a distinct generation raised during a unique time period filled with rapid change and technological advancement. So really, who are millennials?

An Ivy Business Journal article offers this description: “Millennials are well-educated, skilled in technology, very self-confident, able to multi-task, and have plenty of energy. They have high expectations for themselves and prefer to work in teams rather than as individuals. Millennials seek challenges, yet work-life balance is of utmost importance to them. They do, however, realize that their need for social interaction and immediate results in their work and their desire for speedy advancement may be seen as weaknesses by older colleagues.”

Now we’re starting to get a clearer picture of who millennials are — but what makes them different than preceding generations?

What Makes Millennials Different?

The most obvious — and likely the most significant — difference between millennials and older generations is the impact technology has had on their lives from an early age. They grew up as the internet came to exist, cell phones and smartphones took over our lives, and social media connected us in ways that had never been possible before.

As a result, millennials are the first generation of digital technology natives. They often come into positions having a better understanding of business solutions and technology systems than their seasoned colleagues. And because they are a generation who grew up with information instantly available, they like to work on new, tough problems — often ones that require creativity or out-of-the-box thinking.

PwC study on millennials suggests this generation was also heavily influenced by the recent global economic crisis: “Colored by their experience of the global economic crisis, this generation places much more emphasis on their personal needs than on those of the organisation.” Many had to make sacrifices or compromises when finding a job, and as a result, they sometimes show little loyalty to their place of employment and often don’t trust big business.

In addition, millennials are one of the most diverse generations to date, not only racially and ethnically, but also in the types of households in which they were raised: single-parent homes, blended families, and same-sex parents, among many others. They were often under heavy supervision as youngsters and had frequent exposure to team sports. As the most educated generation, millennials today are carrying an average of $20,000 in student loan debt.

All that boils down to the fact that millennials think about work differently than previous generations. And furthermore, they have different workplace priorities.

What are Millennials’ Priorities in the Workplace?

For millennials, a job is more than a job. It’s a chance to make a difference, to do something that matters. Forbes suggests that 64 percent of millennials say it’s a priority for them to make the world a better place: “They’re looking strategically at opportunities to invest in a place where they can make a difference, preferably a place that itself makes a difference.”

Millennials also prefer collaborative work culture over competitive work culture. Aggressive achievers, they’re looking to move up the ladder quickly. They work best in teams and value flexible work schedules that can help them achieve a work-life balance. According to a Harvard Business Review article, work-life balance can mean a number of things to this generation, but most dominantly, it means having “enough leisure time for my private life.”

The good news is that all of these workplace priorities are easily achievable if companies are willing to abandon “the old way of doing things” in an effort to appeal to the younger workforce.

Tips for managing millennials

Ready to manage the workforce of the future? Here are tips on attracting, developing, and retaining millennials.

1. Attracting Millennials

  1. No More Nine-to-Five: To help achieve the work-life balance that matters so much to millennials, offer scheduling flexibility, including flex hours and opportunities to work remotely.
  2. Offer a Sense of Purpose: Millennials want to work for companies that have a higher purpose, exhibit strong corporate citizenship, and make an impact. Let millennial recruits know how your company contributes to the community and makes a difference in the world.
  3. Invest in Their Financial Future: Millennials don’t believe they’ll ever get a Social Security check — as they’ve been told their whole lives that the funds will dry up long before they retire. As a result, corporate retirement plans — like offering and matching a 401(k) — appeal highly to this group.

2. Developing & Empowering Millennials

  1. Long Live Learning: One of the top fears cited by millennials is getting stuck in a job with no development opportunities (source: Harvard Business Review). Overcome this fear by offering ongoing learning and training opportunities for millennials to grow professionally and personally.
  2. Let Them Lead: Millennials want to be leaders; 72 percent say they’d like to be their own boss (source: Forbes). Empower this ambitious generation with co-leadership opportunities that pair them with a more experienced colleague.
  3. Embrace the Power of Teams: Excellent team players, nearly 90% of millennials prefer a collaborative work culture (source: Forbes). Move away from organizational hierarchies of the past and encourage teamwork, collaboration, and cross-pollination between departments and groups.

3. Engaging & Retaining Millennials

  1. Offer Frequent Feedback: “Managing performance” is cited by millennials as one of the most important drivers of engagement (source: Ivey Business Journal). The traditional annual or semi-annual reviews are simply not enough. Let millennials know what they’re doing well or where they can improve in a frequent, ongoing capacity.
  2. Keep It Casual: Millennials are happiest with a workplace culture that is flexible and relaxed — with open communication and opportunities for innovation. Opt for an open-door policy, laid-back dress code, mixed seating chart, collaborative spaces, and fewer unnecessary rules.
  3. Coach More, Manage Less: 40 percent of millennials in North America want managers who “empower their employees” (source: Harvard Business Review). More than experts or bosses, millennials expect company leadership to serve as coaches who can help guide them in their careers.

Just as all generations are not the same, neither are all companies. The role of managers and human resources professionals is to know what priorities matter most to their workforce — what engages them and inspires them to perform. In doing so, you can continue to hire and retain the best of the best employees, generation after generation after generation.


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