Are Millennials really different?


How many articles have you read about Millennials, Generation X or Generation Y wanting to work differently?  There is quite a collection of them online: this one praises their confidence and positivity, this one says they have a desire to match their personal values with work, there’s even a WikiHow post on the topic.

But as employers, do we need to do something different to attract and retain these generations’ employees?

Let’s back up a bit before we answer this question, because it can be confusing speaking about different generations’ needs when it isn’t clear how you are defining each generation.  None of these definitions is hard and fast, but for the purposes of this post, let’s define the generations like so:

Generation X – This is the generation that immediately follows Baby Boomers and demographers and researchers typically use birth years ranging from the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s when speaking about Generation X.

So people who are Generartion X are in between ages are in their lateish 30s to their early 50s, roughly speaking.

Generation Y – This is the group that people often refer to as Millennials.  This group follows Generation X and demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years, and continue this group through the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

So when we say Millennials, we mean people who are in their late teens up to their early 30s.

Generation Z – This group comes after the Millennials.  This group started coming along in the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.  End years for this group haven’t been decided yet.

When people are talking about how to work with younger generations, it is likely that they’re speaking about Millennials – the group that is set to make up half the working population by 2020 (according to a report from UNC Business School).

Obviously what ‘makes’ a generation is a wide-ranging discussion, and as the loose definitions above illustrate, what one person think defines a member of a certain generation, can easily be countered by another argument.

For example, we say that Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) like hierarchy, annual appraisals, and equate work achievement with life success.  And we say that to recruit Millennials, companies need to think about building relationships, and craft offers that consider not just current skills, but also aspirations and needs.

But aren’t we generalising?  Can’t we all think of a Baby Boomer we know who shunned corporate structure for a creative life teaching or designing?  Can’t we also all think of a Millennial we know that craves the clear structure and hierarchal reporting line that their generation is supposed to dislike?

Let’s remember what we truly all have in common.

The reality is we are all human.

We all different, and we all work best in different ways, regardless of when or where we were born.

What we all have in common regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or background is the desire to do our best work and have it recognised.

But, of course, times do change.

One difference is the tremendous technological advancements we have seen over the past 40 or so years which have drastically altered our expectations, our perspectives on how to do work and our efficiency, effectively allowing us to do more.

Do you remember when we wrote memos before emails?  Took time to plan a route to a meeting instead of relying on our Sat Nav?  Used to have to make expensive overseas phone calls for meetings that we can now hold on Skype?

For those that have been born into this tech-integrated world, rather than observed these changes as they happened the level to which technology has become enmeshed in our day-to-day lives sometimes surprise us.

How many of us have witnessed a young child approach a TV and swipe across to try and move to the next programme (and in fact, some TVs now do this!).  I heard another recent example – a family I know was on holiday in a remote part of England with no satellite TV, and one of their children asked, ‘How do they know what and when I want to watch Daddy?’  A perfect example of how technology has changed our expectations!

As employers we do need to be aware of how prospective employees changing expectations, effects our ability to attract and retain talent, but in a way that’s structured to appeal to all of our employees, not just a specific age group.  (Especially because there will always be exceptions to the rule!)

So what do we need to do?

  • Remember, one size doesn’t fit all.

While generational demographics might be useful for forecasting how many people will draw on their pensions in ten years’ time, they aren’t really useful when it comes to understanding how individual employees will behave because they make assumptions e.g. ‘Older people are no good with technology.’

I have witnessed executives about to retire who are much more tech savvy than their younger colleagues, because they are interested.

This is exactly why some of us love our digital calendars and other still can’t live without a paper diary – we are all different.

  • Create an environment that embraces different perspectives.

 Remember that people of ALL different types of level of experience can learn from each other, so create a work culture where this is facilitated.  Partner your senior execs with your junior employees and build and execute strategies with the wisdom gleaned from reverse/mutual mentoring.

  • Create time to learn new things.

Have open time in your meetings to share new technology or hear about a new topic.  You might learn about a new app, or have a debate about driverless cars and what sort of impact they’ll have.

Taking five minutes might save you time in the long run, thanks to identifying a more streamlined way to do your timesheets or expenses, or just get the team thinking in a different way.

  • When it comes to finding new talent – be open to new formats.

One of the ways that technology has changed the workplace is that there isn’t a standard two page CV anymore.  Some people like to bring their experience to life through videos, other prefer a short document.  As long as you are getting the essential information you need about            each candidate to develop a shortlist, the format shouldn’t matter.

  • There’s no ‘one size fits all’ way to lead.

Just as there’s no one-size fits all approach to understanding individual employees, there’s no one size fits all approach to leading teams either.  We all have different motivations, passions and things that frustrate us.  We all have good days and bad ones.

As leaders we have to remember to be flexible when leading our teams – you may have set out your overall vision and gained buy in from the team for a new project in one stellar meeting, but the real magic behind retaining team members engagement and interest is in individual conversations and supporting them to do their best work.

To sum up, as colleagues, leaders and organisations, we need to embrace difference across the board – to think differently, innovate and to be competitive – it’s not just about Millennials!

If we can do that, we’ll all increase our chances of succeeding and doing our best work.

Bring it on!