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Millennials have been in the workforce for two decades, but we're still talking about how difficult they are to manage.
February 24, 2018
For years, employers have been griping about the difficulty of managing millennials. As the first truly digital generation, sometimes they seem like visitors from a foreign land to older generations. In school, they learn coding over cursive. Their social lives take place at least as much online as IRL (that’s “in real life” to us old folks). There’s an app for nearly every desire they could have. For seasoned leaders who have managed millennials and previous generations, the contrast in values and culture can be difficult to swallow.
But is there really a “millennial problem”?
Baby boomers are probably the last generation that entered the workforce with the conviction that the road to the American Dream started with finding a nice entry level job at a good company and ended with retiring from the same company with a management title and a nice pension. They raised their kids – Generation X – to believe in those same tenets. If you work hard, good things will come.
All you have to do is scroll through your LinkedIn feed for about three seconds, and you’ll see plenty of the usual complaints about Gen Y: They’re entitled. They need constant feedback and praise. They complain about having to actually come into the office instead of work from home. They switch jobs too often. In the end, they’re all saying the same thing: Millennials lack a work ethic.
“If you look at older generations, some of us were motivated by the fact that [we] had to graduate college, had to get that job, had to move up the ladder,” says Choo Kim-Isgitt, CMO at security solutions provider EdgeWave. “There was a very specific track that we were on, regardless of occupation.”
The first millennials, born in 1980, are 38 right now and well into their careers. Millennials are also the largest generational demographic in the workforce. By and large, most employers have resigned themselves to having to cater to the millennial culture. Their technical savvy is too valuable to dismiss easily. They also still make up the vast majority of entry-level and junior positions, which in many cases require an investment in training from employers; having a revolving door of low level staff members can get expensive quickly.
Like it or not, managers have to learn how to “handle” these digital native employees. In a lot of cases, employers take cues from company cultures exhibited by places like Google or Facebook, organizations that have become synonymous with the ideal millennial workplace.
“We changed the colors on our walls, and everybody gets a Nerf gun when they start the job,” says Nathan Hable, NOC manager at IT solutions provider BlueRock Technologies. “On our job descriptions, we ask for a cover letter and your best joke. Our hiring and attracting has been successful.”
But what millennials look for in a company goes further than fun and whimsy, especially with those still in their 20s. They’re demanding more from employers than these surface level concerns.
“During a career fair, questions will be: How does the company give back to the community? What are the green initiatives? What is their carbon footprint? Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had those questions,” explains Jude Reser, SHRM-SCP and SPHR, market director of human resources for Marriott International.
Reser says that recruiting for the younger generation is more about the common good and making the world a better place. It’s more than just individual interest. Millennials need to be part of something bigger, and they gravitate toward company cultures that provide that to them. For a lot of employers — especially SMBs that may not have the resources to devote to creating and maintaining a corporate responsibility program–it’s a demand they’re not sure what to do with.
“That’s something that past generations didn’t really think about to a degree,” says Choo. “Some kind of social responsibility plays into their consideration as a millennial. What are you doing to help the community? It’s a challenge for seasoned employers who are looking for that mentality they’re used to that they’ll grind it out and be a workhorse.”
This mentality, says Reser, is applicable across the board. On an organizational level, millennials want their company to share their values and have a strong sense of corporate responsibility. On an individual level, they want to feel as though they’re a valued part of a team, and they value collaboration.
One only has to look at the explosion in collaboration platforms to see evidence of that claim. Skype, Slack, Basecamp, and dozens of other digital tools for enabling more effective communication and collaboration are ubiquitous in today’s workplaces. Millennials, weaned on technology and raised in a world of digital communication, place a high value on workplace technology.
“Millennials are ‘digital natives,’ by definition,” says Steve Rodda of Cherwell Software. “They expect services to be available on-demand, all the time, across the enterprise. Forward-thinking managers should recognize this and work to enable access to digital services – whether HR, IT or another department.”
But in 2018, is it just millennials who judge a work environment based on its tech? When you stop to think about it, even though millennials are glued to their smartphones, workplace tech seems to be more of a Gen X obsession, an unfortunate mix of that “workhorse” mentality combined with always-connected capabilities. After all, one of the constant observations about millennial workers is their desire for a healthy work-life balance, which makes a lot of sense. Previous generations couldn’t take their work home with them like they can today. Now that employers expect workers to be on hand to answer emails at 10:00 at night, an entire generation explicitly saying their jobs are not going to become the central focus of their lives shouldn’t be odd or unexpected.
“All the ‘demands’ millennials have that people think are so outrageous are things everyone wants – work/life balance, recognition when they do a good job, a sense of purpose – this is all stuff managers should be giving to their employees, anyway,” says Michael Greer, a digital marketing consultant who has led employee training and development initiatives for over a decade. “The complaints and demands you’re hearing from your millennial employees are the same ones everyone else is grumbling about where you can’t hear them.”
Why, 20 years after millennials have entered the workforce, do we still hear so much griping about Generation Y? Part of it is that complaining about younger generations is just what we do. The Silent Generation dubbed the Baby Boomers the “Me Generation.” The Boomers dubbed Generation X the “Apathy Generation.” And now we’re calling millennials … well, all kinds of things — most of them uncomplimentary.
Maybe it’s time to stop talking about the “millennial problem” and just accept that the workforce has evolved, and we have to evolve with it.
Head of Channel Communities, Zift Solutions
Kris Blackmon is head of channel communities at Zift Solutions. She previously worked as chief channel officer at JS Group, and as senior content director at Informa Tech and project director of the MSP 501er Community. Blackmon is chair of CompTIA's Channel Development Advisory Council and operates KB Consulting. You may follow her on LinkedIn and @zift on X.
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