Breaking the Millennial Code

“They are lazy” but “they are go-getters”; “they are entitled” but “they are always connected”; “they are disloyal” but “they want to do good in the world”. Who really are they? It’s as if we are looking at a medicine commercial on TV: “Drug XYZ may lead to constipation…or diarrhea and maybe even death”. Yes, it is true you can find a “Millennial” that will meet any number of the characteristics so often ascribed to them but you may have more trouble finding one who fits every single Millennial generalization.



A quick search will bring up any number of great articles about Millennials in the workplace, their characteristics and what they want out of their work. Yet we see many companies struggling to implement effective programs for them. Given that by 2020 (a mere 5 years away) almost half of the workforce will be made up of Millennials, employers really do need to understand how best to motivate and offer a work environment that will enable them to flourish.


A word of warning though; companies facing this issue today should tread with caution. Blind following of the numerous popular generalizations about this group can result in unintended consequences. It is, in fact, how the research is applied that is important, since much money has already been lost through programs and initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining Millennials ending up with the opposite effect. Below are a couple of points that often go misunderstood in designing these very programs.

Be precise about the year of birth.

Millennials are classed as being born from about 1981-2000.  It just so happens that within this time the world went through some pretty crazy technological advancements – the Internet was born, the mobile phone came around, social media and online commerce became actual things.

These things did not all happen at once though. Those born at the beginning of the Millennial timeframe know of very different interactions compared to those born towards the end. In fact, their expectation baseline is completely different given that the latter do not really know of a world without Internet or mobile phones. The earlier born, on the other hand, still remember a world without Google, have used a rotary phone and will have experienced the amazing introduction of dial-up Internet. They may even have been responsible for the second line being installed after their parents had enough of shouting at them for blocking the first phone line.

The thing to think about is this: when did they learn how to learn?  Understanding this is what will help you to connect with Millennials, to understand them and engage with them, since this is what has set their expectation baseline.

Understand the importance of learning how to learn.

Another characteristic we often hear is that “they are tech savvy”.  Well, no kidding – wouldn’t you be too if you grew up with smartphones as toys? If you learnt to use one as naturally as if it were learning how to walk? The difference here is that previous generations did not have the advantage of acquired learning for these technologies during their prime learning years, they had to actually work on learning these new interactions afterwards.

The sad fact is that many Millennials enter the workforce and find that the workplace experience is not up to par. So, businesses: take heed. Prepare for the next gen that learnt to swipe on iPads before they learnt to formulate sentences. I kid you not – my Goddaughter knows how to cry out when advertisements play on YouTube, and how to press the “skip ad” button, at the age of 2!  Your employee’s expectations are only going to increase, while society’s expectation baseline, generally, is changing ever more rapidly with the increasingly fast introduction of modern technology and new interactions in the learning phases of life.

So remember: not all Millennials are the same –the top and tail had different experiences in their learning years and this will impact their feelings and decisions today.

Money is as important as it always has been.

“They do not care about money – they want to do good” is the general gist of many an article about Millennials. While it is true that they value happiness and appreciate companies concerned with doing good in the world, they do still have bills to pay. In fact, Millennials have been referred to as the screwed generation, so they could certainly do with the money.

The thing to remember is that just because Millennials put importance on other life factors, this does not mean they are ok with being underpaid – it simply means that they value other things too. It is all about the mix – the full package on multiple levels; money, happiness, security, learning and everything else that goes with it. Remembering to look end-to-end at the experience and rewards you give employees will lead to more positive results.

Smoke and mirrors are laughable.

This is the age of transparency. Everything around us is communicable and shareable in an instant. Thoughts and opinions can be shared with vast amounts of people in a few clicks of a button. Remember this when you are communicating to your workforce. I have heard many employees tell me of “webcasts” where leaders talk about how much they care, how much they value the workforce. In the meantime, many employees are getting on with work, or IM’ing their colleagues on what a load of codswallop it is. The truth is – actions speak louder than words.  Saying it is one thing, but demonstrating it through the experience you provide is much more powerful. Instead of bringing everyone together to tell them how much you care, show them by perhaps spending time with them in a different forum like a volunteering event, or simply just grabbing lunch with them.

“They like recognition” – another wide spread comment pertaining to Millennials. Well who doesn’t? The key here though, is to be authentic in what and when you recognize. If you are hideously underpaying someone, then a piece of paper saying “well done” is not likely going to cut it. Furthermore, people do not need an award for doing their job; that is what a salary is for. Give recognition when recognition is due. If everyone is getting recognized for blowing their nose, then what is the recognition worth and how will the recognized feel? Do not dilute the impact of good authentic recognition – they will know if you do, and you will not get the desired effect.

Leadership and entrepreneurial thinking are normal characteristics.

Today’s accessibility and technology demonstrate to Millennials and society that young leaders with great ideas can “make it”. The founders of companies such as Box, Facebook and Slack are well integrated into the Millennial vision of possibilities.

Many articles mention the Millennial’s desire to lead – but how can you apply this in your company? Well, instead of being angered by the fact that they didn’t work for 20 years plus in a linear path to leadership, find ways to utilize this characteristic to everyone’s advantage.

It might be true that the turnover for Millennials can be higher than previous generations, however this can be used to drive innovation. Embrace their longing for the new and proactively bring them to their next opportunity – inside your company. One of the best bosses I ever had once said to me “a good manager will develop you to stay, a great one will let you go to be developed further.”

Another great way to harness their spirit is to start entrepreneurial-based teams within your business departments. In-house “incubators” or “innovation teams” are great ways to build small team identities and give Millennials the young, vibrant business culture they crave – even if it is within a goliath. The great thing here is that you can balance out the experienced employees with them, which will really enable growth all round.

Flexibility is more than just allowing “work from home”.

Flexibility is not a rule stating “you may work from home one day a week.” It is much more than that. Pivot your mind to see what true flexibility is – you need to give your workforce the tools to enable them to work and engage wherever they are. That is true flexibility. So whether at work, at home, at the café – they should always be able to do whatever they need to do. There is not much difference between work and life today. Always connected means always able to work, if needed – the difference now is that Millennials are choosing when not to. Just because they are not in the office 9-5, why should that matter? Work is not really 9-5 anymore anyway.  Just focus on enablement – enable your employees to be productive and engaged, no matter where they are, at whatever time of day.

REMEMBER:  Thinking about Millennials is really just thinking about the world today.

The truth is, by thinking through how to improve the workplace for Millennials, you are simply coming to understand how to enhance the workplace for today’s world. Remember, people’s expectations baselines arise from when they learnt how to learn, in those critical earlier learning years. However, as we go through periods of intensive relearning, like a new technology, we are almost re-baselining our expectations, while our memory retains our original experiences.

Therefore, while learning about the Millennials, you are also rediscovering how to interact with and engage a workforce in today’s world and all its trimmings. This has advantages for other generations too. The difference now is in the interaction points and how you apply the lessons from the wealth of research that has been conducted into this particular generation.

How User Experience (UX) Thinking can Help.

UX thinking is based on a deep understanding of people and behavior that can help to make all the generations within your workforce more efficient. Talent management, recruitment and mentoring programs can also be created to great effect using this process. Your company will be successful not simply knowing the characteristics of Millennials alone, but by identifying the interaction points within your business and how they impact your employee’s job satisfaction and life values.

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