Managing Millennials: Do the Myths Have Validity (and a Millennial Response)

by Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP
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The conventional wisdom says that there are distinct challenges in managing Millennials (or Generation Y), defined as individuals between the ages of 18 and 32.  The most common complaints from managers attribute a misplaced sense of entitlement, lack of loyalty, and inadequate communication skills to Millennials.  The challenge for managers in the current workforce is to determine whether those presumptions are true, and whether a different management style is necessary when leading a workforce that is now primarily comprised of three distinct generations of employees:  (1) Millennials; (2) Generation X employees (33 to 48 years old); and (3) Baby Boomers (49 to 67 years old).

The consulting arm of Ernst and Young conducted an online generations study in June 2013 and collected data from over 1,200 respondents evenly spread across the three generational groups.  98% of the respondents worked full-time; 95% had some higher education; and 57% reported household income greater than $75,000 a year.

The respondents were asked about the positive and negative characteristics of each generation.

Some of the results released in September 2013 were not surprising.  78% of the respondents found the Millennials to be the most “tech savvy” and 70% of the respondents found them to be the best at using social media.  They were also found to be more collaborative, adaptable, and entrepreneurial than Boomers.

The Ernst and Young study appeared at first glance to confirm some of the anecdotal presumptions in the popular press and Internet blogs about Millennials.  They scored the highest in the negative characteristics of being difficult to work with (36%), feeling entitled (68%), and (not surprisingly) lacking relevant experience (59%).

Of the managers surveyed as part of the respondent pool, 75% agreed that managing a multi-generational workforce is challenging, primarily because of different expectations.  The study looked at what workplace conditions and perks were most valued for building loyalty to the organization.  For Millennials, cash compensation is more meaningful than benefits.  Flexibility is the most important workplace perk and it is valued more significantly by Millennials than the other two generations.  Further, the prospect of promotions is not as important for Millennials in comparison to Generation X employees.

The Ernst and Young study provides information that may help a management team embrace the challenge of managing differences in the workplace.  The days are long gone where the workplace is a homogeneous array of one race and one gender.  Just as it is inappropriate to ask any single individual to speak for a gender, a race, a sexual orientation, or any protected characteristic under equal employment laws, it is misguided to expect a single Millennial speak for a generation.  However, we thought it would be interesting to have a Millennial address both some of the findings of the Ernst and Young survey and presumptions held by conventional wisdom.

  1. Millennials have a sense of entitlement that compromises their interest in working hard for an enterprise. 

The Ernst and Young study validated the belief that the respondents believed Millennials appeared more entitled than the other two generations.  However, the study also found that each generation believed that their own generation had a sense of entitlement:  60% of Millennials, 49% of Generation X, and 27% of Boomers expressed the belief that their own generation presented as those with an entitlement.  Much has been written of the progeny of helicopter parents – younger workers who need to be validated for the effort and not the result.  However, are Millennials more entitled to position, pay and particular working conditions, or are they more comfortable expressing their expectations and willing to take steps to pursue what is truly important in the workplace?  Obviously, there are many technology companies that have been built on the hard work and enterprise of Millennials.  It is not a matter of not wanting to work hard.

David Baum responds:

Are Millennials entitled?  It’s a question that is difficult to answer.  How can a distinction be drawn between the inconsistencies of youth and the faults of an entire generation when every member of the generation is, currently, young?  How can a whole generation be summed up with a few adjectives?  It’s obviously extraordinarily difficult, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.  As Eric Hoover notes in “The Millennial Muddle,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 11, 2009), “Figuring out young people…is an industry.”  Learning how young people work is lucrative, because getting the most out of employees can be the difference between success and failure for many companies.  Of course, to say anything of value here, I’m going to have to make a number of broad generalizations about my entire generation.  It was said already, but bears repeating: no blanket statement can sum up an entire group of people.  The best I can do is make broad assertions and suggestions, and hope they will be helpful.  As is always the case when dealing with people, knowledge of their unique mix of strengths and weaknesses is the best way to work most effectively with them.

Are all Millennials entitled?  That’s a much easier question to answer: certainly not.  No group of people is a monolith, and Millennials are no exception.  Some Millennials are undoubtedly entitled; others most certainly are not.  Even if we assume the majority of Millennials are entitled, they are at least conscious of it, as the Ernst and Young study notes.  Self-consciousness can help mitigate many shortcomings, and if Millennials believe they are entitled, they are also aware of it it.  Young people are never static – and many young people may see employment as an opportunity to improve themselves.  They will actively seek chances to supplement their skills.  Early employment isn’t a terminal point in their development, it’s the beginning.  Companies that foster this development will be more likely to see their younger employees learn, grow, and shed any entitlement they initially had.

  1.  Millennials have no sense of loyalty to the organization.

Although the study did not directly address this question, the survey did suggest that Millennials are looking for the employer to offer different things to build that loyalty, such as flexibility in workplace.  There does seem to be a difference in today’s workplace in regard to blind loyalty to an enterprise, as compared to generations ago.  Recent college graduates do not expect to stay in one career when entering the workforce, let alone with one employer.  However, that feeling is not confined to Millennials.  The change in the legal profession is a prime example.  Many partners with books of business engage in a peripatetic existence chasing better platforms and more advantageous financial deals.  There is no more the concept of a “partner for life.”  The Boomers have led that charge.  Consequently, loyalty to an enterprise is a fragile concept.  There may be differences in how one creates loyalty depending on the generation considered.

David Baum responds:

If Millennials are more willing to abandon jobs than previous generations, then who is responsible?  What sort of jobs are being abandoned, and for what reasons?  Millennials may be willing to hop from opportunity to opportunity, but more often than not this is an effort to find stability.  Employment has changed, and many young people take jobs that are temporary, low-paying, and subject to radical change at a moment’s notice.  The ability to abandon jobs like these when they turn sour is a defense mechanism – nobody wants to go down with a ship when there are no lifeboats, and no indication that any sort of help will arrive.  Certainly, Millennials will not martyr themselves for companies, but this should hardly be looked at as a negative quality.  If they favor flexibility and monetary benefits over promises of advancement and stability, this may be because they believe any promise of stability is an illusion.

So, what can be offered to them?  I would only suggest that loyalty is a two-way street.  Employees will always be more willing to invest their time and energy when they feel sure that they will be rewarded for it.  And if long-term benefits are impossible, many young people may simply view their jobs are pro forma exchanges – the minimum work they are able to give for the minimal reward they know they will receive.

  1.  Millennials have difficulty communicating.

Millennials unquestionably are more technologically savvy than the other generations.  That impacts the modality of the communication, i.e., written communication through e-mails and especially texts and other instant messages are preferred to picking up the telephone.  Millennials also understand the power of social media and appreciate the reality of a constantly changing world of connectivity.  It is unlikely that Millennials will be resistant to change when the inevitable next generation of communications becomes prevalent.  There is not necessarily difficulty in communicating with Millennials, but there is a difference in the experience of communicating in certain modalities.

David Baum responds:

The way people communicate has changed immensely in even the past five years.  Some businesses have adopted new methods of communication.  Others have remained faithful to older methods.  Many use a combination of the old and new.   Do you need someone to run a Facebook page for your business?  Someone who has used Facebook since its inception is probably best.  But if dozens of phone calls are required, then you might choose someone with a different skill set.  Of course, this is assuming that employees are given no training, and are expected to use the skills they have instead of acquiring new ones.  There are Millennials who have done nothing but learn new modes of communications – of course they will be capable of learning a few more.  The twenty-eight year old hired to lead social media outreach for a company might not come with the same ability to make conversation over the phone that was taken for granted twenty years ago.  But there is a reason that employee is able to keep track of the Facebook pages, Tweets, and blog posts – the employee is a quick learner and is actually a fantastic communicator.  The employee’s definition of communication might just be a bit different than your characterization.   This isn’t a flaw, it’s a feature.

*                  *                    *

For obvious reasons, managers should be careful about over generalizing generational differences.  Individual employees often do not fall within the stereotype.  However, it would be shortsighted to simply dismiss any generational differences as fiction.  Employees, regardless of generation, should be managed in a respectful and supportive manner to maximize the possibility of achieving excellence.  A good manager is akin to a good teacher or coach; that is, there needs to be recognition that there are differences in how employees learn and are motivated.  Finding that key to each employee, including the consideration of any generational overlay, will enhance the probability of management success.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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