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Guy Cooper

Euromoney Learning Solutions

Managing Director - Public Courses and In-house Training

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Millennials at work: are we subscribing to a fantasy?

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What are some of the commonly held pre-conceptions about millennials in the workplace? They vary from curmudgeonly stereotypes of the under-35s as a bunch of entitled, narcissistic selfie-takers who aren’t capable of staying in the same job for more than five minutes through to more carefully considered research which shows that millennials are in search of a different working environment than older generations.

The same factors come up time and time again. Millennials want to work flexibly – according to a survey by PwC around two-thirds want to be able to set their own hours and working location. Many are unwilling to accept a long-hours culture, even if it brings substantial financial rewards down the line.

But they also want careers which are personally meaningful at organisations which meet their high ethical standards, where they can receive regular recognition and work collaboratively with their peers. This is a generation who have been encouraged by their Baby Boomer parents to seek self-expression and rapid progression from their careers.

How does this measure up to the reality of work for millennials in the UK?

At Euromoney Learning Solutions we decided to survey 500 18 – 34 year-olds to see what is really happening. Some of the results were unsurprising. Millennials say that ambition and job-hopping are the biggest difference between themselves and other generations.

But a mere 2% say ethical concerns are the main differentiator, suggesting that millennials might not be the organic green-smoothie drinking idealists that some suggest they are.

Career development

Opportunities to progress tops the ‘must-have’ list at work, far ahead of flexible working and regular feedback. Do we really know what millennials want at work – or have this generation simply become less idealistic and more career-focused as they head towards their thirties?

Are Millennials really the most ambitious generation?

And are their expectations of rapid promotion realistic or a symptom of entitled attitudes and a ‘certificates for all’ education system?

“Millennial ambition is realistic, as they are the best educated generation, with 39% holding at least an undergraduate degree, compared to 28% of Baby Boomers,” says Jean Martin, talent solutions architect at business insights and technology company CEB.

“Moreover they have the drive to get to places and proactively seek out opportunities to demonstrate their talents and distinguish themselves from their peers.”

Far from being the collaborative generation, according to Martin this is an age-group which is constantly evaluating themselves against their peers. It looks like the generation who grew up with educational league tables are repeating this habit as adults.

It looks like the generation who grew up with educational league tables are repeating this habit as adults.

Do they really need more feedback?

“I do think the younger generation seek feedback and approval much more than past generations, but this shouldn’t be frowned upon, as this is an excellent opportunity for constructive criticism,” says Tom Bourlet, who works at The Stag Company, where most employees are millennials.

In our own company, we’ve seen a keen demand for constructive feedback from many younger staff members, which often makes it easier to help people build their careers and make valuable contributions to the business.

According to Martin this is part of their habit of striving for self-improvement: “they are keen to gain advice from mentors, learn from others and “experience” hop.”

Organisations who are willing to provide these experiences and opportunities to improve performance have a lot to gain. On a positive note it seems that most organisations are providing more frequent feedback, with over half saying they get feedback at least monthly.

How important is flexible working to millennials?

Flexible working has been a hot topic for a while in HR circles and is often thought to be particularly important to millennials as they seek a better work/life balance than their parents had. Yet this didn’t make it into the top five in our survey.

“It’s always viewed as a positive by millennials,” says Rob Blythe, Founder and Director of Instant Impact, a graduate recruitment agency. But he points out that “it’s more a case of people appreciating coming in early or leaving late, and making the time up elsewhere.”

He also adds that he’s never seen a candidate reject a position because flexible hours aren’t available, confirming the suspicion that although flexible working is a nice-to-have, it’s something ambitious and often debt-laden millennials are willing to sacrifice.

This is backed-up by Martin, who says that work-life balance is actually more important to Generation X than millennials. Meanwhile Bourlet reports that at his company flexible working is appreciated. 

Although it’s generally being able to have flexible hours to fit around other commitments like music lessons, his company offers employees the chance to take sabbaticals too. He says that in the last year two people have done this to travel.

What about wanting to ‘work somewhere I believe in’?

This is a common desire – and apparently the third most important to thing to millennials at work. But what does this really mean?

In practice it doesn’t appear that ethics are the big priority for millennials that they’re made out to be.

“Our research shows that compared to Boomers and Generation X, millennials actually place less of a value on working in environments which promote ideals, high ethical standards and quality,” says Martin.

Instead, unsurprisingly by now, they value the potential for career development.

Meanwhile Blythe says that what prompted many millennials to turn away from corporate careers during the recession was their perceived instability.

“It’s not necessarily a question of ethics,” he continues. “I think millennials favour the chance to make a personal difference in their employment and resent the ideology of being a small cog in a huge business.”

This resonates with Bourlet’s experience. “I wouldn’t say there is a stronger ethical stance, but I believe due to media attention and the virality of charitable opportunities, millennials are more aware of how they can make a difference.”

He mentions Movember as an example, where social media interaction helped a small Australian charity become a globally known NGO.

So when it comes back to wanting to “work somewhere I believe in” HR needs to be aware that personal and professional fulfilment is as likely to drive this as having a full CSR policy.

Pinch of salt time?

Overall, some of the stereotypes about the workforce’s youngest generation need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Perhaps they are more likely to take a sabbatical to go travelling that older employees – but overall what comes through is a picture of an intensely ambitious cohort, who will put seeking what allows them to further their career before most other considerations.

It’s only once this is satisfied that flexible working and other benefits become important, something that HR needs to remember as the competition for talent becomes fiercer.

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Guy Cooper

Managing Director - Public Courses and In-house Training

Read more from Guy Cooper
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