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What do millennials want?

Student Career Placement Consultant

We’ve all heard the stereotypes about the millennials — the generation born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s: We’ve heard that they’re unmotivated, that they’ve been overprotected by helicopter parents, and that they feel a sense of entitlement that older generations find offensive. From my own experience as a college professor, I’ve noticed a regretful change in my students over the past few years that seems to support some of these claims. However, most of such assertions are based on anecdotal evidence. Does the stereotype really reflect the millennials? And, more importantly, what can be done to attract and motivate millennials who now make up a significant part of the prospective work force?

Some answers are starting to drift in, based on solid social science research, and I want to share with you some information from “Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace,”1 a white paper that compiles data from more than a dozen studies. While there is a lot to be gained from a review of the whole paper, in this post I just want to focus on one section: “What Millennials Want from Their Employers.”

What I take from the research is that millennials want (and need) more structure than previous generations. They’re going to expect what the authors, Jessica Brack and Kip Kelly, call “coaching.” By this they mean not just training, but fairly continuous feedback on assigned tasks. This advice resonates with my own experience. In recent years I have learned that I need to stay in touch with my students via email between classes in order to keep them on task and aware of deadlines. I can’t rely on them to be as self-directed or to seek out assistance as readily as the students I worked with in the early days of my career.

The white paper says that young people want to work collaboratively because “millennials are natural collaborators.” However, I’m finding that hard to match up with my own work with students. Collaborative class projects have always been problematic, and I haven’t seen that change over time. The advice from the white paper doesn’t really explain the basis for this claim, but it may stem from the way that millennials use technology. They are accustomed to being in constant contact with one another, and perhaps that leads to them being more comfortable working in groups.

I can completely agree with the third suggestion, which is that millennials want to know the basis for their assessment at work. This claim meshes with the finding about the desire for coaching. Many educators — beginning in primary school — provide students with detailed rubrics for evaluation of assignments, and students always seem to want to know exactly how they will be judged (and will argue about that judgment if the criteria weren’t spelled out clearly in the beginning). This suggests that regular evaluation against specific and consistently applied criteria are more important than ever.

A fourth aspect of “what millennials want” is labeled “motivation,” but the suggestions for how to provide that motivation (“throwing  a pizza lunch or giving time off for a job well done”) strike me as a bit superficial. If the rewards for a job well done — and I’m talking here about rewards above and beyond basic salary and benefits — are external (and minimal), then expectations have been set that there should be an additional external reward for doing the job. This suggestion gives the impression that millennials want added rewards, not just the satisfaction that comes from doing a good job and meeting (or exceeding) the expectations of the employer. It appears to contradict another finding, which is that millennials want “opportunities to learn and meaningfully contribute.” It would seem to me that if employers provide opportunities for challenging new tasks and greater responsibility as a reward for a job well done, that would be a better way to increase motivation.

One final thought: Millennials have lived their entire lives in an environment where real wages have declined while costs of college and health care have skyrocketed. Young people often begin their work lives as unpaid interns, and then get entry-level jobs where the expectations are high and the resources are low. At the same time, CEOs are paid extravagant salaries and provided with excessive perks. Has this set of circumstances created a generation who lack drive and motivation as their rational response to their environment and all the history that is pertinent to their lives?

Somewhere along the way, society has lost track of the basic tenet that employment contracts need to benefit both the employers and the employees. I hope that the slowly improving economy will allow a return to such mutually beneficial arrangements. In future blog posts I will share additional insights from recent and new research about millennials in the workplace, and I welcome feedback from both millennials and those who would like to employ them about their response to these issues.

1The white paper was written by Jessica Brack, Executive Vice President & General Manager, 2U Inc., and Kip Kelly, Director, UNC Executive Development, and published by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

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