For years, employers have been aware of employee engagement and retention issues in their workplaces. These organizations have engagement policies that typically address engagement for the organization under one policy, without any differentiation for the generations of employees. As the millennial generation (also commonly known as Gen-Y and includes births from 1982 – 2000) grows in the workforce and baby boomers retire, managers and human resources professionals will need to develop new engagement models take into account the generational differences between baby boomers and millennials.
Baby boomers are currently the largest generation of active workers. Research has shown that boomers identify their strengths as organizational memory, optimism, and their willingness to work long hours. This generation grew up in organizations with large corporate hierarchies, rather than flat management structures and teamwork-based job roles.
Millennials have a drastically different outlook on what they expect from their employment experience. Millennials are well educated, skilled in technology, very self-confident, able to multi-task, and have plenty of energy. They have high expectations for themselves, and prefer to work in teams, rather than as individuals. Millennials seek challenges, yet work life balance is of utmost importance to them. They do, however, realise that their need for social interaction, immediate results in their work, and desire for speedy advancement may be seen as weaknesses by older colleagues.
The millennial generation is the largest age group to emerge since the baby boom generation, and as this group grows significantly as a proportion of the workforce over the next 20 years, employers will need to make major adjustments in their engagement models. Motivating, engaging, and retaining people will never cease as managerial priorities, but employers will have to carefully consider what strategies they will use to cultivate and retain valuable millennial employees now and into the future?
The Millennial difference
Millennials are creating a change in how work gets done, as they work more in teams and use more technology. Their social mindset, however, is also a significant factor. As Leigh Buchanon writes in Meet the Millennials, “One of the characteristics of millennials, besides the fact that they are masters of digital communication, is that they are primed to do well by doing good. Almost 70 percent say that giving back and being civically engaged are their highest priorities.”
Coupled with the socially minded millennial comes their desire to be creative. Millennials have grown up in a time where information has become available instantly. Through a Google or Wikipedia search, answers to even quite complicated questions can be found. As such, millennials have developed into a group that wants to work on new and tough problems, and ones that require creative solutions. In a 2009 article by Tamara Erickson, a millennial who had been struggling in her role, admitted to peers that, “I guess I just expected that I would get to act on more of my ideas, and that the higher ups here would have figured out by now that the model’s changing.” (Gen Y in the Workforce, Tamara Erickson, Harvard Business Review, February 2009)
The millennial employee is interested in feedback on his or her performance. But traditional semi-annual reviews are too infrequent for millennials. They want to know that they’ve done a good job, and they want to know now. A 2008 article in Nonprofit World provides readers with a checklist on the topic of providing millennial feedback. The list includes: give them checklists, offer plenty of help, reward them for innovating and taking appropriate risks, engage them with frequent feedback, provide them with mentors, create a collegial and team-oriented culture, etc. Feedback must also be given in such a way that millennials are receptive.
Not only are the timing and frequency important, but so too is the way in which feedback is framed and delivered. In Joanne Sujanski’s article “Don’t be so touchy! – The secret to giving feedback to millennials,” she writes, “Instead of feeling appreciated, however, the few short accolades of “good job” were overshadowed in the employee’s mind by the more frequent criticisms he received – without guidance as to how exactly he could improve.” (SuperVision, December 2009). Sujanski reaches an insightful conclusion: Whether positive or negative, feedback needs to be structured in a way that leaves no room for misunderstanding. Feedback needs to be clear and specific to be effective.