SHIFT Magazine: Millennials Take on the Workforce

May 3, 2011  

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By Stephanie Collins
spcollins@smu.edu

Mitch Goodman is similar to any other Millennial. He is a young professional who landed his first job right out of college at American Airlines, where he works as a yield analyst. As a 24-year-old employee, Goodman takes every opportunity to learn new methods of doing things at work and adapt to changing technologies regularly. Goodman says that many of the younger employees he works with have the same mindset, but tend to clash with the company’s older generations who prefer sticking to existing or older methodologies.

Goodman is a member of the Millennial generation, which includes anyone between the ages of 16 and 25 in 2011. While Pew Research describes Millennials as “confident, connected, and open to change,” members of older generations are more critical of the millennial generation, and tend to clash with its members in the workforce.

“Neither generation is better, but I have noticed there is a big difference in working and communication style [between Millennials and older generations],” said Dave Foster, chief executive officer of AvreaFoster, an advertising agency in Dallas.

Older generations accuse millennials of lacking communication skills, having an entitled attitude, and lacking focus in the workplace. Many employers chalk these things up to simple generational differences, but the dissimilarities can cause a strain in the workplace. Foster, for example, has had to terminate a Millennial employee’s contract due to “a lack of understanding that they needed to change their communication style.”

Many believe that Millennials’ communication style is not up to par because social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter combined with frequent texting has created an abrupt, informal, and unprofessional form of communication among members of the generation.

“Communication is a big challenge. The number one skill employers want is excellent communication skills and it’s the number one skill employers say Millennials don’t have,” says Nancy Barry, author of When Reality Hits: What Employers Want Recent College Graduates to Know and Generation Y Expert.

“As a result of technology, Millennials have mastered the art of writing in abbreviations because of the number of text messages they send,” says Barry, who notes that when Millennials enter the workforce they need to learn how to communicate more professionally.

Millennials tend to take this abrupt, casual style from texting one another and incorporate it into professional e-mails, Foster says, which is not well received by older generations who expect a certain standard of written communication in the workplace.

According to Lisa Tran, a career coach at the SMU Hegi Family Career Development Center, Millennials have even been known to use this informal and grammatically incorrect communication style in cover letters and applications to internships and jobs.

After texting friends and using Twitter to communicate quick, 40 character messages all day, “it can be hard to mentally switch from one style of writing to another,” says Tran.

Older generations’ issues with the Millennial communication style does not stop at the written word, however. Many believe that younger members of the workforce also lack “soft skills,” which include professional appearance, knowledge of business etiquette, and ability to have productive face-to-face conversations in the workplace.

“A challenge my clients talk about frequently are the number of young adults entering the workforce who lack face-to-face relationship building skills,” says Barry. “For a lot of young adults, it’s difficult to look someone in the eye and have a conversation.”

Tran notes that although a lack of professionalism or workplace etiquette experience could simply be a symptom of youth and inexperience, regardless of generation, it is also possible that Millennials especially lack these skills because they are used to communicating with others from behind computer screens, rather than in person.

“In my opinion, it’s all about the soft skills,” says Barry, who adds that any manager asked to describe their “dream employee” would list soft skills above all else as the most important attributes.

While these skills are invaluable to a company’s elders, Goodman suggests that it may not be that Millennials don’t know how to do these things, but rather that they don’t find them quite as important.

“My generation sees almost no difference between an e-mail, phone call, text message, or face-to-face meeting, where the older generations value a face-to-face meeting or phone call over any electronic communication,” says Goodman.

Another one of the big issues older generations have with Millennials is entitlement, which is an attribute many members of older generations blame themselves for.

“We have been evil as parents of Millennials by constantly telling them they can do anything they want and that they can make anything they want happen. We have been very encouraging and sort of aided that,” says Foster.

Indeed, according to Pew Research, the Millennial generation is the most confident generation.

The Millennial generation has also been referred to as the “trophy generation,” according to Barry, because parents from the Baby Boomer generation gave their children a trophy for everything growing up.

Members of the Millennial generation may remember playing on sports teams or participating in other organizations when they were younger where every team received some kind of award or recognition for anything from effort to participation. These Millennials may also be familiar with the remarks of outraged older folk who claim to have been denied supper or forced to sleep outside in the winter, rather than awarded, if their team lost. Herein lies the clash between the generations and entitlement.

“Millennials are the most praised, recognized generation in living memory. It’s no wonder they have a bit of an entitlement attitude,” says Barry. “It’s possible Baby Boomer parents went a little overboard with the self-esteem movement!”

Although confidence is generally a good thing, having an entitled attitude in the workplace means that Millennials don’t seem to work as hard as older generations, and think they deserve more of a balance between work and their social lives, which historically has not been the case with older generations.

Jeff Harnett, a manager at Vintage Car Wash, says that he notices this attitude among his employees. “The older generations are more traditional and work harder, and the younger generations don’t work as hard,” says Harnett. “You have to work with them and train them and develop them as you go along.”

Although this kind of entitlement attitude could be due to the amount of recognition and praise Millennials were awarded with growing up, Barry suggests it Millennials’ attitudes may stem from fear of turning out like their Baby Boomer parents.

“Millennials have seen their parents work 50 plus hours a week forever and they don’t want to be as stressed out as their parents,” says Barry. “They have seen their parents work for the same organizations forever, and then get downsized or laid off.”

After watching their parents stress and living through events such as the “crumbling and corruption” of Enron, Barry says it’s no wonder that Millennials want instant gratification and work-life balance.

The challenge for Millennials is to attain that work-life balance without appearing indifferent and lazy or unmotivated to other generations at work.

Because there are currently four generations actively involved in the workforce, there is bound to be some disagreement among them due to the drastically different eras they all grew up in. Although each brings something different to the table, Foster warns that failure to adapt to or respect the ways of generations already established in the workplace could severely limit a Millennial’s career.

A different factor that may be limiting Millennials’ careers is the lack of focus or commitment members of the generation have for particular companies, or even particular fields or industries.

According to Pew Research, 66 percent of Millennials say that they want to switch careers some time in their life, while 62 percent of Generation X members and 84 percent of Baby Boomers say they would prefer to stay at their current job for the rest of their lives.

This extreme difference in opinion makes Millennials seem less attractive as hirable employees in the eyes of older generations.

“We prefer long tenured employees who have stuck with us and been loyal,” said Foster. “It appears that a lot of Millennials don’t think that one path is the answer. This is a problem because the commitment isn’t there.”

Goodman, a Millennial himself, says that he would advise Millennials to view each potential company they interview with as a career, not just a stepping stone.

“During this past year’s recruiting process, many candidates let their goal of going to business school become too evident, and in turn they seemed to be indifferent as to what job they take out of college as long as it looks good on an application,” said Goodman.

As is true in any kind of relationship, this kind of noncommittal attitude is unattractive to older employers, who focus on the long-term growth and success of the company.

Tran says that employers want to see consistency in their potential employees, but more importantly, they want to know that a potential hire has learned enough from their previous experience. Because the typical learning curve for a new job takes about a year and a half, according to Tran, if someone leaves their job before or close to this amount of time employers may be unsure that the applicant’s stint in the working world was enough to give him or her experience salient to a new working environment.

Because national studies have shown that Millennials change jobs every 18 months, according to Barry, this pattern could prove to be a real problem with hiring opportunities for Millennials with older generations. The frequency with which Millennials change jobs makes them appear unfocused and less than loyal.

However, according to Barry, Millennials are loyal to people, not organizations. “If a young associate chooses to leave, they are leaving the manager, not the company,” says Barry.

Older generations could likely understand this kind of decision, but it simply has not been communicated to them.

While employers of Millennials can be critical about the generation’s skills and tendencies in the workforce, many admit that they do bring valuable abilities and experiences to a company.

Barry describes Millennials as “techno-savvy, optimistic, independent, entrepreneurial, collaborative, resourceful, innovative thinkers who love a challenge.”

Foster says the generation has valuable knowledge of current technologies and is extremely productive due to an increased ability to multi-task.

The Millennial generation is very familiar with social network sites that companies are still attempting to harness for marketing and public relations purposes, and employers value their input on the subject.

Furthermore, Pew Research describes Millennials as “open to change,” which allows the generation to pioneer new methods and ideologies and uses of technology in the workplace to advance the work and productivity of a company.

According to Goodman, older generations at his office tend to rely on old methodologies for getting work done, and even resist newer ways or new technology because of an unwillingness to adapt. Goodman and the rest of the Millennials, however, often strive to employ new strategies when possible, usually resulting in a better product.

Although Millennials have their strengths, Barry says that it is important for the generation to compromise and get along with older generations to be successful. In her book, Barry writes, “There are four generations in today’s workforce…If your communication style is different from that of the people at your company, you need to be the one to adjust. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but it’s true if you want to be successful in your career.”

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One Response to “SHIFT Magazine: Millennials Take on the Workforce”

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