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Millennials Working

By Rena M. Klein, FAIA

They can be seen everywhere talking on their phones, texting their friends, listening to their iPods, and often doing all of these things simultaneously. They are the Millennials, also known as Generation Y, and they are beginning to make their presence felt in the workplace. Born between 1980 and 1995, they are the first generation to grow up with cell phones, instant messaging and email. These “20-somethings” work differently from other generations and will require different management techniques. They will also expect a different workplace culture.

As described by Morley Safer on the television news magazine, 60-Minutes, the Millennials are causing both consternation and delight in their bosses. Major corporations are hiring consultants to teach managers how to handle these young workers, and to teach the new employees how to behave in a professional environment. While these new workers may eventually conform to traditional workplace standards as have previous generations, experts predict that this may not happen so easily. Because of generational demographics and changing technology, these new workers may have the power to remake the workplace in their own image.

Boomers Out, Millennials In

Generational demographics reveal that there are almost as many Millennials as there are Baby Boomers. Comprised of 75 million individuals in the US, they loom large behind Generation X, a cohort that of only 45 million. Their parents (and managers) are both Boomers and Xers since many Boomers had their children late, explaining, to some extent, the smaller size of Generation X (born 1961–1980). By all accounts, the (middle class) Millennials were pampered by parents who were extremely focused on and involved with their children’s lives. As expressed by Morley Safer, “They were raised by doting parents who told them they are special, played in little leagues with no winners or losers, or all winners. They are laden with trophies just for participating and they think your business-as-usual ethic is for the birds.”

In the coming years, as Boomers reach retirement, a huge number of positions in all industries, including architecture, will need to be filled. This trend will increase competition for the talented and highly capable employees that are critical to business success. These conditions, along with the paucity of Gen Xers and the unique competencies of the Millennials, will allow the new generation to have a growing influence on the workplace environment.

As described by Claire Raines in an excerpt from Connecting Generations: The Sourcebook, (Crisp Publications, 2003), “[The Millennials] are hottest commodity on the job market since Rosie the Riveter. They’re sociable, optimistic, talented, well-educated, collaborative, open-minded, influential, and achievement-oriented. They’ve always felt sought after, needed, indispensable. They are arriving in the workplace with higher expectations than any generation before them—and they’re so well connected that, if an employer doesn’t match those expectations, they can tell thousands of their cohorts with one click of the mouse.”

Technological Tethering

According to Kathryn Tyler in her article, The Tethered Generation (HR Magazine, 2007), marketing researchers report that Millennials spend an average of 72 hours a week connecting with their peers and their parents by cell phone, email or text messaging. Research shows that many of these young people are in touch with a parent three to five times a day, even after they enter college and the workforce. Parents of Millennials are typically involved in every aspect of their child’s life, helping to make all decisions, large and small.

Tyler quotes psychologists and researchers regarding the potential down-sides for individuals who are technologically “tethered” to parents and friends while still developing the capacity to reason, plan, and make decisions. Many believe that Millennials struggle to make independent decisions, engage in critical thinking, and solve problems creatively. Tyler cites a 2006 report that validates these theories, “Roughly three-quarters of executives and HR managers at 400 companies surveyed said that recent four-year college graduates displayed only ‘adequate’ professionalism and work ethic, creativity and innovation, and critical thinking and problem-solving. Only one-quarter reported an ‘excellent’ display of those traits in recent college graduates, according to Are They Really Ready to Work?, a report by the Society for Human Resource Management, The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.”

A Mixed Bag

The effects of their upbringing make the Millennials both attractive and challenging for employers. While they are tech-savvy, collaborative and open-minded, they sometimes lack basic skills in reading, writing and verbal communication (Are They Really Ready to Work, Society of Human Resource Managers, 2008).

Typical strengths of Millennials include:

    • Confidence – can also express as self-doubt or worry

    • Optimistic – also open to change and experimenting

    • Warm and outgoing – can also express as sentimental and sensitive

    • Achievement oriented – can be highly disciplined and organized when motivated

    • Group oriented – teamwork, collaboration and group decision making come easily

    • Inclusive – will celebrate diversity, not just tolerate or accept it

    • Tech-savvy – will access resources on Internet unknown to older colleagues

    • Civic minded – community oriented values and volunteerism is up among young people

Typical weaknesses of Millennials include

    • Short attention span – the dark side of multi-tasking and constant stimulation

    • Reading (hard-copy) adverse – if it is not on Internet, it doesn’t exist

    • Dismissive of those not as tech-savvy – not sure there is anything to be learned from their older colleagues

    • Lack of discretion and sensitivity to confidentiality – the “MySpace” and “FaceBook” effect

    • Lack of independence – they may look to their employers and managers to be like their “over-involved” parents

    • Unrealistic expectations – they have told their entire lives how great they are, so they may be unprepared for being challenged in the business environment

How to Manage Millennials

By all reports, successful management of young workers requires a softer approach that is laced with appreciation and explanation. Coaching which includes both support and direction will be more effective than a purely directive approach. Millennials are used to having constant assistance, assurance and justification from their parents and may expect their employers to behave in a similar fashion. They don’t respond well to harsh criticism and are unashamed about their expectations.

As expressed on 60-Minutes by Marian Salzman, an ad agency executive who has been tracking Millennials, "These young people will tell you what time their yoga class is and the day's work will be organized around the fact that they have this commitment… You do have to speak to them a little bit like a therapist on television might speak to a patient. You can't be harsh. You cannot tell them you're disappointed in them. You can't really ask them to live and breathe the company. Because they're living and breathing themselves and that keeps them very busy."

Claire Raines (Generations at Work) outlines the most frequent requests made by Millennials of their bosses:

    1. You be the leader. This generation has grown up with structure and supervision, with parents who were role models. The “You be the parent” TV commercials are right on. Millennials are looking for leaders with honesty and integrity. It’s not that they don’t want to be leaders themselves, they’d just like some great role models first.

    2. Challenge me. Millennials want learning opportunities. They want to be assigned to projects they can learn from. A recent Randstad employee survey found that “trying new things” was the most popular item. They’re looking for growth, development, a career path. 

    3. Let me work with friends. Millennials say they want to work with people they click with. They like being friends with coworkers. Employers who provide for the social aspects of work will find those efforts well rewarded by this newest cohort. Some companies are even interviewing and hiring groups of friends.

    4. Let’s have fun. A little humor, a bit of silliness, even a little irreverence will make your work environment more attractive.

    5. Respect me. “Treat our ideas respectfully,” they ask, “even though we haven’t been around a long time.”

    6. Be flexible. The busiest generation ever isn’t going to give up its activities just because of jobs. A rigid schedule is a sure-fire way to lose your Millennial employees.

The bottom line is that employers cannot expect their “20-something” workers to give up texting and listening to their iPod simply because they are at work. The good news is that they can likely do the work they are given much faster than previous generations of workers. The bad news is that the work may not be as thorough or complete.

This phenomenon is explained by Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a firm that studies the working lives of young people, “Members of Generation Y see themselves as would-be experts on everything. They know that they can come up with a legitimate response instantaneously to whatever you ask them. Though they may be able to find the right answer to a problem, they lack the experience, context and wisdom needed to understand what’s behind a problem. Employers shouldn’t ignore this skill, however: the ability to learn new things and put them into action is valuable.” (The Ideal Workplace for Generation Y, HR Magazine, 2006)

Some employers have instituted “reverse mentoring” to take advantage of the unique skills of this cohort. Millennials are matched with Boomer executives to whom they teach the use of the Internet, social networking sites, and other electronic communication techniques. In return, the Millennials are mentored on the workplace competencies of the Boomer generation–client service orientation; commitment to excellence; and responsible follow-through on assignments–as well as connection to business related networking.

While Boomer and Gen X employers and managers are quick to complain about the younger generation, experts advise that the ability to recruit and retain Millennials is critical to competitive success in the coming decades. As explained by Sommer Kehrli and Trudy Sopp, (Managing Generation Y, HR Magazine, 2006), “Put an end to your pain and don’t get caught up in the power struggle. They know you are in charge. They don’t care. You can accomplish more for your organization when you make nice with Generation Y, an enormously optimistic, educated, energetic and compassionate generation.”

Internet Resources

Rena M. Klein, FAIA, principal of RM Klein Consulting, in Seattle, Washington, is a member of the AIA Soloso Editorial Content Review Board and the Subject Matter Expert for Practice.

Keywords: Practice, Diversity, Human Resources, Generations, Millennials, Generation Y, Article


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