Engaging Millennials at Work

Jean M. Twenge
Jean M. Twenge,
Professor of Psychology,
San Diego State University

Adapted from Chapter 9, “Generation Me at Work,” in the 2014 edition of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before.

New York investment banks such as Goldman Sachs are known for working young employees hard. In the past, analysts were hired straight out of college on two-year contracts and expected to work 100-hour weeks.

Until now. After more and more young employees left for other companies, Goldman Sachs began discouraging young analysts from working weekends. Instead of two-year contracts, they are permanent employees from the start.

Chegg, Inc., an online textbook rental company, had a similar experience – many of its young employees left the company after a year or less. In their exit interviews, Millennial workers (usually defined as those born 1982–1999) said they wanted to be more involved in projects, wanted more time off, and wanted to be able to work wherever they wanted. The company moved quickly, giving younger workers more important roles in projects and instituting unlimited paid vacation. It worked: turnover among Millennial employees fell by 50% a year for two years.

These successful programs highlight two of Millennials’ most distinctive generational characteristics. What are the actual differences among generations at work? There have been many rumors but precious little empirical data. In 2010, my colleagues and I published the first analysis of generational differences in work attitudes based on an over-time, nationally representative sample. Best of all, the survey respondents were all the same age, so generation – and not age – was at the root of the differences.

The largest generational difference by far was in work-life balance. Compared to Boomers and GenX’ers at the same age, Millennials are more likely to want jobs with more vacation time, that allowed working at an easy pace, and that allowed time for other things in their lives. Millennials are less likely to say they are willing to work overtime, and less likely to expect work to be a central part of their lives. More believe that “work is just making a living.”

Contrary to common perceptions, however, Millennials are not more interested in jobs that were interesting, worthwhile to society, or directly helpful to others than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age. Thus the popular stereotype that Millennials are uniquely interested in meaningful work that will change the world doesn’t hold up.

Millennials Meeting

Millennials’ second distinctive characteristic is their emphatically positive views of themselves. This is the generation of grade inflation, of helicopter parenting, of every kid gets a trophy just for showing up. Perhaps as a result, Millennials (compared to Boomers and GenX’ers at the same age) are more likely to believe their abilities are above average and are more likely to harbor unrealistically high expectations about their future careers. Given this, they want to have a personal impact at work – preferably as soon as possible. Their experiences with technology have also led them to expect instant results.

So what can managers do to engage their Millennial employees? Instead of having promotions every 3 to 5 years, add more levels that can be achieved in 6 months to a year. This Millennial career ladder has smaller, more frequent steps, rather than larger, less frequent ones. In the arena of work-life balance, flexible hours, more vacation time, and an emphasis on results rather than face time are all appreciated by Millennials. Their ambition will motivate them to work hard – as long as they can still have a life outside of work.

Based on all of the data on generational differences at work, here are 7 principles for engaging Millennials:

  1. Focus on results instead of “BIC” (butt in chair).
  2. Offer flexible hours.
  3. Explain why Millennial employees are doing the project, why it’s important, and why their role is important.
  4. It might not be necessary to invent new programs around helping others; those that worked before will work now.
  5. Realize that compensation is more important to this generation facing high rents and student loan bills.
  6. Give feedback more frequently.
  7. Create more rungs on the ladder of career advancement, so promotions occur more often.

Just by understanding what Millennials want – and how that’s different from what Boomers and GenX’ers wanted at the same age – you’ll be ahead of the game. And if you give Millennials what they want, while still getting what your company needs, you’ll be so far ahead you’ll never look back.

Want to read more? The book is available at Amazon.

Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of more than 100 scientific publications and the books The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.