The case for and against: are millennials really that different?

For/Against
Jamie Lawrence
Managing Editor
TrainingZone
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There are plenty of contentious issues in HR and the workplace, and we think it's important to get a balanced discussion going on some of the bigger questions out there. In this series, we'll be asking HR experts and practitioners to give us opposing viewpoints on a key issue, and we welcome your input too! If you would like to take part in the series, get in touch.

FOR

Susy Roberts, founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts.

There’s no doubt that the people who make up so-called Generation Y have very different expectations in the workplace to Generation X, and this is something I see time and time again in many organisations.

It’s not just about being digitally engaged – although 76% of millennials won’t take a job if social media isn’t allowed in the workplace. But where Generation X often looked at a career in one company, millennials are quite happy to move around until they find a package that suits their needs at that time - the concept of a job for life is completely alien to them.

And it’s not all about money either; an open working culture that respects individual views and opinions is essential. Generation Y wants a healthy work-life balance and flexible working patterns, and they’re prepared to move around until they find it.

So why is this? One reason is the huge difference in the way people study. When I was at university, we were given a task and sent away to do it, and that meant heading straight to the library to work in solitary silence. The onus was on us, and us alone, to come up with the solutions.

Now, there’s a lot more collaborative working and flexibility about how you achieve your projects and coursework. The digital world has transformed studies at every level and there’s a lot of interdependency.

Another reason is the much-derided (amongst Generation X) tendency to focus on taking part, rather than winning or losing. Generation Y took home a trophy on school sports day regardless of whether they could run fastest or jump highest; everyone’s a winner.

But this doesn’t mean we’ve raised a generation of people who don’t know how to lose; it simply means they’re much more in tune with playing to their strengths.

The Corporate Leadership Council studied 19,000 employees across 34 organisations and 19 countries. It found that an emphasis on performance strengths in appraisals was linked to a 36.4% improvement in performance. In contrast, an emphasis on performance weaknesses was linked to a 26.8% decline in performance.

And this translates into workplace productivity and customer retention; analysis of over 10,000 work units and over 300,000 employees in 51 companies found that work units scoring above the median on the question ‘I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day’ had 38% higher probability of success on productivity measures, with 44% scoring a higher probability of success in customer loyalty and retention.

The simple fact is that leaders who focus on and invest in strength increase engagement – just like those teachers at school sports day. So how can you, as an employer, embrace this way of working and play to the strengths of Generation Y to the benefit of all concerned?

There are three fundamental issues at play: digital working, flexible working and variety of task. And, as an employer, you need absolute transparency about the culture of your workplace.

Be clear about how you encourage best practice when it comes to digital working; a lot of companies ban Facebook but use digital working to their advantage using other tools.

Your HR department needs to play a central role making sure you have the right communication package in place to engage with the younger generation, as well as making sure more mature employees are given the opportunity they need to develop new skills.

The HR team also needs to be really savvy about the recruitment process; long gone are the days of a printed CV and a neatly typed cover letter – a job application is the click of a LinkedIn button. Are you excluding a wealth of young talent by insisting on advertising in the local weekly newspaper?

Generation Y aren’t more demanding – but they are different. They’ve been brought up in a team environment and encouraged to speak up when things aren’t right. And this, as any good business coach will tell you, is simply best practice.

AGAINST

Mervyn Dinnen, Author, Exceptional Talent (Kogan Page)

Many workplace commentators and analysts seem to believe that processes need to be redesigned to accommodate Mmillennials.

They may have a powerful voice in both the digital business media and at industry conferences, yet the HR team that looks around their companies will see a much more varied mix of people and interests to be catered for. Different people bring different skills to the workplace, and different ages bring different perspectives.

The popular narrative is built around a belief that millennials have a natural interest in, and aptitude for, technology and a supposed restlessness for change and progression. That they want constant feedback and reward, lose interest in unrewarding work, and need flexibility and control over their lives.

Of course, most of this is largely tosh. To draw uniformity of influences for people born in a 17-year timespan and then turn that in to HR or workplace wisdom is foolish.

Most of the narrative could easily apply to any group of 21-30 year olds over the last 50 years, but previous generations have not had their behaviours as scrutinised and analysed as much as the millennials.

The demographists, pollsters, and social and cultural historians see it differently.

They like to draw conclusions from the social, economic, cultural and parental influences that someone is exposed to in adolescence, particularly between 13 and 18.

Experiences within this 5-year age span tend to shape the expectations, values, ambitions and aspirations that we carry forward in to adult life. Someone entering the workforce in 2011, i.e. during a time of recession, is therefore likely to have more in common with someone who entered in 1981 or 1991, than in 2001, despite their generational classification.

As Pew Research once wrote “We are mindful that there are as many differences in attitudes, values, behaviours and lifestyles within a generation as there are between generations”

Analysis shows us that job tenure is not falling, in fact it is rising. And that whilst millennials may make 54% of their purchases online, the figure for older age groups is similar (49%). Too much age-related behavioural research focuses on the correlation but doesn’t seek to understand the causation.

Digitisation and mobile affects us all and impacts the way every one of us lives. The experiences we have, and the preferences and expectations they drive, are common to all ages in the workplace.

So, what should the HR team be doing? For a start, separating myth from reality.

As a 25-year-old once remarked on a panel debate I took part in about employee engagement: “If I join your company and leave after a few months, I’m not doing it because I’m a millennial who’s hardwired to change jobs all the time. I’m doing it because you’re a s*** company to work for!”

Transparency around what other opportunities and working cultures are out there is available to people of any age, so the creation of an employee experience that enables people to grow, develop, realise their potential and do good work is important for everyone, irrespective of date of birth.

HR also needs to be part of the digitisation conversation. Millennials may seem quicker to adopt new digital practices in the workplace, but that is mainly because they do not have a history of doing things differently.

Imposing new ways of working on established and experienced employees can seem overwhelming, and without the necessary support and coaching to help them through this kind of change event, can lead to disengagement and a poor working environment.

The recruitment process should be redesigned to give everyone a chance to show what they can do. No trick questions or complex barriers to filter out different backgrounds.

Treating people with respect, giving them meaningful and helpful feedback, and supporting them through change, are all things that should be embedded in organisational culture and not be seen purely as an initiative to keep one specific demographic in the workforce happy. 

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