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Millennial Mystique: How to attract, keep, and get better performance from Gen Y

Many industries seem to be experiencing a shortage of young workers. It’s easy to attribute that to a lack of qualified applicants, an aging workforce that’s apparently too broke to retire, or Millennials who simply feel, as they comfortably rest in their parents’ open arms, that they don’t need a job right now!

Reality is setting in as those Baby Boomers who are beginning to retire leave companies with massive voids to fill. For the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, who in 2011 began reaching retirement age (at the alarming rate of 8,000 a day for the next 18 years, according to AARP.org), the concern is no longer whether these Gen Y people can do the job so much as it is where are they?! The mindset is starting to shift from “I am concerned that young Tyler lacks a sense of urgency” to “OMG – who’s going to replace old Bill?” It seems in our heavy judgment of Millennials, also referred known as Gen Y, we have forgotten there are no other young “people groups” entering the workforce at the moment. Gen Y is it.

Especially in the workplace, Baby Boomers, Generation X (born between 1964 and 1980), and Millennials don’t always think or believe the same things. Gen Xers in particular are concerned that people in their 20s and early 30s don’t have the right work ethic and are introducing questionable changes to the office environment.

Yet, realistically, companies may need to embrace these changes and start shaping their businesses to be more attractive to the fresh faces that will inevitably become the majority of the workforce. It is important that we manage people based on who they are, not who we wish them to be. That’s called hope, and hope is not a strategy. The worst leadership tactic on earth is wishing someone were like you. Historically, helping people develop their own brilliance is much more effective than just giving them yours.

The true Millennial work ethic is that they “do not live to work – but rather work to live. A job merely provides the income to do what they want to do.”[1] Millennials learned from their stressed-out parents that they wanted to get more out of life. Many young Boomers (ages 49 to 54) did something other generations did not do: they complained to their kids about how much they worked and how they did not have enough time to enjoy life. This doesn’t mean that people 34 years or younger will not work hard or have passion for their career; they are just much less likely to sacrifice their personal life.

The Challenge

How do you accept the challenge to change your game?

  • Create a culture that gives these younger workers a life, not just a future. Through our research we found that Millennials desperately seek work that will fulfill their spirit, passion, and lifestyle more than work that just fills their wallet. In 2011, Toronto Globe and Mail reported findings from an extensive survey about Millennials’ work expectations. According to the article, “university students surveyed said work-life balance and vacation time ranked extremely high on their wish list.”[2] It makes sense, since they grew up with parents who expressed regret about overworking.
  • Consider: less work, more money. The same survey reflected that, among Millennials, “high salaries and quick promotions were important too; on average, they expected $53,000 [Canadian, or about US$43,100] a year starting salary.”[3] The question Millennials ask is this: “What’s the path that leads to leadership, and is it worth it?” That means, from a management standpoint, you have to take a close look at the value the new young employee can bring to your company, not just what you think you should be paying that young employee. Furthermore, opportunities should not be based on how you have done it in the past unless you can validate that practice with a clear, reasonable explanation.
  • Acknowledge their foundation of debt. Today’s young workers start out with more debt than previous generations. More things eat at their paychecks before they even have a chance to develop adult-like bills. This does not mean you have to pay more than you have in the past or raise salaries across the board. However, it should prompt you to examine the benefits of meeting their requirements, while envisioning what your organization might look like with underpaid, second-string players. Also, if you offer them promotions that include working 35 percent more hours per week, they might not be interested. They want leadership, but not at the price of time away from friends and family. They are willing, however, to work late from home more than previous generations were, and they’re generally not fond of being tethered to an office simply because working late is considered part of doing a good job. They want to be compensated for their efforts, not for their time under your watch.
  • Realize that Millennials are the products of their parents. They witnessed their Baby Boomer and early Gen X moms and dads working hard, regardless of the cost to the family unit. Gen Y saw their parents stay with one company, miss family events, and not enjoy all the opportunities of a full life. Many Boomer parents worked hard to create comfortable lifestyles for their families, hoping to eventually enjoy their success when they had earned enough. Their Millennial kids would have preferred a smaller house, fewer vacations, and more face time with their parents.
  • Don’t offer them what their parents had. They don’t want it! The rebelling nature of the Millennial generation stems from this mindset. They don’t want the path their parents took. That cost is too high. Yes, Millennials grew up seeing strong work ethic, but they were also told “You can do whatever you put your mind to.” From that mentality comes their new method of working: they’d rather have flexible hours and a self-fulfilling job than sit in a cubicle for the next 40 years waiting to become obsolete. As Americus Reed, a Wharton School of Business marketing professor, detailed in a 2014 podcast, “Millennials tend to be very socially aware, are prone to be more public about it and … spend more time than their parents thinking ‘Why am I here? What am I going to leave behind? How am I going to change the world?’”[4]

Millennials are the generation of now. Thus, they want to enjoy their lives today and not just work hard toward a retirement that, from their viewpoint, does not look so wonderful. There are pros and cons to this: They are happy with their choices. They feel fulfilled. They are cheaper labor. However, the downside is that they are not terribly concerned with building that 401K right now, so they show far less desire than past generations to secure a high-paying, salaried job with more benefits but less work-life balance.

Perhaps learning why you might want to change your game has left you asking two questions: Don’t all young people want to live for today and get what they want without working so hard? And isn’t it just idealistic youth that makes them want to change the world and bask in the glow of how important they are to the future?

No, not really. With the change of the U.S. school system – the largest change in 200 years – and global cultural shifts breaking the traditions of generations before them, this is more than just the latest version of “how young people are.” They are the first generation to believe as a culture that

  1. partnerships have more value than trying to be competitive;
  2. irrefutable laws of science and math are just the opinion of the time, not necessarily a guide for future success;
  3. expressing intolerance and prejudice toward people different from you immediately disqualifies any other valuable traits you might have;
  4. every problem comes with an automatic solution; and
  5. no job is worth taking if it prohibits daily social interaction with their peers (i.e., social media use during work).

Those things alone will create an environment that (for better or for worse) is not likely to resemble any that have come before it.

Moving toward solutions

Companies need to know where to look to find Millennials seeking jobs. Times have changed, and the job search has changed as well. Be up to date on which databases are popular among Millennials for job postings. Youtube, Myspace, LinkedIn, Craigslist – all of these websites have postings. Check them out. See what your company can promote, because Millennials are looking!

Also be aware that, culturally, Millennials in the United States differ from those in other countries. In a 2014 study cited in Harvard Business Review,[5] researchers surveyed 16,637 people from 43 countries to learn what Millennials want from the workplace. The most important finding was that Millennials’ views vary considerably by culture. Therefore, if your company is global, be sure you do your homework concerning the culture of your non-Western Millennials before you recruit. You want to be able to offer what they’re seeking.

Engagement creates performance

To draw the best performance out of Millennials – and pretty much all other humans – you need to create engagement. In its simplest form, engagement occurs when leadership consistently exceeds the expectations of their employees. When that happens, employees become fully engaged.

It may take a new environment with seemingly a lot of perks; but at its core, eliciting performance from Millennials is about having fully engaged workers. According to Evolve Performance Group, a research firm headed by former Gallup executives, fully engaged employees are 40 times more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work, 15.5 times more likely to say they will spend their careers with the organization, 4.5 times more likely to recommend their companies’ products and services, and 9 times more likely to report they have excellent work-life balance.[6] Although you might not like what it takes to fully engage Millennials, it’s critical to find a way to make it happen.

A very different view

Sometimes, creating that engagement requires innovative thinking. How do you create a positive environment for this younger workforce? How do you show you care for them and your company?

Dan Price, owner of Gravity Payments, recently equalized the salaries of his 120-person company to $70,000.[7] Price established the company at age 19; now, at 30, he has taken a major cut to his million-dollar salary to be equal with his workers and increase the pay scale of his employees. This is a Millennial’s way of thinking. Money and power are nice, but they’re distinctly not necessary if you aren’t working in a positive environment.

Change is good. It requires being open to new ideas. We realize that many people over 35 years old cannot grasp the equalized salary concept – and it might not be practical for many organizations – but it’s just an example of how Gen Y values fairness and community in a way that previous generations have not.

If you belong to one of those previous generations, this Millennial mindset might strike you as foreign. Where did it come from? Mostly, it’s the doing of young Boomers and older Gen Xers who wanted to raise kids with more self-esteem, environmental consciousness, and peer support than their own generations had. So congratulations! You’ve succeeded.

Millennials are here to stay. According to a Business and Professional Women’s Foundation study quoted in Forbes, by 2025 these Gen Y workers will make up 75% of the global workforce.[8] The turnover is coming. You can’t ignore it, but you can be ready for it. With their influx creating such a shift in workforce mindset, you might be feeling that Millennials want to have their cake and eat it too. But maybe that old saying should be subjected to a more modern analysis – because, really, why would Millennials want a cake they couldn’t eat? Why would anyone?

[1] Mark McCrindle, “Understanding Generation Y,” published by the Australian Leadership Foundation (North Parrametta, New South Wales: 2007), https://innovationfeeder.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/understandinggeny.pdf[2] Margaret Wente, “Inside the Entitlement Generation,” The [Toronto] Globe and Mail, September 17, 2011.
[3] Wente, “Inside the Entitlement Generation.”
[4] Americus Reed, “How Millennials Think Differently About Brands,” [email protected], October 6, 2014, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/how-millennials-think-differently-about-brands/.
[5] Henrik Bresman, “What Millennials Want from Work, Charted across the World,” Harvard Business Review, February 23, 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/02/what-millennials-want-from-work-charted-across-the-world.
[6] “What’s All This Hype about Employee Engagement?” Evolve Performance Group, March 18, 2015, http://evolvepg.com/about/whatsevolving/id/252/whats-all-this-hype-about-employee-engagement.
[7] Patricia Cohen, “Owner of Credit Card Processor Is Setting a New Minimum Wage: $70,000 a Year,” New York Times, April 14, 2015, B3.
[8] Erica Dhawan, “Gen-Y Workforce and Workplace Are Out of Sync,” Forbes,January 23, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/85broads/2012/01/23/gen-y-workforce-and-workplace-are-out-of-sync/.

Garrison Wynn is a nationally known keynote speaker, author, and consultant. He is the CEO and founder of Wynn Solutions, specializing in how people and organizations can be more influential.

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