Millennials in the workplace: R u ready?

March 26, 2008

After the 1989 launch of Sports Illustrated for Kids, editors at Advertising Age challenged readers to come up with the next child-focused magazines likely to hit newsstands. Food & Whine, Playhouse Beautiful and Make-Believe Soldier of Fortune were a few titles suggested.

It was all in good fun, but it also reflected that 1980s spirit. "Remember all those 'baby-on-board' signs on cars?" asks Barbara Keats, a management professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business. "It was a very child-centric culture. The zeitgeist was devotion to children, doing everything for them," she recalls.

Now, all those former babies on-board -- people known as Generation Y or the Millennials -- are streaming into the workplace. In a recent survey, more than half of the Massachusetts executives queried named Millennials the toughest generation to manage. Only 17 percent said the same of Generation X, those aged 32 to 42.

Millennials have been called "entitled" and "self-centered," but not particularly self-directed, loyal or ethical. On the other hand, they're tech-savvy, nimble, enthusiastic and achievement-oriented. Like all young people, they offer the corporate world enormous energy and talent. However, harnessing those positive attributes will take a patient, nurturing touch.

From Pampers to pampered

If there is one thing Millennials and their Boomer bosses can agree upon, it's this: They're special. "That's what everybody has told them all their lives," Keats notes.

Millennials were born between 1977 and 1994. Today, there are some 70 million in this 14 to 31 age group, roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Not all in that age group, however, are classic "Millennials," according to Dale Kalika, a professorial colleague of Keats in the management department of the W. P. Carey School. Keats and Kalika are conducting a research project focused on Millennials. When referencing the youths who are making some managers pull out their thinning hair, she says, "We're really talking about the middle and upper classes. It doesn't cut across all social and economic levels."

The boss-taxing Millennials could be people raised by the same parents who snapped up copies of Thomas Harris' "I'm OK -- You're OK." Eager to foster self-esteem, Kalika says, the parents of Millennials spent their days "giving their children lots of praise, telling them they couldn't do wrong, giving them second chances …"

"And third chances, and fourth," adds Keats.

The result, the professors say, are students who take criticism and less-than-A grades very personally, but not very well. Nor are their "helicopter" parents -- those who hover over their kids, managing the details of their lives -- likely to shrug off failures. Think of the West Virginia parents who sued a teacher last year for giving their daughter half credit on a tardy but critical assignment, thereby pushing the straight-A student's course grade from "A" to "B."

Even after the kids leave their landing pads, a.k.a. home, helicopter parents may continue to hover. Kalika knows a human resources pro at a legal firm who once received a phone call from a young associate's parents. Mom wanted to know how her little lawyer was doing.

Boomers would be mortified by such intrusion, the professors note, but not the Millennial generation. "They consider their parents to be friends," Keats explains. "So, they tend to see professors and employers as peers, and they act that way. That's something I think a boss would need to prepare for."

Trophies for all

The professors also advise bosses to be mindful of the Millennials' need for praise. Remember, this peer group grew up in an age when every kid on the team was a star, regardless of how many strikes against them.

Kalika remembers when her Millennial son joined his high school debate club. "We were invited to a reception at the end of the term, and everyone got a trophy," she says. "There was one for the winner of the most debates, one for the most improved … best team player, and so forth."

The result, the professor say, is that these young people crave approval and respond best to what Kalika calls "persuasive means. Be a facilitator, a mentor, not just an authority."

Remember, too, that the "sandwich" trick of sticking criticism between two compliments might not work. Keats points to "the serial position effect," a phenomenon named by researchers who found that people tend to remember beginnings and endings of lists, not middles.

Kalika explains: "If I say, 'Barbara, you're doing very well in A, B and C. There are, however, some areas where I want you to improve: D and E. Nevertheless, you're really good in A, B and C.' That D and E become discounted."

Along with careful criticism, Millennials need structure. "These are the kids who, every day after school, had ballet lessons, art classes or T-ball," Keats notes. Even leisure was structured into the newly coined "play date."

Kalika thinks economics contributed to this hyper activity. "It was the dual-income parents who started to get into more structure," she maintains. "You're not going to leave your child alone in the house," waiting for you to come home from work.

The effect of those play dates and extracurricular activities is that, "Millennials have to have things spelled out for them, they need a lot of direction," Keats notes. As a case in point, she says she now sends email reminders to students when assignments are nearly due. "They'd started complaining that I didn't remind them about assignments, even though the due dates were on the syllabus."

In addition, she maintains that Millennials "have little tolerance for ambiguity. They want lots of feedback. And bosses will have to gradually bring them about" when it comes to dealing with the "uncertainty of outcomes" or the often "imperfect direction" one may encounter on the job.

Ethics are another thing to watch. When nearly 21,000 middle- and high-school students were surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in 1998, 70 percent of high schoolers and 54 percent of those in middle school admitted to cheating on an exam in the past 12 months.

What's more, Millennials don't necessarily think cheating is wrong, Keats says. With a Teflon-coated view of personal character, they don't believe doing something wrong -- like cheating -- makes them bad people, she explains. "They seem to think that cheating is an OK way to achieve things … because they're busy."

You want me to do what?

Corporate structure could be a challenge, too. Michael Goul, a professor of Information Systems at the W. P. Carey School of Business, recently attended a meeting where CIOs voiced concerns about IT personnel, including those who are Millennials. "Someone had to tear up historical job descriptions," he recalls. Echoing Keats' view that, as a group, they tend to be quite literal in their interpretations, he notes that, "the Millennials would look at those job descriptions and say 'People aren't performing them, they're not consistent.' That doesn't pan out for them."

Neither does hierarchy, Goul says. "If they're on a project doing the same work as someone else, they want to have the same pay," regardless of experience levels or time on the job.

Traditional schedules might be iffy, too. "They come to work and say, 'Oh, by the way, I'm not going to work on Thursdays,'" Goul jokes. And, he adds, Millennials don't have the corporate loyalty their parents started with. They're unconcerned about job-hopping. If things don't work out, they can always move back in with their pals, mom and dad.

"They saw their parents have allegiance to corporate America and get bamboozled in the end with layoffs, down-sizing and right-sizing. That's what these kids saw their parents go through. Now, they have this perception that they had better take care of themselves."

Getting work from your new workers

Lest this scare you off, there are positives about this generational contingent, as well as ways to make them care.

For one thing, they're an extremely eager, achievement-oriented group. Goul admits he sees self-importance in this group, "but not an arrogance. They say 'Give me a challenge.' They're willing and open to learning, and they want someone to lead them along."

He also points out that Millennials are a generation weaned on computers, so "they're very accustomed to the tool sets and the way with which information technology presents information. They know how to traverse them, navigate them." He says they process information quickly, too. "This is the Google generation. You get 4,000 hits back, then you're on to the next search."

And, the Millennials are an altruistic bunch, which may be why the professors have found it's effective to make work -- and school assignments -- meaningful. Make sure your Millennial workers understand why the task is valuable, too. "They're very bright," Goul notes. "They want to do important things."

Julie Smith David, another information systems professor at the W. P. Carey School, sees tremendous potential in the way Millennials operate. For instance, she thinks they're well suited to application development using web services, or small modules of computer functionality that get pieced together for a larger application.

"Programming is traditionally a very structured activity," she notes. "You have to be able to use your logic to go from point A to B to C. It's an independent activity that takes time and is very structured."

Millennials, steeped in text messages, online chats, and instant messaging, "communicate in very short bursts," she continues. She has heard employers marvel that those "25 and below can create software solutions like crazy because they can think in these little bursts of services" and envision pulling them into a cohesive whole. "They're not encumbered by the structure of start-to-end coding. They've grown up thinking of things as little components that have to be put together."

David believes there's power in Millennial communication conventions, too. As an example, she points to the software service called Twitter. "You sign up, say 'Here is my phone number and my circle of friends,' then, at any time, you can send a text message to your Twitter account, and it goes out to everybody in your Twitter network," she explains.

The premise behind Twitter is that users are supposed to keep in touch by answering one simple question: What are you doing? "I'm driving to work, I'm eating a banana … to me that sounds horrible, but Millennials love it," David notes.

Businesses are starting to take notice, and she can see them making use of such technology. "Suppose you're a large distributor. You could send a message -- 'Big snowstorm at regional distribution center. Things are going to be late.' And then everyone is up-to-date." Of course, she jokes, no Millennial would write such a long message. It might be something more like, "Big snow -- we're screwed."

Still, David sees "a lot of power in these social networks and interactions, and Millennials are quite good at them." Facebook, she notes, allows people to broadcast news updates about their lives, and those in their circle of friends can access those news feeds on demand, thereby catching up with many people very quickly and conveniently.

How could that be of value? Imagine a salesperson trying to follow a client who has left one company and moved to another. Suppose someone happened to run into that client, and left a quick posting about the client's new whereabouts. In the easily searchable social network, that salesperson could type in the name and quickly find her client. "Today, we don't get those kinds of insights," David says. "The Millennials are better at collaborating and, potentially, they're better at collaborating remotely."

But, as Keats reminds us, they'll probably be collaborating with Boomers and Gen Xers, which means, "There are going to be some tensions."

Perhaps now would be a good time to practice praise techniques and your ability to LOL.

Bottom Line:

  • The Millennials -- people aged 14 to 31 -- have been called "entitled" and "tough to manage" because they need much direction and praise.
  • This same group is technically astute, ambitious, bright and eager to learn.
  • Adept at social networking, Millennials bring innovative communication styles and potential new tools to the workplace.
  • Managers will need to address Millennial shortcomings gently, as the group is sensitive to criticism and short on corporate loyalty.