“Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’”
Bob Dylan, from The Times They Are A-Changin’
Millennials are the largest generation in the workforce today. The Baby Boomers are a rapidly declining segment, while the Greatest Generation has almost entirely retired. Within seven years, Post-Millennials will begin to eclipse Baby Boomers. As recently as 2010, Boomers and Greatest Generation workers made up a combined 42% of the total workforce. By next year, Millennials and Post-Millenials will be at a combined 43%, while the Boomers and Greatest Generation will have declined to only 23%. If you’re a leader in any organization, these significant shifts in workforce demographics will require your awareness and, in many cases, adjustments to your thinking.
There are no “good” or “bad” age groups. There are simply segments of people who have differing priorities, aspirations, and values. To pivot your leadership approach and adjust for this seismic demographic flip, consider two very important values: Meaningfulness and Flexibility.
Meaningfulness is among the most important values to Millennial and Post-Millennial workers, and was not considered particularly important by prior generations. You can win these younger people’s hearts in three ways. First, you must make a clear and direct connection between the work you’re having them do and how it is helping someone else in a meaningful way. You must be clear and direct about this connection between societal impact and the work that they are doing, and then you must reinforce it. Often.
Second, keep an eye on your philanthropy strategy. It matters much more today than it did in the past. Younger workers want to work for companies that are making a positive impact in their communities, and doing so is great way to differentiate yourself from other employers in their eyes. Giving them some choice or say in the direction of your philanthropy efforts will lift your organization even higher in their estimation.
Finally, for many, meaningfulness comes from helping a team. They want those around them to succeed, and to share the fruits of their labors. They also want others around them to be treated fairly, and they want equality of opportunity for every member of our increasingly diverse workforce. In all three of these realms, connect the dots clearly and often for your employees so that they can see the meaning behind their work and share together in the rewards and opportunities that it creates.
Flexibility is a much higher priority for Millennial/Post-Millennial workers than it was for older generations. Employers often cling to a “one-size-fits-all” mentality when it comes to workplace policy, but the truth is that conventions around where and when people work for us are often the products of history and reactions to past events rather than carefully considered or optimally chosen tools to engage employees.
Step back and find ways to adjust your policies with an intent toward being more flexible while still meeting the needs of your customer. If your policies, work schedules, or other office rules are not directly derived from or established to meet customer needs, then they are worth reconsidering. Our world is increasingly large and complex, and the individual needs and circumstances of the people who work for us are more varied than ever before. If you can be adaptable and extend trust to your younger employees while holding them accountable for their performance, then they will often reward you with increased productivity and loyalty to your organization.
Remember that the flexibility of the younger members of your staff works both ways. Millennial and Post-Millennial workers are dramatically more flexible when it comes to accepting organizational change, adapting to new workplace procedures, solving unexpected problems, and adopting new technology. Since change is one of the few constants in business these days, the flexibility of your younger workers can be an enormous advantage if you can harness it properly by asking them to take lead roles when it comes to tackling unconventional projects, getting new initiatives off the ground, or selecting and implementing new technologies.
The word “Millennial” gets tossed around a lot, and too often it’s made to sound dirty. It’s easy to dismiss the needs of an increasingly youthful workforce as being nothing more than frivolous and selfish wants, but those who think this way do so at their peril. The times really are a-changin’, and if we don’t change with them, our organizations will pay a heavy price.
It’s worth remembering that these younger generations of workers desperately want to make meaningful and lasting contributions to their companies and their communities. If we’re willing to show them the meaning behind their work and grant them a little flexibility about when, where, and how it gets done, then they can and will achieve great things for us and for the customers that we serve.