Retaining millennial workers is a natural concern for managers. Millennials passed Generation X in the first quarter of 2015 to become the largest share of the American workforce, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. There were 53.5 million millennials — individuals born between 1981 and 1997 — in the workforce in 2015, with many still to begin working following college. That’s 34 percent of American employees.
The size of the millennial workforce is not the only reason companies and business leaders are paying attention. Compared to other generations, millennials are often regarded as having a high turnover rate and being particularly difficult to manage and retain. However, these claims and perceptions require a closer look.
Claims that millennials have a higher turnover rate than other generations may be unfounded. Fast Company justifies this with 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when the median employee tenure for workers ages 25 to 34 was 3.2 years — only 1.4 years less than the median tenure for all employees.
Median employee tenure for workers ages 25 to 34 declined to 3 years in 2014, but none of these figures illustrate millennials’ lack of loyalty. “In fact, 2014 exactly matches the average tenure for young workers as in 1983, when comparable data begun being tracked,” CNBC notes.
The Washington Post says that millennials aren’t switching jobs as much as previous generations, leading to lower wages and fewer employment opportunities. These factors should motivate millennials to change jobs more often. Career coach Kathy Caprino echoes these sentiments and believes younger workers should deliberately shorten tenure. Millennials should “not stay put for 10 years at one organization early on in their careers, because that can significantly reduce their compensation in the long term,” she told CNBC. “And do the hands-on research necessary to identify the best direction for them over the long haul.”
Millennials also receive attention for being more difficult to manage than workers of other generations. Descriptors include “self-centered, needy, and entitled with unrealistic work expectations,” author Dan Schawbel told U.S. News & World Report. But before business leaders buy into this, they should take time to understand millennials’ desires and values. “No one seems to be disputing the idea that Millennials differ from their predecessors,” The Atlantic says. “They want change, which can be difficult and frustrating, and their quest for personal achievement can result in bouncing from company to company. But it’s possible that the distinct characteristics of this generation may also help them be better workers.”
What Millennial Workers Value
Millennials place a heavy emphasis on working in organizations that contribute to the community or world. “Millennial workers are more likely to look for meaning and impact in their work and aren’t satisfied simply punching a clock,” writes Forbes contributor Jenna Goudreau.
“The students who’ve been coming out of university for several years now are very focused on the social responsibility profile of any organization they’re considering working for,” Doug Carr of Fairmont Raffles Hotels International told Forbes contributor Micah Solomon. “They want to know your company’s stance on the environment, on community involvement and social responsibility, whether your company wins awards for its eco-tourism or green lodging. All of this plays a large role in whether or not they’re interested in coming to work for you.”
Millennial workers are interested in seeing the whole picture — how they play a role in a larger purpose. Of course, other generations of workers desire meaning in their work as well.
A survey of more than 12,000 employees featured in The New York Times found that 50 percent lack a level of meaning and significance at work. Employees who experience meaning for their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organization, which was the highest impact of any other survey variable tested. Meaning ranked higher than learning and growth, connection to a company’s mission and work-life balance.
But as Personnel Review and the Journal of Business and Psychology note, work-life balance is a strong desire for millennials. This emphasis can be linked to what millennials have witnessed from their parents’ lack of work-life balance.
“Millennials have reportedly seen their boomer parents work long hours, only to fall victim to corporate downsizing, frequent layoffs, and high divorce rates,” the Journal of Business and Psychology says. “As a result, they have become wary of being put in the same position, and choose ‘making a life’ over ‘making a living.’ … Given their higher levels of education, Millennials are more likely to negotiate the terms under which they work, and demand work/life balance at every stage of their careers.”
Managers can support millennials’ desire for work-life balance by being aware of scheduling issues and work outside of typical business hours. Many younger employees work extremely hard but insist on having their nights and weekends free.
Additionally, managers and business leaders should strongly consider the benefits of workplace flexibility. Tech-savvy millennials are able to work anytime from anywhere, according to Goudreau, so managers can offer telecommuting and flexible scheduling to workers who consistently perform. Millennials crave flexibility in where, when and how they work. Surveys demonstrate that millennials are more likely than other generations to be willing to take a pay cut, forego a promotion or move to manage work-life demands better, The Washington Post says.
Research points to millennials’ desire for job security, adequate pay and professional growth. Professional growth is of particular note.
“They [millennials] had realistic expectations of their first job and salary but were seeking rapid advancement and the development of new skills,” according to the Journal of Business and Psychology, which did not compare millennials to other generations. Sixty-three percent of millennials surveyed by Deloitte say their “leadership skills are not being fully developed,” and many millennials intending to leave their current employer feel that they are overlooked for leadership positions.
Having the right support and training for millennials to advance can be crucial for retention. Clear expectations, feedback and communication are also important.
Leading All Employees
Recognizing what millennials value is important for business leaders and managers. But at the same time, care must be taken when making generalizations.
“Although there are, on average, differences between generations, they are dwarfed by the sharper distinctions you’ll find between individual human beings,” Solomon writes. “And individual human beings, rather than generations, are what make up a workforce.”
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