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Understanding 'millennials' and Generation Y

'We're in the middle of a financial crisis. Why are we still talking about what these millennials want? Why do we care what anyone wants for that matter... generation X, baby boomers or whatever? Everybody just has to hunker down and work.'

This is a view I've heard and it seems reasonable on one level. Yes, we all have to focus on working our way out of this crisis. However, the crisis doesn't change any of the facts or realities that are not optional. We'll talk about the four things that haven't changed the long-term trends that are shaping the millennials' expectations of employers and careers as well as how they prefer to work. 

Four things that won't change

1 The non-traditional family unit makes up the vast majority of households.

To paraphrase the US Census Bureau definition, a traditional household has two characteristics for purposes of clarity and precision: two people married to each other with one spouse working outside the home while the other does not. This is arguably a narrow definition in today's terms but in 1950 the US Census identified nearly 60% of families as traditional. Now only 17% of households meet the definition of traditional. What does this mean? There is a need for flexibility in navigating work-life issues that wasn't there when many of today's business leaders were growing up. In addition the workplace was designed with the traditional structure in mind. This meant linear career paths and total dedication to work if you expected to make any progress in your career. Employees were expected to fit their lives into work rather than the other way around.

2  Flexibility in and customisation of careers is a necessity for workers.

This need for flexibility is enhanced by the fact that our research shows both genders expect women to continue to have primary responsibility for childcare and eldercare. So, since about 60% of college graduates in the US are female, there will be continuing pressure for customisation of careers and general flexibility.


3 Workers (especially millennials) are re-defining the place of work in their lives.


Additionally, research shows a low percentage of millennials and generation X focus primarily on work. Also men report spending almost 50% more time daily with their children than their equivalents did in the late 1970s. I've heard more than one senior executive say: ‘I missed my child's games; I will not miss my grandchild's.' In summary, changes in the family structure, which affect focus on work and demand for increased flexibility in work schedules, work-setting, job-design and career planning, are impacting everyone.


With the first three unchanging things as background it is quite logical to imagine we are moving away from the traditional corporate ladder model that dictates a linear, one-size-fits-all path for career progression. This corporate ladder is giving way to a corporate lattice model, where role, schedule, workload and pace can be varied depending on the ebb and flow of life. Our research shows that this career customisation approach is just what millennials are looking for but most importantly it meets the needs of all generations.

4 Three realities - technology, attitudes toward business and a consumer mindset - have fundamentally affected how millennials view the world.

Growing up as ‘technology natives' has profoundly affected what young people expect from life and how they relate to it. The intensity and extent of exposure to technology has had a major impact on how people perceive work as well as when, where and how it can be done. It permits a 24/7 connection to others, but especially to work. As such, this 24/7 connectivity removes the traditional constraints of office hours and location. Technology encourages networks and a lack of boundaries that makes operating in hierarchies problematic and challenges traditional ways of doing and managing work. At first, this difference appears to be generational, but it is not. It is the difference between those who view technology as a tool or a toy and those who see it as the way they interact with the world - an extension of them or, as it has been said, their oxygen.

The next important factor is the view that millennials (as well as their parents and teachers) have about business values. They believe that despite what corporations say businesses value financial success far more than they value the people that work for them or the communities in which they live. This view appears to be based on the negative impacts of mergers, acquisitions and other business trends.

This scepticism about business can be summarised by this comment made by a college student who was strongly supported by others in her focus group and in subsequent ones: "We are looking to being loyal to an employer if that employer will be loyal to us, but we don't think business operates that way today."

Growing up in the world of lay-offs and corporate scandals has resulted in young people believing that businesses generally, and big businesses in particular, value their own financial gain far above all else and business talk about the importance of people is largely insincere.

The third potent divide is that of consumer attitude. Millennials, as we've noted, have been raised to be consumers, to question value, to demand and expect high quality, easy-to-handle ‘microwavable experiences'. This is the world in which they were raised; thus it's understandable that they carry these expectations with them as they consume everything - including careers.

Given the facts I've just related, it is not surprising that we must be mindful of the following as we work with millennials.

Readiness to work gap: there is always a gap to be spanned between school and work. The gap is greater than ever and employers who are savvy will work with the millennials' desire ‘to get it right', (which I'll explain shortly), to teach them how to be professionals.

Insecurities about personal finances and holding onto a job or getting one in the first place: millennials are feeling significant pressure from having to repay student loans while contending with an economic crisis and its effect on employment prospects. As leaders we need to keep in mind that these are the first hard times any of them have probably experienced. We as leaders must show the way through transparency and willingness to hear them out as they try to grapple with business ambiguity.

Regardless of the state of the economy, millennials are ‘engaged' consumers: they expect to have real input into the product or service, influence the product or service in a noticeable way, receive value for time, effort and energy (that is, they do not want to be taken advantage of). Interestingly these expectations are beginning to be observed in all generations; the millennials are just the most vocal.

In his book, The Trophy Kids Grow Up, Ron Alsop makes a strong case as to why millennials may have trouble with business ambiguity and why they ask so many questions.

Once again we must help millennials become professionals by setting out clear project deliverables, complete with due dates and resources available, to help them complete project tasks and then coach them on how to ask the right questions at the right time.

Alsop calls the millennials the ‘Checklist Kids' and observes that they want to be right and want the road map to get to ‘right'; are very diligent once they receive clear directions; and are accustomed, based on how we've prepared them for standardised tests, to receiving explicit directions.

The ‘Checklist Kids' are taught rigidly with detailed test guides and formulaic writing exercises so they would score well on standardised tests; and they are, as a result of the three factors above, challenged by ambiguity and how to figure out on their own how things fit together.

All the above further underscores the need for those of us with life experience to really coach and mentor millennials to help them contend with a world that operates very differently from the educational environment with which they are so familiar. Fortunately millennials want to be coached and mentored by experts. 

A parting thought: accepting the validity of the four unchanging things does not mean lowering expectations as to the professional product that clients receive. What it does mean is that millennials cannot be younger versions of baby boomers or generation X nor are baby boomers or generation X compelled to become older versions of millennials. We are all products of our upbringing. Therefore, we will work most effectively together if we acknowledge our differences and similarities and partner together to make the present and the future a place where we all want to be.

W Stanton Smith is a principal at Deloitte