Are ‘millennial’ employees a challenge or an opportunity for employers?

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In a recent issue of the Journal of Business and Psychology dedicated to Gen Y, also referred to as millennials, entering the workforce, it seems a great deal comes down to perspective and interpretation.

Are millennials high maintenance or productive as employees? Ambitious or impatient? Narcissistic or confident? Unmotivated or simply seeking greater work-life balance than in the past?

“Great expectations”

One study in the journal, undertaken by Sean Lyons of Guelph University, Linda Schweitzer of Carleton University, and Ed Ng of California State Polytechnic University, surveyed nearly 24,000 undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 27 to gauge career expectations. Their report, entitled New Generation, Great Expectations: A Field Study of the Millennial Generation, encourages managers to approach recruitment and retention strategies with an understanding of what makes millennials tick.

The survey found that while 71% of respondents would accept a less-than-ideal job as a career starter, 68.5% also expected to be promoted within the first 16 months. As well, while a realistic starting salary of $43,000 was expected on average, it was assumed that after five years pay would rise to nearly $70,000.

Significantly, no relationship was found between performance as measured by GPA and the stated expectations, leading the authors to conclude that their results support stereotypes of millennials as entitled and impatient.

“With these high expectations for pay increases and advancement, clearly there is an assumption that the entry-level position is merely an entry point to bigger and better things,” says Professor Lyons. “I don’t see an attitude among the people we’ve interviewed that suggests that putting in time and paying dues is something they’re willing to do for a prolonged period of time.”

Managing the millennial

From this research, the authors advise managers that “the secret to successfully managing the Millennials may lie in using the same strategies their parents used to raise them. This may mean providing them with lots of support, coddling, and giving them a sense of belonging, but without turning the workplace into a ‘daycare.’” Organizations should, for example, provide smaller raises throughout the year, rather than one larger raise at the end of a year if they want young employees to stick around.

Some companies are already offering perks including fitness rooms and free food in apparent attempts to attract and keep top talent. However, it remains to be seen how expectations and attitudes will translate into behaviour in the workplace.

Talkin’ ‘bout my generation

Focusing only on generational differences may be limiting as conclusions are often drawn that only reinforce negative stereotypes. Research on changing values and work attitudes across generations has proven confusing and contradictory due to other complicating factors like the status of the economy and life stages. Absolute differences between generations have been shown to be minimal and often exaggerated by the media and additional studies in the journal point out that the exact same negative words being used to describe Gen Y were used in the 1960s to describe their parents.

So why should offering young employees support equate to coddling and daycare references? Or high expectations to entitlement?

Although the study focused on giving advice to managers based on the survey results, Professor Lyons noted that “this is not a crisis, so much as an indicator that we need to be more open to viewing the work world through the perspectives of others.”

And indeed, the millennial perspective has a lot of potential. Positive trends among GenY workers that have been identified include working well in teams, encouraging open communication with supervisors and being technologically savvy. When viewed as an opportunity for give and take, and as a learning process on both the side of the young worker and the business, a lot more value will be gained.

What do you think about your generation?

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About the author

Carley Centen is an aspiring writer/editor passionate about storytelling and obsessed with obsolete words and impractical typewriters. She holds an honours B.A. in International Development Studies from Trent University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Socio-Legal Studies at York, which she hopes will help to prepare her for a career in non-profit communications or consulting. Carley is currently (and sporadically) developing her writing at her personal blog, C. Centen (Run).