Millennials in the workplace: Fact from fiction


There’s plenty of advice out there about the right way to attract bright young talent to an organisation, but unfortunately too much of it has been based on unhelpful assumptions regarding the year of one’s birth.

Employers and HR divisions too often define applicants by their generation’s alphabetic tag. It can be tempting then to think you know what to expect of Gen X, Y, or Z, without giving each one the dignity of being an individual with their own abilities, experience, opinions, and assets.

Gen Y, or “millennials”, are the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce; these workers are now somewhere between 23 and 35 years old. That loose definition alone has to make us wonder if any stereotype really fits. At the lower end of that age bracket, applicants may be seeking an entry level position but still lack a clear career goal. But by their 30’s, perhaps an applicant is looking at middle- or higher-management roles, and offers a hefty amount of career and life experience.

We’re told that millennials are self-absorbed, greedy, cynical, and narcissistic…wait a minute, doesn’t that just describe lots of (but not all!) young people from any time period?

We’re also told that millennials are tech savvy, idealistic, and want to feel that their work will make the world a better place.

How is it possible that the same group can include members from both ends of the social spectrum, and hold such contradictory values? Simply because every individual on the planet has gathered his or her own unique life experience up to this point, and has been moulded by their own unique set of influences, even if they have degrees from the same university.

In recruitment, you need to find which of these unique individuals has what your company needs. But along with that, the successful unique applicant will have a host of other characteristics that you will have to live with.

In a recent ABC podcast, Professor Karl Moore said that one of the reasons why millennials require a different approach in the workplace is that they have received reinforcement at school, home and in the community that they are ‘special’ and can do anything they want. But isn’t recruitment about what your company requires first? Won’t giving them a different approach strengthen the unhealthy belief that they can do anything they want?

A report by PWC found that career progression is the top priority for millennials who have expectations they will rise swiftly through the organisation. If organisations don’t provide this, they can expect their millennials to move on to an organisation that can promise growth. And that would be a reasonable move, but hardly typical of millennials any more than other generations.

In fact the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that 66 percent of millennials planned to leave their current organisation by 2020.

If that’s true, then make that personnel movement work in your company’s favour. Simply groom and promote those that you need to retain. Give them opportunity for career progression. On the other hand, there will be others that you will be happy to see voluntarily leave the building for the last time. Let them go.

At HRMonline, Girard Dorney and Clive Hopkins suggested that it’s possible we’re just mislabelling the telltale signs of youth as generational quirks.

It seems that a feature of 20 somethings is to try and find the right career, rather than assuming they need to get promoted. In fact, there’s evidence that millennials are less inclined to job-hop than were Generation X.

The back and forth on millennials can get quite confusing, and make some of the recruiting theories seem suspect. For instance here is a survey saying they’re generally pessimistic, and another saying they’re optimistic – both surveys are from reputable organisations, Deloitte and Gallup.

Dorney and Hopkins sum up the dilemma very well: “Sure, one of the millennials you’re considering could be that tech-savvy, idealistic, narcissistic job hopper who only wants to work with a company that saves the planet (while offering huge career upside). But you might also be talking to the cynical, unambitious millennial whose only interest in life is doing a good job at a large corporate and then going home to his wife and kids. Because millennials are just like you. They’re all different.”