What Millennials Want at Work (It’s Not What You Think)

“They keep telling me, “here’s what you get in five years, ten years, twenty years…I feel like — what’s that expression — they are trying to sell me a bridge.”– Gen Y’er

“Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Gen Y” by Bruce Tulgan

What do Millennials want from a job? Not the bosses’ job as it turns out. While it’s true they are ambitious, their ambition is less about climbing the corporate ladder than making sure they are on the right ladder to learn and grow.

While Boomers and X’ers seek titles (and the responsibility and salary that go with them), Millennials are more likely to respond to increased challenge, unique experiences and recognition. Above all, they seek balance in their lives. 78% of high school students say that ‘having close family relationship’ is more important than money and fame in defining success.

Boomers and X’ers are prepared to compete and sacrifice to reach their goals. Most Millennials are not. This is often misinterpretted as ‘laziness’, but in reality reflects a different set of motivations, no less intense than that of Boomers.

From a young age, Millennials were taught group cooperation over individual competition. A colleague related a story to me earlier this week about her 15-year old son’s race to be elected freshman class president. He prepared a speech, posters, a platform. But to her Boomer eyes, the degree of cooperation among the candidates was incomprehensible. Her son actually helped rewrite a competitors’ speech, without considering that he was giving away a potential advantage. (“But Mom, it was lame!”) When Millennials are asked to tackle something new at work, they are less likely to think of it an opportunity to shine individually as they are to wonder who they can involve to insure a better outcome and make it more fun.

Much as been made about the oh-so-Millennial ending of “The Devil Wears Prada”. In the book as well as the movie, the protagonist, Andy, works hard to meet the unrelenting demands of her irrational boss. She triumphs, lands the promotion, then declines what appeared to be her goal and her dream job. This ending makes no sense to Boomers, but Gen Y find this ending quite satisfactory. The goal was to not to win, but to have a job you love enough to want to invest your life in. Andy realized early in the movie that the fashion world was not a good fit for her idea of a meaningful life. The only suspense for Gen Y was how she would quit, not whether.

Need data to support that? The percent of young adults answering ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Would you like a job with more responsibility?’ declined from 80% in 1992 to just 60% in 2002. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like a challenge, they just don’t think their boss’ job is ‘worth it’.(Families and Work Institute)

What they do want is to make an impact while doing interesting meaningful work, in a job that allows them to lead a balanced life and doesn’t box them in to a traditional career path. A survey across thirty-three countries showed that the top priorities were interesting work (29%), meaningful work (18%), and worklife balance (18%). (“Plugged In”, Tamara Erickson, p.66)

Deloitte, one of the largest recruiters of top entry level talent, invested heavily in understanding what Gen Y wants from a job. At the Qualitative Research Consultants Association meeting in Chicago early this month, Tracey Scott of Deloitte Canada, shared the results of research conducted to provide strategic direction for their recruiting efforts. The resulting campaign, titled ‘Truth’, was based on the insight that Millennials have a different ‘checklist’ to evaluate their first job than those who recruit them. What Millennials want to hear is that ‘everyone is willing to help you succeed’. They want to know that they will not be alone and they will have an impact. The Deloitte home page asks, “Will the business change you? Or will you change the business?”. The next page challenges job seekers to “Find Yourself Among Our People” by profiling young professionals and telling their story.

While every generation brings a unique perspective, I suspect Millennials will shape the workplace more than the workplace will shape them.

Their attitudes are deeply rooted in the times and ways they were raised and unlikely to change.

Their sheer numbers will make them difficult to ignore for long.

Their propensity to look for greener pastures if they determine their needs aren’t being met will cause companies to rethink what they have to offer.

They won’t settle for higher salary and they aren’t interested in waiting around or ‘paying their dues’.

Consequently, the basic work ‘contract’ is likely to be fundamentally altered to accommodate the question ‘what’s in this for me?’. Bruce Tulgan, in his book, “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” provides a the perfect quote:

They keep telling me, “Here’s what you get in five years, ten years, twenty years…” but they expect me to come back to work tomorrow. What do I get tomorrow?