22 Mar Millennials and the World of Work

By Beverly Kaye

Will the severe economic recession we’ve gone through reshape Millennials attitudes and expectations about the world of work and their place in it? – And if so, how?

It’s been suggested that the hard times we’ve endured will move the Millennial mindset into closer alignment with the one held by their parents and grandparents (i.e., Xers or Boomers).

This is an intriguing question because these 18-35 year olds, who now account for more than 20% of the available workforce, have up until now displayed attitudes and needs that are markedly different from Boomers and Xers.

What Makes ‘Em Different?


Boomers who manage ’em X-ers who manage ’em The Millennials
Born 1946-1964 1965-1976 1977-1998
Workforce Population 78 million 43 million 78 Million
Attitudinal differences
Gratification Earn it and it will come Live for it Expect it
The Organization Become it Mistrust it Make the most of it and move on
Career-Life Balance Work is Job-1 Life is Job-1 Lifestyle integration is Job-1
Getting things done Act on prioritized tasks Multi-task Multi-task Fast
Rules Conform to them Reject them Rewrite them
Technology Awed by it Leverage it Integrate it
Diversity Advocate it Embrace it Celebrate it
Values Teamwork, structure, consistency, formality, hard work, loyalty, and patience Self-reliance, informality, competence, continuous learning, feedback, and balance Continuous learning, contribution, collaboration, self-inventiveness, structure, direction, achievement.

Not Just An Intriguing Question

More than intriguing, this is an important issue to ponder. While some economists and statisticians still project a gap of up to 23 million workers within 10 years, others now reject these claims asserting that Boomers, having to work well beyond age 65, will negate such dire predictions. Regardless, one prediction is indisputable: An extraordinary shift in the composition of our workforce is inevitable—Millennials, 78 million strong, will become the bedrock of the American workforce and are destined to become the future of our organizations. Engaging and retaining these workers—and attracting new Millennial employees—requires anticipating and staying in-tune with their needs.

Two Key Factors

Whenever a powerful event comes along that shocks the status quo and threatens our psychological safety, it has a destabilizing effect on us that allows us to be more open to change. Therefore, a key factor (force) set in motion by a severe downturn of our economy is an unfreezing of held assumptions that can reshape prevailing attitudes and expectations about the world of work and our place in it. And although we are all subject to this phenomenon, Boomers and X-ers have at least had the benefit of lessons learned having endured past recessions in the 70s, 80s, and 90s which certainly reshaped their attitudes and beliefs about the world of work. Therefore, it stands to reason that this past recession will unfreeze Millennials’ assumptions and make them receptive to changing how they think about things—and, therefore, we should expect some change in the way they look at the world of work and their place in it.

Another key factor determining how recessions reshape attitudes and beliefs is the duration and depth of the downturn. The longer and deeper they are, the more painful they will be—and the more possible it becomes that short-term coping responses (e.g., preferring job security to career development) morph into longer-term and more systemic attitude changes. While this past recession was deeper, longer, and more painful than the others that Boomers and X-ers have experienced in their own lifetime, it’s doubtful it will be destabilizing enough to see radical changes in the basic psychological make-up of Millennials.

With youth on their side, and deep-seated beliefs sown by the18 to 35 years of socialization bestowed on them by their parents and the socio-economic environment in which they were reared, it is unlikely that their core values will succumb to the past recession. Moreover, as a group, they will not feel as much pain as others may unfortunately experience. For the most part, Millennials are not the ones straddled with subprime mortgages or SUVs they cannot payoff—nor are they the ones with fewer work years ahead of them than in back of them with concerns about retirement. But they are better prepared in some ways for economic hard times than Xers and Boomers because they were socialized to not expect a job for life; and they do not think in terms defined benefit pensions calculated as a proportion of salary at retirement.

Therefore, we should expect to see some reshaping in the way Millennials look at the world of work and their place in it. Rather than a radical attitude shift, it will more than likely be a healthy shaping that will serve them and organizations well.

We believe that Millennials’ attitudes and expectations will evolve in positive ways—and it will driven by their core values.

This is because two of the core values that distinguish this generation of workers are their noble desire to do good and to learn and develop. We believe that they are hungry for direction from leaders who will rally them to rise to this calling. Millennials report that they are most engaged by:

  • Opportunities for professional growth and learning.
  • A job that provides me with a strong sense of personal accomplishment and contribution.
  • Working for a company with ideals that I can proudly support.
  • A manager who allows me to try new and creative ways of getting work done.

Assuming leaders are prepared to attend to these values, Millennials’ path of least resistance will more likely steer them to the conclusion that, “Although this place isn’t perfect, perhaps I can do some good and make this an opportunity for growth and learning.”

Furthermore, with the inevitability that organizations will lose the knowledge-base of their older workers, in the years to come they will need these younger workers’ vitality, technical savvy, and amazing adaptive skills (i.e., their ability to multitask, enthusiasm for diversity, flexibility in not being wed to any single way of doing things, need for collaboration, ability to view things in new and revealing ways, willingness to recareer and reinvent themselves, etc.). Millennials’ internal resources and passion, if nurtured and leveraged by their leaders, will serve their organizations well in a highly competitive and ever-changing global economy.

How Do We Get There?

First-line managers who lead Millennials can immediately start engaging them by simply attending to their values (i.e., their needs for learning and development, and contribution). This can be accomplished by initiating an ongoing dialogue fueled by the following simple, yet powerful questions:

  • What matters most to you in a job?
  • What do you enjoy doing most and least?
  • What’s your best thinking about the kinds of work you would like to be doing in the future?
  • What do you need from me to help you be the best you can be?

Coaching Tips:

  1. Don’t expect them to have all the answers.
  2. Resist the temptation to disagree, or to give them your answers.
  3. Listen more than talk.
  4. Give your opinion when asked, disclosing your own struggles with similar issues.
  5. Tell the truth—it’s more important than making them happy.
  6. Trust that their own “right” answers will evolve through ongoing dialogue with a trusted coach/ally.
  7. Accept that these answers have a finite shelf-life and that the questions will need to be asked again (and again, and again).
  8. Do everything that you promise, and don’t promise anything you can’t or won’t do—and explain why.
  9. Connect them with others who can help them in ways you cannot.
  10. Trust that the result of this ongoing conversation will be much more than “right” answers—it will be a
    stronger and more gratifying relationship with a more committed and engaged employee.

On a more strategic level, securing your organization’s future in a global marketplace will require harnessing the enthusiasm and innovative capabilities of your employees. Those companies with the most adaptable and most engaged workforce with the richest mixture of skills, knowledge and behavioral flexibility will be the ones able to continually respond to ever-changing market demands—and therefore the ones to not just survive, but thrive.

We believe that the most successful organizations will include in their strategic initiatives the systems, education, and tools that Millennials (and all workers) will need to career and recareer throughout their lives. Taking a formal and systematic approach to career development, and promoting the organization “as the job market of choice,” is the pathway to the mutual success of Millennials—and the organizations that most effectively engage them.

Beverly Kaye is founder and co-CEO of Career Systems International and a bestselling author on workplace performance. Her new book, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, will be available in September. Visit

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