• Andrew Wien

Millennials are taking over the workforce

What they want and how you can retain them in the long term

In 2018, millennials will represent 50% of the workforce. They are taking over whether you like it or not, and the businesses that figure out how to effectively attract, embrace, and motivate them will be the ones with a future.

I interviewed business leaders and HR executives in the Denver area to understand how companies are pivoting to successfully motivate and manage this growing generation. The bottom line is that what millennials want is simple, but delivering takes continued and sustained effort. This article introduces a four-part series that will explore what millennials want and how companies can keep us in the long term. The series includes…

  • The ONE thing millennials want in a job

  • The four things companies must do to retain millennials in the long term

  • The millennial perception, common problems, and how to overcome them

  • Frequent mistakes and high impact activities to engage this generation

Disclaimer: I am a millennial. The people I have interviewed are a mix of baby boomers and Gen X. I have chosen to use “we / our” when describing millennials because I am very much a part of that generation. This choice might create some confusion when trying to differentiate my voice and opinions from the conclusion of the research. The content is from many conversations from the past several months distilled into one voice.

(I) The ONE thing millennials want in a job

Newsflash: the human brain has been evolving for million years, and in 20-30 years it hasn’t changed much. Millennials want what every generation before them has wanted. The difference lies in (1) expectations about getting it and (2) life stage.

Technology has drastically increased the transparency of what goes on in people’s lives and companies’ offices. Facebook and Instagram are broadcasting how much fun everyone else is having—friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and even ex-girlfriends. Glassdoor and frequent articles on the best places to work display the best perks from the best companies. What’s new with millennials is that because we continually see how awesome everyone else is, we have an insatiable desire for our work and life to be awesome too. Don’t ask us how to make that happen. We have no idea. We will tell you things like flexible working hours, meals on site, and access to yoga classes. Throw in some beer on tap and a boondoggle or two while you’re at it. While that stuff is nice, it’s all just icing on a cake. Icing makes a cake better, but it’s not going to save one that tastes awful.

What complicates things further is that millennials are at a different life stage than older generations expect. According to Jason Dorsey, a millennial researcher, “today’s 28 year olds are 3-5 years behind other generations in work and life experience… we’re graduating college later, entering the workforce later, getting married later, and having kids later.” This has nothing to do with ambition or skill. We just wanted to do other things before jumping into a family and career, which means having a lot more flexibility than older generations did five years into their careers. It is easier to switch jobs and move cities, making retaining us that much harder.

For our careers, you need to encourage us to think long term. We are used to chasing instant gratification. We can order almost anything we want on Amazon, summon a car in less than a few minutes, and watch a full TV series in a weekend rather than over three months. We are used to getting what we want when we want it. This is impossible in our career. Fulfillment through work does not happen overnight—it takes a dedicated effort over a long period.

The one thing millennials want in a job is to align our purpose on this planet with what we are doing in our career. The company needs to be a natural extension of who we are, how we define ourselves, even our personal brand. We need to clearly understand why the work we do matters and how it impacts the people around us and the greater world. And that impact needs to resonate with us.

This is an extremely tall order, but some companies are successfully doing it. Two companies that were interviewed for this study have nailed it, Vail Resorts and DaVita. These will be the companies that millennials stay at for more than a few years. These will be the companies that we bring our innovation and energy to and do whatever is required to get the job done. And these will be the companies that will be most profitable in the long term.

Check out part II: The 4 things companies must do to retain millennials in the long term and part III: Overcoming the 4 common millennial problems

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