“You’re not a slacker, are you Nora?” It was a freezing November afternoon in 2016. I was alone in a radio studio in Helsinki. The old office chair I was sitting on was too low, unadjustable and made me feel small. It was my first radio interview, and I was nervous. The British reporter’s kind baritone was like a sweet hum in my ear and the question was asked with a smiling tone, but in my nervousness, it hit me hard. It wasn’t the first time I had been confronted with the stereotype that millennials are slackers. But hearing it in a serious interview by a serious reporter baffled me. I answered something about being dedicated and hard-working. That the ‘slacker’ stereotype didn’t apply to me. I probably sounded as lame as I felt.

But labelling a whole generation, born roughly between 1982 and 2000, as ‘slackers’ is not helping anyone. The fact is that millennials have become business critical. Millennials now represent 1 in 4 workers in the US. By 2020 we will account for over half of the global workforce. Unfortunately for many organizations, millennials are also proving increasingly hard to retain.


The hourglass organization

Over the past few years, senior executives have voiced a new concern [1]: an hourglass organization. They have enough junior employees at the bottom and enough senior executives at the top. What they’re missing is the middle layer. Their high potential millennial managers are leaving in hoards – to startups, becoming self-employed, or joining the ever more popular gig economy [2].

Now that baby boomers are starting to retire from key positions, the missing millennial manager is turning into a real problem. Senior executives are eager to listen: How are millennials different? Why are they leaving? What do they want?

I’m unashamedly part of the millennial generation myself. Over the past five years I’ve worked with organizations on workplace engagement and wellbeing. What I’ve found: millennials aren’t slackers, we simply represent a different way of working. Namely:

 

1 | From ‘just a paycheck’ to ‘paycheck with a purpose’

A few years ago, David Graeber of the London School of Economics achieved viral fame by writing about the prevalence of “bullshit jobs” – work with no social or economic purpose. Importantly, Graeber isn’t pointing an accusing finger at anyone, the key is in the definition: “A bullshit job is one that even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist … 37-40% of workers say their jobs make no difference” says Graeber [3].

But where baby boomers are weighed down by the heaviness of having built this “bullshit job society”; millennials, with the lightness of youth, are free to rally against the status quo and leave when they don’t feel their job or organization serves a meaningful purpose.

It goes without saying that no generation wants to do meaningless work. In fact, surveys by Gallup [2] have found that millennials value purpose only slightly more than non-millennials, and that employees across generations feel that organizations are doing a poor job of connecting purpose to day-to-day activities.

Millennials crave meaning – just like their parents do. But where baby boomers are weighed down by the heaviness of having built this “bullshit job society”; millennials, with the lightness of youth, are free to rally against the status quo and leave when they don’t feel their job or organization serves a meaningful purpose.

 

2 | From workaholism to work-life balance

Millennials have been mockingly called the “work-life balance” generation. This trend is not unfounded, considering that studies show that 4 in 10 knowledge workers feel exhausted or burnt out. [4] Not only that, research also shows that our most engaged employees are also at the highest risk of burnout (!) [5].
Having been to the edge of burnout and back multiple times myself, I’m intimately familiar with the inability of the workplace to deal with this problem. The exhausted employee is offered a double espresso, an encouraging smile and a pat on the back for “dedication”. Visit the doctor and you’re offered medication.

For millennials, this is unacceptable. Almost 6 in 10 millennials say that “work-life balance and better personal wellbeing” is very important in a job. By comparison, under half of baby boomers say the same. [2]

…young top performers in highly stressful jobs are twice as likely to say they’ll change employer, indicating they’re less enamoured with the “work hard” ethos.

The difference may not seem great, until you realize we’re comparing apples and oranges. Baby boomers are now 55-75 years old. Near retirement it’s natural to want to downshift, spend more time on hobbies or with grandchildren. Still, less than half of this generation say work-life balance is important (!). Millennials, by contrast, are at the beginning of their career, when you tend to work hard to prove yourself professionally. This difference in life situation makes it all the more revealing that millennials prioritize work-life balance so highly, so early. Moreover, this also concerns top performers: young top performers in highly stressful jobs are twice as likely to say they’ll change employer, indicating they’re less enamoured with the “work hard” ethos [6].

Why is this? One reason is that plenty of millennials have grown up with the work philosophy of their parents, i.e. that of baby boomers. As kids, many millennials had to witness their parents’ high stress levels and deal with one or both parents being unavailable. As a result, many millennials are not willing to make the same sacrifices. We don’t want to sacrifice a thriving home life or health at the altar of work – we want to work well AND live well.

Globally, companies have responded by offering wellbeing programs. Gallup, however, encourages companies to look beyond in-house gyms and yoga classes: “[W]ellness programs are highly — if not only — focused on physical health. While important, overall well-being encompasses more than physical fitness … it is particularly notable that millennials thriving in all five of the well-being elements are 85% less likely than those thriving in only physical well-being to say they plan to leave their employer”. [2]

 

3 | From annual reviews to constant development and coaching

Peter J. Martel, talent development consultant at Harvard Business School, has a blunt message for companies looking for quick fixes for low morale and productivity: “The real issue is that your people hate their jobs and they hate coming to work every day,”. Instead of fancy perks and ping pong tables, Martel encourages companies to invest in the individual’s training and personal development.[7]

Research by Gallup agrees. “Opportunities to learn and grow” tops the list of what millennials look for in a job, making it the single largest differentiator to earlier generations. Unfortunately, organizations aren’t doing a good job at it – under half of millennials strongly agree they’ve had opportunities to learn and grow in the past year.

There is also a big difference in how generations view learning. Gallup’s Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton, writes: “Millennials don’t want bosses — they want coaches. The role of an old-style boss is command and control. Millennials care about having managers who can coach them … who help them understand and build their strengths” [2].

… we need to embrace personal renewal and life-long learning in a completely new way, and if our employers don’t understand that, we’re better off somewhere else.

The focus on learning also reflects a changing workplace. Automation of knowledge work, longer careers and faster market changes mean we’ll see more occupation switching [8]. A 2015 study suggested that millennials will change jobs up to 20 times in their career, about twice as many as baby boomers [9]. I’m starting a third career, and I’m only 33. Who knows how many different careers I’ll end up having. This means we need to embrace personal renewal and life-long learning in a completely new way, and if our employers don’t understand that, we’re better off somewhere else.

 

4 | From safe stability to courageous change

Workplace changes are often opposed with “This is how we’ve always done it”. For us millennials though, this is not an acceptable answer. We’ve grown up in the information age, with abundant knowledge and a culture of rapid testing. Hence, we have less of a blind faith in the established way of doing things. We’d rather experiment to find a better way.

As I see it, the millennial mindset about work represents an opportunity. We’re no longer happy with the status quo in the workplace. With longer careers and dwindling retirement prospects, delaying happiness and free time to “when we retire” makes no sense. Millennials want to feel alive and engaged today, both at work and at home, and we want our organizations to support us. That’s good news – for all employees.

So if you’re in an organization that isn’t actively providing purpose, supporting wellbeing, providing opportunities for development and being serious about making changes, you’re likely to continue searching for the missing millennial managers.

 

The author, Nora Rosendahl, is COO and co-founder of Fifth Corner Inc. and a future of work researcher.

SOURCES:

[1] This is based on empirical observation so let me clear about sample. My sample consists largely of talent-driven knowledge organizations spanning accounting, consulting, legal, financial and other professional services in the Nordic countries and the UK
[2] Gallup report: ”How Millennials Want to Work and Live” 2016
[3] The Economist: Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism, Jun 29th, 2018 https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/06/29/bullshit-jobs-and-the-yoke-of-managerial-feudalism
[4] Morar Consulting, 2016; Gallup State of the American Workplace 2016
[5] Research by Jochen Menges, Cambridge Judge Business School
[6] Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, Harvard Business Review, Dec 2006
[7] ”Forget Work Perks. Millennial Employees Value Engagement” by MacKenzie Kassab, Harvard Professional Development, https://www.extension.harvard.edu/professional-development/blog/forget-work-perks-millennial-employees-value-engagement
[8] McKinsey Global Institute: Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained WORKFORCE TRANSITIONS IN A TIME OF AUTOMATION, Dec 2017
[9] Education Advisory Board, April 2015: https://www.eab.com/research-and-insights/continuing-and-online-education-forum/studies/2015/designing-programs-for-the-millennial-workforce