The millennial generation is technologically proficient, well-educated, highly skilled—and historically disengaged from their work. The latest Gallup data finds that only 31% of millennials are engaged at work. This disengagement, and the resulting productivity slowdown is the existential crisis of the modern business world, and solving it is the number one problem facing executives, business owners, leaders, and managers.
The millennial generation’s refusal to do work that doesn’t have meaning or proven validity has earned them the wrath of some old-schoolers, as well as appellations such as ‘lazy’, ‘entitled’, and ‘coddled.’ These labels imply that millennials simply need to work harder, but nothing could be further from the truth. The prescription of hard work as a character-correcting tonic is precisely the type of maladaptive approach that is destined to misfire with this generation.
Views on the Millennium - Study Resources
They distrust management tactics that imply an old-world puritanical work ethic, an ideology that tended to enshrine hard work as an objective good. In this formula, workers are made to work harder for their own moral good. In the new world, workers want to work smarter and earn their surplus—time to spend as they like. They resent being made to work for the sake of work.
The Gamer Generation
Millennials workers are goal-oriented and not process-oriented. They grew up on games, which reward efficiencies. In the game world, getting there faster, finding ways to beat the system, and hacking are virtues. In the world of coding, finding the shortcuts leads to a better product. In the value scheme of the old workplace, such an approach might have been thought of pejoratively, as “taking the easy way out.” Why would anyone have such a negative outlook on what is essentially a time and energy saving path? Bill Gates was no doubt being a bit tongue-in-cheek when he famously said: “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” This idea, that lazy people are smart people, was a very millennial notion.
Millennials have different values
Millennials in the workplace are not impossible to motivate, but their motivational map looks very different, say, from the aloof and cynical Gen Xers, or even the status-seeking Boomers. When their disengagement is read as a form of collective protest, rather than an inherent character flaw, such as laziness, millennial workplace disengagement makes more sense, and becomes more solvable. After all, they aren’t the first generation that demanded meaning from the world. While the boomers demanded accountability from political systems, the millennial view want corporate responsibility, and with social media as their megaphone, they aren’t afraid to call out companies who aren’t living up to their end of the social contract.
As both empowered consumers and highly sought after specialists, the millennial generation’s growing power is reshaping both the marketplace and the workplace. But while most companies have keenly sought the business and talent of millennial workers, and poured generous libations in the form of marketing dollars, they have often failed to fully grok the hidden springs and traps that motivate this generation, and sometimes they've alienated them in the process of wooing them. In the workplace, millennials bring a technological edge, fresh insights, and specialized knowledge. But if you can’t motivate them, you’ll never unlock their potential.
Reading their motivational map
A motivational map is a map of our most closely guarded values. It’s the place where our behaviors flow out of our core beliefs. Our motivational map can override even our financial and social interests, which explains why even competitive salaries, job titles, and benefits packages aren’t winning when it comes to engagement. Nor do millennials look to their jobs for social identity and status, as other generations have. They don’t count on security, either, especially in mature economies, where economic pessimism is at a high. When regarding the unraveling of the work contract, undone by the dual actions of technological disruption and the economic forces of globalization, it becomes crystal clear that what might be read as cynicism is merely a ruthless pragmatism. Millennials believe that no one else is looking out for them—and so they have their own back.
The virtual office
The millennial workforce, so often described as entitled, is ironically quite the opposite. The assurances that were the base foundation of every generation from the World War II onward have crumbled beneath their feet. Permanent job security has vanished with the rise of the virtual office and the distributed workforce, which allows companies to wax and wane with the cycles of supply and demand—more erratic then ever as ecological disruption and political uncertainty haunt developed and developing worlds alike. Public education, social security and other public programs no longer have a certain future. However, despite these changes, millennial view are optimistic about the opportunities technology brings, and the role business can play in ushering in change.
An uncertain world
In the face of social and political uncertainty , millennials have brought an activist bent into the workforce. They want their work to bring about a positive change, not to create more problems. They want the companies they work for to be platforms for positive change. They want to be part of a community where their values are heard, appreciated, and shared. But what exactly are millennial values? Although generalities may not take into consideration important differences, there are some large trends that define the millennial generation's overarching value system:
- Ecological awareness - Millennials are very aware of the natural world, its fragility, and its importance to the commons. Not every company has to have an ecological mission, but companies who lack at least basic awareness will alienate their millennials at work. Real, substantial, principled reforms will win their approval, while greenwashing, especially of the financially hypocritical kind (we’re doing this for the environment, when in reality, it’s a cost-saving measure for the company) is a total buzz kill for this generation.
- Social responsibility - Millennials are the most diverse generation ever, and social justice is important to them. They balk at systems where privilege is built in, and want merit-based rewards—like in the games they grew up on. If they feel like they can’t win because the game is rigged, or not based on hard, data-driven benchmarks, they will likely throw in the towel. They are motivated by a system that objectively rewards success, not just hard work or loyalty. Transparency, fairness and justice matter.
- The reciprocity principle - Brands are built by people, and millennials are very aware of this. They want a two-way conversation, and a place at the table. They believe in mutuality, collaborative decision-making, and collective action. Their expectations include optimizing opportunities. If they see that there are opportunities for them to grow and learn, and they are being denied because of corporate process or an outdated hierarchy, they will lose motivation.
- Millennials want to grow - Personal growth, development and skills-building opportunities are of utmost importance to millennials. Self-improvement is everything to this generation, who grew up on a mythology of superhero and superhuman tropes. AI and futurism are two trends that have driven millennials to push past traditional boundaries and imagine new ways of being human. They won’t settle for mediocrity, or running in place. Research from Deloitte’s 2015 Millennial Survey found that only 28% believe business are fully utilizing their skills—a number that tracks closely with engagement figures.
- Millennials thrive in flexible arrangements - Flexible working arrangements demonstrate trust, and give millennials the sense of ownership and self-initiation that is key to unlocking their motivational map. Flexible work arrangements, and the good faith they imply, have been correlated again and again to improve organizational performance. In addition to building a foundation of confidence, flexible work arrangements allow millennials work/life balance, and to pursue activities in social, charitable and athletic attainments.
- Millennials are puzzle solvers - If you give a millennial view a goal, and let them solve for it, they will work until they get there. If you dictate every step of the process, they’ll thwart progress at every opportunity. Solving puzzles is fun and meaningful for millennials--so let them. Your organization will benefit from what they learn. Taking away this opportunity is the quickest, most effective way to kill motivation and engagement. To be sure, some processes are well-tested and validated, if this is the case, see the next point.
- Millennials are data driven - Millennials want to know why they are doing something, and that it is valid. They hate inefficiencies, redundancies, and wasting their time on any futile task. Knowing the why and how matters intensely to this generation (part of their puzzle solving personality) and so build proof into processes and back up best practices with data.
Deloittes 2017 Millennial study honed in on an important point. It is in the workplace—as a collective—that millennials potentially feel most influential and impactful. Millennials overwhelmingly feel that businesses are drivers of positive change, but they also overwhelmingly believe that business can do more. And in fact, businesses with an authentic and well-demonstrated sense of purpose perform better and have better growth prospects. So, as it turns out, the interests of millennials and business really aren’t that far apart.
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