Managing Millennials in the Workplace – a Trivial Pursuit?

Posted by: Jeff Biggin Post Date: 5th October 2018

I’m aware that I’m a baby boomer because Trivial Pursuit named an edition of their board game after my generation. All us baby boomers (BBs) know we’re BBs because the media tells us so regularly.

It’s wise to be a little sceptical about generational labels as they bring to mind the characteristics of ‘labelling theory’; the contention that there is a tendency for us to take on the traits and behaviours that are espoused by the label we associate ourselves with.

We certainly have a wide range of generational labels to choose from BBs (like me) followed by Generation X, then millennials or Gen Y, and the latest batch being Gen Z (sometimes referred to as iGen or Centennials).

managing millennial's in the workplace

The date ranges for these are often disputed, however within broad margins the flow of generations from the post-war period to now, as outlined above.

It’s unclear to what extent a ‘generation’ defines identity, attitudes and beliefs. How does it relate to, for example, class, race, gender, region or simply age as a defining factor? I suppose there’s scope here for some good quality sociological analysis, but that isn’t going to happen here, as it isn’t the point of this piece.

I think we should exercise some caution but I’m going to dive headlong into the debate, and just like in a quiz game I’m going to select a category, and I’ve chosen ‘millennials’. I might also have gone for ‘centennials’ as my daughter shoehorns very neatly into that grouping, so perhaps I can do a few combinations.

A difference in outlook and expectations

Exactly how might we define the millennial’s outlook on life, work, relationships and all that other important stuff?

Speaking as a BB, what was ‘normal’ or ‘taken for granted’ and in the background, as I was moving from my teens into my twenties goes a long way to explaining my own worldview.

Let me tease some of this out with a few examples: queuing outside a phone box to make a phone call with someone waiting for you as you were calling; pressing button A or B; categories in record shops like Easy Listening and Underground or Progressive; most adults in some kind of manufacturing job  (I did grow up in the North of England); cheap bus fares; television closing down before midnight with a few bars of the national anthem; three TV channels and nothing on during the day other than ‘Watch with Mother’. I could get lost in all this nostalgia, so I will jump a few generations forwards.

For the millennial, the picture is rather different: always available media (and little of it via the TV, radio or printed media), a greatly diffused range of providers many of which are not ‘official’ or ‘established’; stuff bought on the internet and often streamed and not owned; not many adults in manufacturing jobs, some not in ‘jobs’ at all; expensive bus fares; friendships in person but also online, contact always available and usually through the medium of the mobile phone.

More input, more choice, more channels to experience life and a greater disruption of what went before.

We’ll begin with the notion of ‘what went before’. From my BB experience, the rejection we espoused of the previous generation was encapsulated by ‘I’m not going into the steelworks or down the pit’, I’m going to get some qualifications and do my 9 to 5 shift elsewhere’ perhaps not in those words, but with that intent.

But what was still taken for granted was that there would be a ‘job’ taking up most of the week, there would be places where we went and did work, work would define our status and purpose, there would be hierarchies, bosses, lunch breaks, weekends, that Sunday night feeling etc. etc. It was an unwritten context, a cultural backdrop the unexpressed norm. Not too dissimilar from what the previous generation experienced before them.

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Many BBs carried this into their adult and working lives; often unexamined and unquestioned norms that persisted regardless of many of the changes that were being experienced in the workplace.

I experience this culture all around me in a variety of businesses and organisations, breathing through the language and metaphors that frame the workplace ‘Put some elbow grease into it’, ‘He’s been working his socks off’, ‘Roll your sleeves up’, and  ‘Get stuck in!’.

However, it’s absolutely not the unwritten context, cultural backdrop or unexpressed norm of the millennial. Their normal has been shaped by very different experiences and entirely different expectations. As a consequence, their ‘psychological contract’ with their work and employer, if it exists at all, is fundamentally different from the preceding generations that make up the core of senior leaders and policymakers.

Understanding and leveraging the millennials’ expectations of the workplace

The experiences and expectations of millennials bring a very different perspective to relationships, communication, hierarchies, authority, how time is ‘spent’, value and meaning and to what therefore matters the most. Even more fundamentally, Millennials are likely to hold the belief that their life’s meaning and purpose probably isn’t funnelled through the conduit of work.

I’ve worked with some great organisations that get this and some that really don’t. Which is yours?

One large environmental organisation understood that the millennials it recruited would only want to work with them for two or three years at most. So it structured time and activity around projects that had meaning for the millennials in terms of outcomes, relationships, and autonomy in terms of in the office or in the field.

Another large company did the opposite of this with its millennial entrants, constantly reinforcing their ‘junior’ status, sending a strong message about it being positive to work all hours as it ‘established’ them and suffered a fairly consistent leakage of young talent as a result.

As with all good leadership, we have to make intelligent assessments of how to bring out the best in our millennials, as we should (but often don’t) with each and every employee. And much of it will be about careful listening, strong empathy, encouraging participation and expression and constantly designing and redesigning opportunities to support millennials in being the best that they can be.

So, with that in mind, it’s a big bravo to one of the Big 4 accounting firms. PWC has announced that it intends to flex-up work opportunities, not only for millennials (although there’s clearly a nod and wink in that direction) but for the majority of their entrants. That means either working 2 or 3 days a week or even 2 or 3 months of the year and many other options in between. I think this is quite a breakthrough in thinking and an understanding that meaning for the millennial (and beyond) is not only sought in the workplace. Will other firms follow suit? I suspect they will have to or lose out to the more enlightened companies in the attraction and retention of younger talent.

Of course, it leaves an important vacancy that needs filling, and that’s to bring us up to date with both the millennial and centennial editions of Trivial Pursuit. I wonder what questions the cards in those editions will need to ask? Perhaps we should run a competition, what do you think?

I imagine it will need to be an online game anyway…

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