Millennials at Work

This article is an excerpt from Millennials@Work by Claire Raines and Arleen Arnsparger.

Award-winning producer Tarek Chacra’s new DVD series, Generations and Work, includes two excellent programs about Millennials—Working with Millennials and Succeeding with Younger Workers.

Who They Are

Born between 1980 and 2000, Millennials comprise nearly a quarter of the world population. They’re the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital media. Two thirds of them used computers before the age of five. They are connected 24/7 to friends, parents, information and entertainment. Accustomed to being the center of attention, they have high expectations and clear goals. They are willing to work hard, and expect to have the support they need to achieve. They have older parents and were brought up in smaller families. One in four has at least one college-educated parent. Citizens of the world, they are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in history.

Also Known As
Generation Y
Generation Next
The Nintendo Generation
The Net Generation
The Digital Generation
Generation O

Millennials are making their mark rapidly and in profound ways. Their use of technology are largely seen as the driving force behind the recent revolution in American political campaigning. Creating new websites and using existing ones like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook, they have raised money, furthered issues and supported get-out-the-vote efforts.

They are redefining civic engagement. Youth voter registration continues to increase, and youth-driven activist organizations build grassroots movements for various social and political causes. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, young people turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers. Millennials are recognized as playing a major role in electing the nation’s first black president.

Shaped by Their Times

Like all of us, Millennials were shaped by their times. Their early experiences created the filters through which they see the world. Those filters directly impact how they will navigate the world of work. Several key trends of the 1990s and 2000s have had and will continue to have a profound effect on their generational personality.

  1. Focus on Children and Family
    Over the years, the level of collective attention given kids and families has swung like a pendulum. In the decades right before and after the turn of the Millennium, kids and their families took center stage.
  2. Scheduled, Structured Lives
    Millennials have been the busiest generation of children we’ve ever seen. Parents and teachers micromanaged their lives, leaving them with little free time. When older Millennials were in high school, they carried Daytimers. Today they listen for alerts on their cellphones, signaling their upcoming appointments.
  3. Multiculturalism
    Kids growing up in the past two decades have had more daily interaction with other ethnicities and cultures than ever before. Data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute shows that interracial interaction among college freshmen has reached a record high and continues to increase.
  4. Terrorism & War
    During their formative years, Millennials witnessed the Oklahoma City bombing, school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the war in Iraq.
  5. Heroism
    Emerging out of those acts of violence, Millennials watched the reintroduction of the hero figure. Pictures and stories about police officers, firefighters and soldiers were everywhere. More recently, the successful landing of an airplane on the Hudson River offered the opportunity to laud a hero once again as pilot and crew were catapulted into an unprecedented round of speeches, talk shows, and award presentations.
  6. Parent Advocacy
    Millennials were raised by active, involved parents who often stepped in to speak up on their children’s behalf. “Helicopter parents” became a familiar phrase in schools, on soccer fields, and on college campuses. In a recent Wimbledon semifinal match, parents of Spain’s Rafael Nadal, a Millennial, passed an extra pair of shoes down from the stands to their son on center court.
  7. Globalism
    Through blogs, MySpace, IMs and other technologies, Millennials share their lives with friends throughout the world. They see their world as global, connected, and open for business 24/7.
  8. Worldwide Economic Crisis
    As Millennials begin their careers, they confront a global economic crisis that will likely have a significant impact on their ability to find jobs. Massive layoffs in all sectors of the economy may dampen optimism. Millennials are becoming less picky about the jobs they’ll accept and lowering their expectations for finding the perfect job.

Popular Technologies

The Internet, BlackBerries, iPods, video games, FaceBook and other social networking sites, cellphones with text messaging.

Entertainment They’ll Remember

Reality shows, YouTube, the thousands of songs uploaded to their iPods

Events that Shaped Their Lives

1999, 2007 Columbine High School and Virginia Tech shootings
Late 1990s & beyond Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook and online social networking
2001 World Trade Center attacks
2003 War begins in Iraq
2004, 2005 Tsunami strikes Southeast Asia; Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans
2008 Young voters’ political activism and online social networking has significant impact on election of first African American U.S. President
2008 Corporate greed, exposure of Ponzi schemes, and industry bailouts herald a worldwide economic crisis Messages that Influenced Them

Messages that Influenced Them

Connect 24/7.
Achieve now!
Serve your community.
Expect everyone to be treated fairly.
IM me.

It’s All About Engaging Them

You’ve heard the term. We talk about engaging the public in the political process, engaging the community in conversations about critical issues, engaging students in their learning, engaging employees in their work.

Engagement is far more than simply communicating effectively. Engaged employees are those who are fully involved in their work. They are committed to their own growth and the growth of their company. Engagement requires that employees have choices so that they act in ways that further their organization’s interests. Engaged employees work smarter. They’re willing to put in extra time to get the job done. They recommend the organization’s services and products to family and friends.

  • Robbie, 25, wants to feel like he’s part of a team. “Bring us into things. Make us feel like we are part of something,” he says.
  • Paul, 23, wants to see the direct impact of his work. “I want a job that affects the company, not just a job where I’m pushing paper.”
  • Maria, 26, wants to work in a “friendly environment that fosters community and brings people together.”

Research on what leads to greater educational success tells us that students must be actively involved in their classes, not just passive recipients of knowledge imparted by their teachers; they must be academically challenged and motivated enough by what they are learning and how we are teaching to put forth their best effort; they must have a lot of interaction with their teachers; and they must have the support they need to succeed, from both inside and outside the classroom.

In educational settings, woven into the components of engagement is the thread of “connections.” Those who are engaged in their learning constantly receive opportunities to make connections—with their peers, with their course content, with services that will support their learning, with faculty and staff who work in their educational institutions.

In the workplace, collaboration, personal involvement, and trust are critical to creating engagement. In order for employees to be engaged, they must share a sense of belonging and of being part of something important. They need to trust that management is focused on the best interests of the organization and those who work there.

Rules of Engagement

Consider the following rules of engagement for your Millennial workers and how to put them into practice. Your youngest employees will be more productive, effective, and stay with you longer if they:

  1. See themselves as connected to, and part of, the organization.
  2. Are given opportunities to problem-solve with their colleagues.
  3. Connect their individual contributions with their own and the company’s goals.
  4. Feel valued, respected, and rewarded for their contributions.
  5. Develop social and professional relationships within the organization.
The Titanium Rule: Do unto others, keeping their preferences in mind.

Put the Titanium Rule to Work

To bring out the best in each of our employees, we must adapt to the styles and preferences of a multi-generational workforce. When we look through a generational filter to consider our actions with employees, we are putting the Titanium Rule into practice.

The Work Environment
in Most Organizations

  • bureaucracy
  • straight lines
  • one size fits all
  • tenured leaders
  • yearly reviews
  • security, privacy

The Work Environment
that Engages Millennials

  • ease and speed
  • web-like
  • can be customized
  • competent, trustworthy leaders
  • weekly, even daily, feedback
  • open flow of information

Millennial Strengths

  • Optimistic
  • Able to multi-task
  • Technologically savvy
  • Goal- and achievement-oriented
  • Able to work effectively in teams and independently
  • Comfortable with diversity
  • Civic-minded
  • Innovative
  • Collaborative
  • Resourceful

Challenges for Managers

  • Need supervision and structure.
  • Are inexperienced, particularly in handling challenging “people issues.”
  • View changing jobs as a natural process.
  • Want a sense of play and fun in the work atmosphere.
  • Need help strengthening their communication skills because they are not as accustomed to communicating face to face as older generations.

Millennial Motivators

  • Managers who connect their actions to their personal and career goals
  • The promise of working with other bright, creative people
  • Opportunities to learn new things
  • An approachable boss who is a mentor
  • Having adequate time and flexibility to live the life they want
  • Making a difference

Managers They Love to Work For

  • Teach them new things and are interested in learning new things themselves.
  • Are responsive and “present.”
  • Coach and support them.
  • Are collaborative.
  • Provide clear direction and a reasonable structure.
  • Hold employees accountable.
  • Are organized.
  • Are flexible.
  • Encourage them.
  • Trust them to get the work done.
  • Instill a sense of play and fun.

Managers Who Drive Them Crazy

  • Micromanage.
  • Quash their spirit.
  • Discount their ideas.
  • Are condescending.
  • Are inconsistent and disorganized.
  • Don’t recognize the skills they bring to the workplace.
  • Are cynical.

Communication Styles They Respond To

  • Text messages
  • In person meetings
  • Instant messages
  • Social networking sites
  • Emails
  • Blogs


  • Opportunities that strengthen their resume
  • Titles and recognition for good work
  • Flexible schedules

We See the World Differently

To better understand how to work with Millennial colleagues, it’s helpful to compare Millennials’ way of being in the world with that of older generations. Recognizing those differences can help us reach out across what sometimes seems to be an impenetrable barrier! It’s easy to see that those who have always been connected through technology to the rest of the world would see the world differently from those who witnessed the dawn of the space age. Though sometimes subtle, our different perspectives can cause conflict, frustration, and misunderstanding in the workplace.

Millennial Generation Generation X Baby Boom Generation WWII Generation
Outlook Hopeful Skeptical Optimistic Practical
Work Ethic Ambitious Balanced Driven Dedicated
View of Authority Relaxed, Polite Unimpressed Love/Hate Respectful
Leadership By Achievement, Pulling together Competence Consensus Hierarchy
Relationships Loyal, inclusive Reluctant to Commit Personal Gratification Self-sacrifice
Perspective Civic-minded Self-reliant Team-oriented Civic-minded

© Copyright, Claire Raines, 2000

What We Have in Common

In a multi-generational organization, our differences come to light when there is tension within the ranks. However, there are actually more similarities than differences among the generations at work. In the Randstad 2008 World of Work survey, employees across the generations identified the attributes they value. Regardless of their generation, employees said they want to work for a company whose leaders:

  • Respect employees and recognize the value each brings to the organization.
  • Care about their employees as much as their customers.
  • Value employees’ honest input on business issues.
  • Encourage employees to be innovative thinkers.
  • Encourage employees to continually develop their skills.
  • Encourage a collaborative work environment.
  • Focus more on employees’ strengths than on weaknesses.
  • Foster good relationships between supervisors and employees.

Nine Keys to Engaging Millennials

Over the past year, we’ve been listening to Millennials—in an extensive set of interviews, in focus groups, in company offices, and in college classrooms. When we’ve asked what they want from their supervisors, colleagues, and managers, they have responded with a consistency that has surprised us.

Here are their nine most frequent requests:

  • Help us learn.
  • Believe in us.
  • Tune in to our technology.
  • Connect us.
  • Let us make it our own.
  • Tell us how we’re doing.
  • Be approachable.
  • Plug in to our parents.
  • Be someone we can believe in.

It’s not an unreasonable list, yet it’s a set of expectations that Millennials tell us are rarely met. Every day, Millennials walk through the doors of workplaces that have cultures based on the styles and preferences of Baby Boomers and their World War II Generation parents. Managers from older generations, even Gen Xers, assume that what attracted them to the job and motivated them to stay and succeed will attract and motivate today’s young workers. But, as we’ve described, Millennials have their own unique characteristics—and a distinctly different work style.

The way work gets done in most organizations is counter to the natural instincts of Millennials. Work cultures remain hierarchical; Millennials thrive when work is carried out in more collaborative ways. Most managers practice line-of-sight supervision— “If I can’t see you, you must not be working.” Millennials perform better in a more flexible environment where the result and impact of their work are given more weight than the time they spend tied to their desks. The role work plays in people’s lives has shifted. The way we get things done is changing.

The workplace practices Millennials prefer and ask for will be the hallmarks of the future workplace:

  1. Help them learn.

    For Millennials just entering the workforce, the purpose of a job is to learn, gain experience, and position themselves for the next step.

    In her first job after graduating from college, 21-year-old Lauren explains, “I really wanted a job where I felt like people saw a lot of potential in me, as well as a company where I was going to learn and I wasn’t going to feel like I knew everything already. I wanted a job where I had no idea what I was doing so I could learn a new skill set that builds on what I originally had.”

    Lauren will thrive in her new job if someone educates her about the organization: how to get things done, where to get information, and who to go to with ideas. A good manager will help Lauren uncover her personal goals and help her figure out how to reach them.

    Talking about learning in her first job, Dana, 23, says, “That was something I was really looking for. Something that I struggled with was the training because it’s all self led. I was really frustrated. I was like, seriously, no one’s going to sit down and tell me how to do this? I had a ‘learning to learn’ curve there.”

  2. Believe in them.

    Millennials have been told they’re special, with unlimited potential. They’ve set goals—and, in many cases, met them—all their lives. They want to prove their worth. They’re willing to work hard, as long as they sense that someone believes in them and that their hard work will pay off. But here’s the catch: their style of working hard might not look familiar to older managers.

    A manager’s belief in a young employee can make all the difference. Time and again, research has demonstrated that our assumptions shape the outcome. In a well known experiment in a public elementary school. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson gave teachers the names of students who, they said, could be expected to perform extraordinarily well during the school year. In fact, the names had been chosen at random. Sure enough, those students they identified as “academic spurters” showed an average twelve-point increase on their IQ scores at the end of the school year.

  3. Tune in to their technology.

    In his new book, Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott advises, “Don’t ban Facebook and other social networks. Figure out how to harness them.”

    Nothing distinguishes the Millennial generation more than their lifelong immersion in digital technology. They are innovators who want the latest tech devices and want to work for companies where they can be creative with the help of podcasts, blogs, social networking sites, and online applications.

    Just when you may have been feeling proficient (finally) at email, we’re sorry to report that email usage is declining among Millennials. For today, at least, the best way to connect with Millennial colleagues, particularly when they’re away from work, is through text messaging.

    Savvy managers communicate with their Millennial employees in their preferred style. In a recent interview, Dana told us how her manager adapted to his younger employees: “He said, ‘Yeah, you guys started texting me, so I had to learn how to text.’ We didn’t even realize that was something he didn’t normally do. He just went on and texted us back. He realized that was going to be the best way to communicate with us on certain matters. So be adaptable, willing to catch up with the times when you need to.”

    One caution about Millennials and their grasp of technology: some Millennials are faster with their thumbs than on a keyboard! Yet some older managers assume that Millennial workers are proficient in Microsoft Word and can put together PowerPoint presentations. “Just because I’m 21 years old,” says Lauren “that doesn’t mean I’m brilliant with computers. While I can navigate a computer, I can’t necessarily fix a problem if Windows crashes!” It turns out that, for many Millennials, there’s a big gap between the technologies they use and the computer skills we expect them to have. Many of our younger workers need help learning the computer skills they need to be effective in the workplace. We found this to be an issue in college settings as well, where students are often stymied by course management software programs and online learning technologies.

  4. Connect them.

    Given the opportunity, young workers like Janessa, a 22-year-old director of a national non-profit organization, will create a social network with colleagues. “People might think my life is five percent social and ninety-five percent work,” she says. “But the two are hard to separate. I like it like that!”

    Millennials worked on teams all the way through school. Many are skilled team members who know how to identify team roles, plan responsibilities and timetables, and even to negotiate with poor performers. “I’m used to there being team leadership, committees, group decisions,” adds 23-year-old Hilary, who just started in an entry-level job at a Fortune 500 company. “The more people my age enter the work force, the more we’re going to bring that collaborative thought process to what we do.”

    Create networking opportunities for them. They want to get to know each other. They want to get to know senior leaders. For the Millennial generation, it’s all about the circle of connections. Business is conducted through social networking, both online and in person. They influence each other’s thinking through blogs, tweeting, multiuser video games, and sharing files.

  5. Let them make it their own.

    Hillary complains that her coworkers mock her for sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair and for decorating her cubicle. Millennials expect to be seen and treated as individuals. They are used to flexibility. They like to co-create. They modify products—from their Facebook pages to their screensavers to the ringtone on their cellphone—to reflect who they are.

    “They want freedom in everything they do,” says Don Tapscott, “from freedom of choice to freedom of expression.” Millennials take it for granted that they’ll be able to make choices on the job. They know how to cull through for what they want. They want to choose how to fit their job into their lives. They are comfortable with complexity and problem solving.

    Let them find their own way and create their own solutions. Let them personalize—the project, their workspace. Explain what needs to be done, give them a deadline, and let them pick their own process for doing the work.

    Just as we have to change our thinking in education that more “seat time” equals more learning, we need to let go of the notion that everyone needs to work in the same way to achieve good results. If your Millennial employee is sometimes more productive working from home, so be it. If she can crank out tons of work in an hour, then needs to take a Starbucks break to regenerate her brain cells, why not? As long as individual work styles don’t get in the way of others’ productivity, give people the freedom to do their best work in the ways they work best.

  6. Tell them how they’re doing.

    All their lives, Millennials have gotten almost constant praise, attention, and feedback from parents, coaches, and other adults. On the job, they need frequent, specific feedback. For Millennials, a lack of feedback translates, “You’re doing something wrong.” “We don’t want time to go by when we are messing up and no one is telling us,” says Elizabeth, who prefers “ongoing feedback” as opposed to a “touch base meeting.”

    Yet the Millennials we interviewed were quick to admit that they tend to take criticism personally. “I am the kind of person,” says Lauren, “who will assume that whatever mistake I made is ten times bigger than it might really be.” Millennials are quickly finding it to their detriment that they’ve been raised without a tolerance for hurt feelings.

    This puts extra pressure on you, our reader. If you want to tap into the power of Millennials at work, you have to become a masterful coach. “A good manager should know how to tell you you did something wrong without making you feel bad,” says Lauren.

    One Millennial who runs a nonprofit organization staffed by his generational peers says, “I can’t even use the word ‘deficient’ in my office. Nobody likes it. But if I tell them, ‘You’re really great. You’re really strong in English,’ then they are a little more willing to hear, ‘Your math kind of stinks, though.’ “

    Patrick, 22, doesn’t respond well when he feels the only interaction he receives is criticism. “Sometimes the only thing you hear through the course of the day, other than some quick hellos and some perfunctory small talk, is when you get some little criticism from a boss. It wouldn’t be as bad if it were balanced out by more conversation or positives throughout the day. But when that’s all I hear, that makes me cranky.”

    “Give me something I can work with,” says Kara, 25. “Give me something I can actually walk away with and know, ‘This is how I’m going to do this better or differently.’ “

    Patrick sums it up. “I think that recognizing failure and mistakes is important to building self esteem. Withholding that information isn’t building self esteem. I don’t think that people in older generations should continually boost our self esteem, because honestly, I would like to know if I’m not doing very well at something. I don’t want someone to not tell me or skirt around the issue because it might hurt my feelings. But they also have to recognize that we grew up with that.”

  7. Be approachable.

    Millennials tell us they become uncomfortable if they see a dividing line between managers and employees. In order for Millennials to feel more comfortable on the job, Hilary says “opening the lines of communication” is essential. Robbie suggests to managers, “Leave yourself open if issues arise.” He says he likes the way his current manager has communicated “that ‘if something happens, you can come to me, let me know.’ Have an open door,” he says “so they don’t feel that something bad happened and they can’t go to a manager with it. Everyone should be able to bring it forward and not feel intimidated or bad about bringing it to a manager. Create an environment where it’s not so much fear, but you’re teammates, you’re working together.”

    Dana says she likes to talk with her managers “in a relaxed way.”

  8. Plug in to parents.

    Millennials were raised by active, involved parents who often interceded on their behalf. Parents challenged poor grades and negotiated with the soccer coach. The Higher Education Research Institute reports that increasingly more college students consult with their parents about which school to attend. Parents even go along to Army recruiting centers.

    At work, eight in ten Millennials talk to their parents every day according to a 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

    We can complain about parents. We can try to change their role in the lives of their teen and twentysomething children. Or we can find the positive side of this strong bond between parents and their Millennial children and tap into the power of this other set of mentors and coaches. We might even offer to give them a tour of the office!

  9. Be someone to believe in.

    Millennials learned to smell a fishy email offer before they were ten. They’ve been sold to more than any generation, and they’re savvy consumers. They know how to sniff out false promises and misinformation, and when they feel they’ve been burned, they can broadcast their displeasure with one click of the button.

    They’ll check out a company carefully before going to work there in search of integrity, openness, community service, greenness. Promote your organization’s values and reputation. Millennials want to be proud of the organization they work for, what it does, how it makes a difference.

    Be squeaky clean yourself—ethical, open, able to withstand scrutiny. If you offered something in an interview, follow through on it. If you promise to do something, do it as soon as you can.

    Your younger colleagues are looking to you as a role model, coach, and mentor. There’s a great opportunity for you here. Years from now, you just may be the person some Millennial tracks down to say, “Thank you for what you did, the faith you placed in me, the difference you made.”