Millennials are on track to be the most educated group of people entering the workforce in history. They have been defined as “ambitious high-achievers” and, as such, it was speculated that employers would appreciate these hard workers entering the workforce. However, the Millennials’ transition into the workforce has not been as smooth as it was predicted, and misunderstandings between groups from different generations have allowed for the untapped potential from Millennials to be wasted. There are various characteristics of Millennials that when understood and properly managed by employers, can create a happy working environment for all generations.

Millennials are commonly defined as people born between 1981 and 2000, although no absolute chronological endpoint has been established for this generation. Currently, they are young adults, falling between the ages of 17-37. They will soon become the largest living generation in America with nearly 75 million constituents.

The Millennial generation has been described as confident, ambitious, independent, innovative, optimistic, adaptable and technologically advanced. Those are potentially positive traits for an employee. However, as it happens with every generation, there has been some friction as the Millennials have entered the workforce. Criticisms are arising, perhaps to the largest inter-generational degree to date, as new perspectives clash with old ones. This is happening, in large part, because Millennial perspectives on information, job security, and leadership tend to be diametrically opposed to those of older, existing workers.

As Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are retiring, Millennials have been entering the workforce at increasing rates, with Millennials recently surpassing Generation Xers and Baby Boomers to become the largest component of the U.S. labor force, comprising 34.6% in 2015. By 2020, they are projected to comprise 46% of the labor force. Competitive employers will therefore be trying to attract and retain Millennial workers to create an edge for their business to succeed, and the best way to attract any demographic group is to understand what they want and then provide it. To understand Millennial motivation, one must look to the big influences on their generation to see what has shaped and helped to define them.  

Millennial Influences

Millennials, just like with preceding generations, have been shaped by the events of the world as they grew up. Events that occur during formative years tend to have a significant impact on people as they mature, with some sociologists saying that people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. Others believe that the range of influencing years is broader. Most agree that by their late twenties and early thirties, people become more set in their beliefs. By this definition, the big influencers for the Millennial generation would include helicopter parents, digital media, terrorist attacks, and economic recessions, including the burst of the dot-com bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis.

Helicopter Parents

Millennials were often raised by parents who scheduled everything for them. Their schedules outside of school were frequently packed with everything from sports practice to music lessons. Many parents of Millennials had no trouble petitioning a coach for more playing time or a teacher for a better grade for their child, making Millennials a more micromanaged generation. Notably, this packed schedule often involved group activities, frequently making Millennials great team players. Plus, Millennials are often very close with their parents and rely upon them as a source of advice and wisdom.

On top of their highly involved parents praising them, Millennials often received trophies for participation in their activities. This has fostered expectations that they deserve an award simply for showing up. On the plus side, Millennials want to continue receiving these awards, which can help them to focus on developing the talents and skills that will help them win coveted awards. This means they are often setting new challenges for themselves, which could be very useful in the workplace if properly harnessed. However, this has also led many Millennials to believe they are unduly special; 54% of them believe the workplace should adapt to them and it is therefore unnecessary for them to conform to company culture.

In summary, the helicopter parent influence on Millennials shaped them to be team oriented, externally motivated and confident, and has also led many of them to believe they are “special.”

Digital Media

Millennials were the first generation to grow up surrounded by the instant gratification technology of digital media. Because technology was integrated into so many aspects of their lives, from cell phones to IMs to personal computers, they are technologically savvy. They are therefore also experts at multitasking and have become accustomed to getting what they want, such as answers to questions, when they want it. Millennials also witnessed the birth of social media, which has allowed the world to shrink exponentially; through improved access, Millennials are exposed to more ideas, cultures and opinions. This has made them more open-minded and more networked than past generations. Having access to many opinions with the click of a button has also helped to shape this generation into a collaborative group.

The digital media influence has shaped Millennials to be team oriented as well as technologically savvy, open-minded, globally conscious, multitaskers and networked.

Terrorist Attacks

A bulk of this generation was still in school at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and they experienced an increase in helicopter parenting following this event. This fostered the generations’ dependence on technology, with personal cell phones being given to children so parents could contact them at any time.  Due to close ties with their parents, Millennials also experienced a reinforcement in the value of a sense of community.

During this character-forming time in the Millennials’ youth, they witnessed a senseless act of violence that demonstrated the fragility of human life. Thus, a sense of urgency seems to permeate this generation. They live their lives with borderline-delusional courage, unconventional work ethics and a ferocious need to customize their futures because they watched as other futures were cut short. They are therefore driven by their passions more than past generations and live more in the moment because of these events. This influence also helped to mold Millennials to be family oriented and passionate about making a difference.

Recessions

The 1990s were a time of steady economic growth and expansion; the mid-to-late 1990s saw optimistic entrepreneurs pursing new internet ventures, influenced by successes such as eBay and Amazon. Many internet companies called “dot-coms” were launched, and investors financed these start-ups. However, these ventures were not as profitable as originally assumed and many of the companies crashed, leading to a stock market crash. During the final decades of the 20th century, 30 million U.S. workers were laid off. For the Millennials, this meant seeing their parents lose their jobs. They were imprinted as children by a period of diminished job security and weakening ties between the employer and the employee. Company loyalty did not mean as much as it once had.

After seeing their parents bear the brunt of the dot-coms, Millennials experienced a recession themselves just as they were entering the workforce. This “Great Recession” lasted from 2007 to 2010, in large part because of mortgage credit being offered to subprime borrowers. When these borrowers defaulted on their loans, the housing market crashed, which affected the overall economy. It decreased wealth and consumer spending, lowered construction, limited the ability of firms to lend money, and limited the funds firms could raise.

The group of people who were affected most by this crisis were the Millennials who were just entering the workforce, particularly the graduating class of 2008. They had trouble finding jobs, much less jobs with high enough wages to offset their massive student debt. This caused many young adults to postpone major adult milestones such as marriage, or the purchase of their own car or home.

Even several years after the recession, Millennials are still having some difficulty finding jobs. Statistics from Pew Research indicate that 25-34-year-olds made up 48% of the unemployed population in 2015. Additionally, it has been harder for Millennials to access credit, which has caused some of them to settle for jobs they don’t want, with people from this generation frequently looking for new potential employment opportunities. They have seen layoffs or been in a position where they themselves could not find a job. Thus, many have responded with the mindset that they will not let the same things happen to them or are determined not to have them happen again; they are therefore constantly looking ahead.

These economic recessions made Millennials ambitious and stressed, and they have contributed to this generation’s external motivation.

Tips for Optimizing Success Based on Millennial Traits

Based on the major influences of the times, certain traits within Millennials arose that shape their motivation. These traits give insight as to what is important to Millennials, and thus, how they can be managed and fostered in the workplace to optimize success. Millennials are team oriented, family oriented, externally motivated, “special,” confident, ambitious, technologically savvy, open-minded, globally conscious, networked, multitaskers, passionate about making a difference, and stressed. Here are a few ways you can harness these traits to optimize workplace success.

Millennials are all about work and life. Nearly six in 10 (57%) of them say work-life balance and personal well-being in a job are “very important” to them.  Not surprisingly, then, lack of flexibility was cited among the top reasons Millennials quit jobs. And nearly 40 percent of young workers, male or female, in the United States are so unhappy with the lack of paid parental-leave policies that they say they would be willing to move to another country.

So, what options can you offer Millennials? Can you offer flexible scheduling, including but not limited to telecommuting elements? What is your parental leave policy? Should you take a second look at what you offer? When you talk to the Millennials at your practice, what options do they say are important to them?

Millennials prefer to work in teams, in part because they perceive group-based work to be more fun, but also because they like to avoid risk. Millennials also report that working and interacting with other members of a team makes work more pleasurable. Millennial workers like to be actively involved and fully committed to whatever projects they take on, and they contribute their best efforts to the organization when their work is performed in a collaborative workgroup or team.

What team structures do you have in place at your practice? Have you sat down with your employees to find out ways in which they would like more teamwork to exist? What changes can you make now? In the future?

Because they fear risk, knowing that health insurance is available and affordable is important to this generation. What are you able to provide them? Are there voluntary benefits you can offer them? Because this is a generation with significant student debt, increasing numbers of companies are offering loan repayment assistance. Have you investigated that option?

Millennials appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow. Have you sat down with them to talk about promotion possibilities and the best way to get the education and training needed for a desired promotion?

These are just some of the ways in which you can optimize Millennial performance at work and retain your best employees. It’s important, too, to avoid pigeon-holing any employee, assuming you know what someone wants because of the year of his or her birth. For employees of any age or generation, the way you can learn the most about their desires, fears, needs and wants is open and honest communication. Set aside time to learn more about your employees as individuals and help them with their unique career paths – and you will all benefit.