Understanding millennials in the workplace

Written by Hannah Asbury, Senior Consulting Associate

Today, millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) are the largest living generation and make up about a third of the current workforce. It is estimated that by 2025, that representation will rise to 75% of the workforce. With this growth, it is imperative for organisations to acknowledge and appreciate the generational differences in the workplace among employees. The old adage ‘it takes a village’ has never been more true. Companies can (and should) use the various strengths of different generations to create, innovate, and successfully work together to achieve their goals.

There are specific benefits and challenges that come with working with millennials, just like with every other generation. Some misconceptions about millennials are that they are entitled, overly needy, and not likely to remain loyal to a company. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If a manager is able to identify and learn how to engage millennials in the workplace, they can set themselves, their team, and the company up for success.

Growing up as a millennial

As a millennial myself, certain events come to mind when I reflect back to my childhood. Some of the most notable include the untimely passing of Princess Diana and the terrorist attacks of 11th September, 2001. Both of these events are still widely discussed and studied to this day. However, with these tragedies also came a sense of unity among the public; a feeling that has not returned quite as strongly since then.

Aside from these infamous events, millennials also had many favourable memories growing up. We had the best of both worlds: the freedom of summers spent playing outside until the streetlights came on and the early days of the internet spent clicking around on a desktop computer. Who can forget that notable screech as it tried (for what seemed like hours) to make that coveted connection to the world wide web. This served as quite the lesson in patience in those formative years!

The early exposure gave us a solid understanding of technology. We had educational computer and video games at our disposal (initially on those archaic floppy discs) not only for entertainment, but to help improve our vocabulary, maths, and problem-solving skills. As our childhood progressed, technology became more readily available. This accessibility led to carrying around books of CDs (later replaced by colourful iPods and Zunes) and many teenagers having access to their own personal mobile phone, complete with the classic game of Snake and T9 texting capabilities.

At school, the most well-behaved students were rewarded for their behaviour, which seemed to tie their sense of self-worth to receiving praise from trusted authority figures (we will chat about why this was so important later on). In the US, for example, many students were also subjected to interpersonal competitiveness by participating in events such as the physical fitness test in PE lessons, spelling bees, and extracurricular sports. As such, we grew up with a love of competition, and a desire to be the best that we can possibly be.

Eventually, millennials began to, respectfully, question their authority figures. Instead of accepting the response of “because I said so” or “this is the way it has always been done” at face value, we were encouraged to ask questions and gather additional information as part of our problem-solving process. By doing so, we were given insight into how our actions had an impact on the bigger picture and those around us. This reinforced the drive to succeed not only for personal gain, but for the sake of the larger group. As you can imagine, these experiences played a critical role in shaping how a millennial works and interacts with others in a professional setting.

Characteristics of millennials in the workplace

Millennials expect fairness and transparency from their employers. We appreciate being shown why the work we do matters and how we are making a positive impact within the team, company, and/or larger community.

Remember that stamp of approval that we sought from our teachers back in school? When it comes to managing millennials in the workplace, that same need for approval has carried over into our careers. We are often achievement-oriented and motivated by receiving positive feedback from our managers. We also enjoy taking on additional responsibilities and having the opportunity to be a part of unique experiences and projects.

Managing millennials in the workplace

Millennials work best under managers that can make themselves readily available for us and those that can serve as support systems. This can take on many forms, for example, by answering questions about a project, supplying additional resources, or simply having someone to serve as a sounding board. We generally do not work well with managers that tend to micromanage, as we often feel that they do not trust us or do not think we are doing a good enough job in our roles.

Millennials have a desire to be developed and invested in by our company. We need to have opportunities for advancement, as well as the perception of a fair work-life balance. Advancement and work-life balance are often reasons why we millennials will remain with a company, or conversely, will choose to leave a company. Finally, while we are open to scheduling a call or meeting face-to-face, we generally prefer to send an instant message or text as our primary method of communication.

Benefits of millennials in the workplace

Millennials have many strengths that are a benefit to the workplace. First and foremost, we are very open to meeting and getting to know new people. This makes us a great choice to serve as orientation mentors or onboarding ‘buddies’ when new employees join the company or switch teams. We are willing to reach out and interact with individuals that may need help getting started in their new role and enjoy making those connections.

Millennials are very good at making others feel heard and supported, and are a great resource to go to with questions or when additional assistance is needed. We are often able to speak to our shortcomings and acknowledge when we have made a mistake or are in the wrong.

Additionally, millennials are very hardworking. This, along with being civic-minded, is a recipe for success. We are willing to put in the work to be part of a solution that may not directly impact us. We enjoy seeing a team or organisation be successful with or without our help.

When we feel appreciated, millennials are likely to do whatever it takes to get the job done. We work best when we feel like we are part of the larger team. Because of this, managers should encourage millennials at work to contribute whenever possible. For example, this can include brainstorming conversations, problem-solving sessions, and client-facing interactions.

Finally, millennials are usually very good with technology (remember those computer games we used to play growing up?). We are generally able to troubleshoot technological issues with ease. We prefer to take the initiative, research, and solve problems on our own at first, but also know when to reach out for help if needed.

Our tech-savviness, mixed with a willingness to help others and the ability to create personal connections, make millennials the natural choice to assist other generations that may struggle with understanding and using technology at work. Millennials are often used as this kind of resource and can be rewarded simply by positive reinforcement from our managers.

Challenges of millennials in the workplace

Like every generation that has come before, and every generation that will come after, millennials also have shortcomings in the workplace. We are not known for our ability to be flexible when projects or circumstances change. While we can ultimately make it work, it is not always easy for us to do so. Therefore, it is important to understand that when managing millennials, we will likely need a little help to become more adaptable to changing circumstances.

Similarly, millennials tend to dislike repetitive or monotonous tasks. If possible, managers should try to avoid assigning these kinds of tasks. Realistically, repetitive and/or monotonous tasks cannot be avoided in the workplace. Because of this, it can go a long way to explain the background to the individual. Details such as why they are doing what they are doing, and how the work will make an impact to the larger group can make a big difference here. Openness and transparency are key to gaining the buy-in of a millennial at work.

Additionally, it is a common rumour that millennials in the workplace are entitled. However, what one person sees as entitlement, a millennial sees as knowing our self-worth. We tend to keep up with industry trends regarding pay and time off and will not hesitate to speak up if we think we are being overworked and underpaid. Work-life balance is extremely important to us. While we acknowledge when overtime may be necessary to help complete a project or deliverable, we are also aware when our time and skills are being taken advantage of. Again, openness and transparency are key here.

Finally, millennials at work can often be deemed as ‘needy.’ This misconception comes from our desire to obtain frequent feedback and/or approval from our managers. This type of feedback is essential when it comes to understanding millennials in the workplace, as we are typically driven by results and positive reinforcement from authority figures. Rather than wait around for a traditional annual performance review with our manager, millennials are proactive in our development at work and prefer to navigate through any challenges in performance when they arise.

As more and more millennials are entering into leadership roles each day, I believe our natural tendency to welcome new employees, seek out feedback, and the willingness to lend a hand will allow us to lead with a people-centred approach. This approach to leadership makes us the natural choice to mentor our Gen Z colleagues in the workforce who are just getting started in their careers.

Editor’s note: As with most thought leadership content, its purpose is to share perspective and generate further discussion. Because everyone’s individual experiences vary, not all experiences and opinions will be the same for each member of the millennial generation. 


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