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Making it work with Millennials

October 7th, 2009 / By: / Management

Generation Y is impacting the business world in unprecedented ways.

Who are the Millennials? If you’ve paid attention to reports in the national media about the emerging generation called ‘Millennials,’ you might also recognize the nametags Generation Y (GenY), Generation Next and Echo Boomers. Regardless of the label, Millennials are an impressive group in many ways, one of which is their headcount; at about 75 million, they now make up the largest generation after the Baby Boomers. Born between 1981 and 1993, they are the younger brothers and sisters of Generation Xers, who number only about 40 million.

Making Millennials

Understanding who they are, and why they have certain personality traits and work characteristics, can help company owners and managers more effectively integrate them into their companies as valuable—and valued—team members.

“Millennials come to the workplace with high expectations of themselves and their performance levels and high expectations for their co-workers, bosses and companies,” says Terese Corey Blanck, founder of Minneapolis, Minn.-based CTC Consultants. Blanck has studied the development of 18- to 28-year-olds and its relationship to the changing workforce. “They have led structured lives in which their parents have devoted considerable, unprecedented time and attention to their development, education and activities,” Blanck says. “They are used to full schedules and juggling activities, which leads to their confident nature.”

This confidence also relates to their need for increasing challenges and goal-setting. Millennials have been told by their parents that they can do anything they set out to do, and they typically want and expect frequent feedback on their performance. Some experts suggest that this generation has been overly praised. “Everyone makes the team; everyone gets a trophy,” Blanck says. Others say this has developed their self-focused exploration, which often leads them to pursue varied work and life opportunities through their mid-20s, leading to secure, grounded adults.

Emerging adulthood

Because of this prolonged period of self-focus, Millennials and what they experience from ages 18 to 29 have changed dramatically in industrialized societies, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., an author and research professor in the department of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Arnett coined the term ‘emerging adulthood’ for this station in life, noting that instead of marrying and becoming parents in their early 20s as earlier generations had, Millennials are taking longer to reach full adulthood. As such, many experts are now pointing to the fact that this shift is not only generational, but also developmental—as in brain development. “The most widely studied changes in young adulthood are in the prefrontal cortex, the area [of the brain] behind the forehead associated with planning, problem-solving and related tasks,” notes the study from the MIT Young Adult Development Project, created by Rae Simpson, Ph.D., in 2008.

“We now know that the part of the brain that develops last is the frontal lobe, which governs decision-making, emotions and the ability to think ahead,” says Blanck. “We can’t expect Millennials to act like members of previous generations. They simply aren’t the same generationally or developmentally.”

The MIT study seems to concur. “As a number of researchers have put it, the rental car companies have it right. The brain isn’t fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive; or at 18, when we are allowed to vote; or at 21, when we are allowed to drink; but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car,” the study concludes.

Managing Millennials

Given the generational and developmental shift, companies that target their employee recruiting, training and retention plans to connect with Millennials will have an advantage over those that refuse to analyze and embrace the differences in this new group of workers.

To bridge this generation gap at work, Carol Phillips, president of Michigan-based Brand Amplitude and marketing professor at the University of Notre Dame, says managers need to be willing to provide ample evaluation; for Millennials, it’s all about structure and feedback. “[They] want to know what it takes to be successful and where they stand at all times. Their ambition is less about climbing the corporate ladder than making sure they are on the right ladder to learn and grow,” Phillips says.

Following a few suggestions offered by the experts should go a long way toward more effective hiring, managing and mentoring of the Millennial work force.

Build support systems. Millennials want to work for companies and managers who assist them in navigating their way to adulthood. “They need support,” says CTC Consultants’ Blanck. “I make the analogy that it is like scaffolding; as Millennials grow and mature, the scaffolding can come down.” For example, instead of scheduling weekly hour-long staff meetings, check in with your charges daily for a few minutes at different times of the day, or implement a system by which Millennial employees can request supervisor feedback when they feel it’s most needed.

Accept (some) failure. Allow Millennials the room to experience some failures (as we all do from time to time on the job), but coach them afterward so they feel they’ve partnered with you for future success. An example could be a thorough review of a written report or proposal, or encouraging the employee to take a business writing seminar to improve his or her written communication skills.

Get connected to the mission. Make sure Millennials understand how their roles tie in with the overall mission of the company. “They crave meaning and connection to their companies,” Blanck says. Share your company’s core values with employees and relate them back to every job. This can be done by creating a mission statement section in each employee’s written job description, which serves as a reminder of the overall goals. If you establish transparent goals and project timelines, Millennials will focus on these and meet your factors for success.

Go team. Millennials are comfortable with teams and partner well with co-workers as well as mentors. Put that inclination to work for the company by designing workspaces that allow for ideas to be shared and teams to gather. Allow Millennials to choose and form their own project teams and then have your managers coach and evaluate them as a team as well.

Play up their strengths. This is a networked generation that was born with technology. Encourage Millennials to use these skills to their fullest and to think creatively when it comes to the scope of their specific jobs. “Ask them, ‘How can we make this job even better for you?’” Blanck says. “Follow that up by getting their feedback on what they can contribute in order to get that …We know that engaged employees are 20 percent more productive than those who aren’t.”

Know your audience.

The emergence of Millennials in the workforce and the resulting demographic shift will eventually impact every company. Approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers are eligible for retirement each day in the United States. Whether Boomers are taking the retirement option is heavily linked to the economic downturn and disappearing 401(k) balances, but unavoidably Boomer retirements will create a new workplace environment.

Millennials will move up and take many of the jobs left by retirees. The time is right to learn how to effectively manage these new employees and most effectively use their vision and talents.

Amy Orchard is a freelance writer and editor living in Dellwood, Minn.

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