Misunderstood Millennial Behaviors (And What They Mean for Your Organization!)

By Jovana , Consultant

The data doesn’t lie: Millennials are the majority of the global working population, and they will soon be most of the managers in your organization.

While every industry has already had to take a hard look at how they conduct business in order to make room for Millennials in the workforce, many industries are still struggling to adjust to employing Millennials and managing different generations. This challenge has become particularly pressing again for two reasons. First, Gen Z will be entering the workplace soon, and it will be time to adjust to another new generation.  Second, Baby Boomers are going to start retiring in large numbers. Especially in sectors that are heavily comprised of Boomers (such as government and insurance), a large percentage of the working population will start retiring every year. With them will leave not only invaluable institutional knowledge, but also the sheer numbers required to accomplish the work.

If your organization is concerned about the Baby Boomer exodus, the Gen Z arrival and is still struggling to understand Gen Y, it’s time to get some clarity. To understand Millennials in the workforce, it’s crucial to know a few, often misunderstood things about how Millennials approach their jobs and their career.

Behavior #1:  Millennials treat job descriptions like they are up for debate.

The first misunderstood Millennial behavior is their tendency to want to tailor a job to themselves. It’s no secret Millennials in the workforce love a personalized approach to their training, technology, work locations or hours. They want a work experienced tailored just to them. Increasingly, recruiters, HR and supervisors in charge of employing Millennials are realizing that this tendency toward personalization extends to their job description and responsibilities as well. It is now common for Millennials to ask if their job description could include new elements or be modified to reflect “hybrid” roles that better combine their interests. This generation recognizes the value of getting multiple types of responsibilities at one workplace, and building a network of skills simultaneously rather than sequentially.

The fact is, Millennials in the workforce know they face very fierce competition in the job market. A university degree is no longer a competitive advantage, and their roles and responsibilities are the only aspect of their resume that could set them apart. Many Millennials started their careers in unpaid internships and, because they were paid in “experience”, Millennials treat their experience as an investment. They know the world is changing quickly, and they are concerned that, if they don’t show they can keep learning, they will fall behind their competition. Their desire to customize their job descriptions stems from knowing the skills they need to have and looking for opportunities to build them while at their current job.

What this means for you: Recognize that targeted stretch assignments, customized roles and multidisciplinary workers are your future. If Millennials in the workforce are asking for some flexibility in their official role, it is not because they are LESS invested in what they do. It’s because they are MORE invested.

Behavior #2 Millennials are job hoppers and retaining them is impossible.

The second misunderstood Millennial behavior didn’t really start with their generation. Repeat after me: Millennials are not job-hoppers.In fact, they are just copying the behavior of Gen X.  Gen X was the first generation to whole-heartedly move away from the employer-for-life model and embrace multiple career destinations and employers.

The data has been consistent since the 1980s—regardless of which generation people fall into, they usually switch jobs more often until they are in their mid-30s. After about the age of 35, people tend to spend longer with each employer. Aside from age, the biggest predictor of job hopping is the state of the economy, because all generations react similarly to a dip in the economy (stay in their jobs) and to a boom (look for something new). Millennials in the workforce are no less loyal than any other generation. Early career job-hopping is simply the new normal.

What this means for you: If your organization is struggling to retain those under 35, you need to get clarity ASAP on why, then fix any issues you can control. In order to get better at retaining and employing Millennials, you need to know why they are leaving. In a recent survey, 26% of Millennials in the workforce said that they would have stayed at their previous job if the pay was better (SHRM, 2014). Could you have kept a full quarter of your top performers by paying them more? If so, wouldn’t you want to know that? Get serious about understanding why people are leaving, and you can get serious about keeping them around longer.

Behavior #3:  Millennials can never get enough feedback.

Millennials are used to a world in which their performance is quantifiable and measurable.  In school, metrics are very easy to come by and grades are a clear indication of how well you’ve done.   In their personal lives, Millennials have had the benefit of apps to help them approach fitness levels, keep track of books they’ve read, and know how many people find their lives interesting on social media.

Millennials in the workforce are responsible for their performance, but they don’t have the same metrics readily available to them in the type of dashboard or app they are accustomed to.  They can’t know exactly how they are doing in every aspect of their job by watching percentage points slowly add up or dip down. They can’t know when a promotion is coming by watching skills points accumulate and “leveling up.”

In most workplaces, it is hard for Millennials to measure their progress so they rely on feedback. They are not looking for hand-holding. Instead, they are looking for a way to know if they are making progress and performing well at responsibilities on which their livelihood depends. The reality is that YES, Millennials will request a lot of feedback. Considering how Gen Z have grown up, they will need a lot of feedback too.

What you can do: It is time for organizations to consider how they can help their employees measure their own performance. In any task or discipline, there is a beginner level, intermediate and expert. If you can help your Millennials and Gen Z understand when they are moving in between levels, what the path to skill acquisition will look like, and give them some more detailed guidelines, they will rely less on feedback and more on the tools they have. Have conversations with Millennials in the workforce not just about how they are performing, but also about how they will know if they are improving. If you can help them understand skill progression—not just current skills—you help them scaffold their own learning.

It is pretty easy to make generalizations about how the generations behave in the workplace. However, in order to work together well and tackle the daunting challenges ahead, we need to get specific and grounded in understanding where the differences in employing Millennials come from, how the perspective of each generation is shaped, and most importantly, what we can do to bridge the gaps.

About the Authors

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Joe Meyler