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The learning proposition for millennials

We now have at least four generations in the workplace, but do they really want different things from their development?

Generational differences and the impact in the workplace is a long-running, often contentious theme. In the academic press, one view is that generations are indeed diverse, each group with its own defining characteristics and expectations of the employment relationship. A second view considers employees as being quite generic in terms of what they want from their jobs but that variations depend on life and career stage. The popular press, in turn, has largely focused on difference, warning of a looming generation gap. A lack of empirical evidence, however, suggests that the latter may have been overstated.

Regardless of which side of the argument one falls on, the reality is that at least four generations make up the current workforce. Of these, millennials (born in the early 80s to mid 90s) are increasingly occupying senior roles (1) and are expected to exceed a third of the global workforce by 2020 (2). From an HR/talent perspective, organisations seeking to engage and retain talent and develop future leaders whilst fostering cohesion in the workplace should at least consider the possibility of a generational variable, particularly in relation to millennials as future leaders of organisations and the soon to be largest demographic segment in the workforce. Within this discourse, a key theme concerns the evolution of the learning landscape. Has it evolved sufficiently and at pace to meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce and more specifically, millennials? Are future leaders being suitably developed? Are millennials distinctive in their learning needs to begin with?

ManPower Group’s recent survey of 19000 working millennials across 25 countries has yielded interesting findings. Of those surveyed, 93% identify ongoing skills development as important to their future careers; 80% rate the opportunity to learn new skills as a primary factor in considering a new job, while 93% want lifelong learning and would spend their own time and resources on further training. Although full-time work is preferred, more than 50% are open to a varied career path in the future from self-employment to portfolio careers with multiple jobs. Respondents further report a desire for work life balance with 84% anticipating taking more career breaks along the way. Recognition and affirmation is also important, with 50% stating that they would consider leaving their jobs due to a lack of appreciation.

Deloitte’s latest millennial survey of 7700 tertiary-educated, full-time employees from 29 countries provides similar evidence of portfolio careers and an emphasis on employee growth and development. However, it is the implications for leadership development that are of particular interest in this study. The survey reports that only 28% of millennials feel that they are being fully utilised in terms of their skill sets. Although leadership is a prized skill or attribute, it is thought to be poorly developed upon graduation and that businesses are not doing enough to fill the gap. Almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents, for example, say their leadership skills are not being fully developed while 71% of those likely to leave their organisations in the next two years are similarly dissatisfied with how their leadership skills are being developed. Millennials also prefer to work in organisations whose values match their own, with 56% ruling out ever working for an organisation over its values or standards of conduct.

So what implications can be drawn from the above and how can organisations respond? Although worrying, the leadership gap identified in the Deloitte study also presents an opportunity for oganisations with robust and ‘equitable’ people and leadership development practices to attract and retain top talent among value conscious millennials. Certainly, widening leadership development across the organisational base can help identify and build individual leadership capability as well as the collective leadership capacity in the organisation. Although the risk of losing talent remains, investing in developing leadership skills early on engenders loyalty and strengthens the possibility of reattracting employees at a later stage in their careers while also mitigating against the unhappiness millennials feel over how they are currently being developed.

Employability over the long haul is another central theme running through the above findings. To that effect, millennials want to be able to develop and adapt skill sets quickly and flexibly, fitting learning around work and life demands. As portfolio careerists, they value personalised learning that gives them the right knowledge and skills for the right purpose at the right time. This suggests a preference for accessible, informal learning strategies over lengthy, formal development programmes. Organisations that successfully weave learning into the fabric of daily work can leverage incidental learning and provide opportunities to share, explore and experiment with new skills and behaviours. Job rotations, stretch assignments with regular feedback and coaching and mentoring by senior colleagues, for example, can help build new skills and simultaneously satisfy the need for recognition and affirmation by enabling employees to expand their networks and raise their profiles in the organisation.

We also know that the use of technology appeals to this tech savvy generation. For global organisations with geographically dispersed employees, the reach and scalability of online learning solutions helps build a common skill base and platform of understanding. Furthermore, a carefully constructed digital learning strategy that is integrated with the wider L&D strategy moves learning beyond the boundaries of traditional approaches, placing it firmly in the hands of employees. Access to relevant, bite-sized, just-in-time learning through various channels, such as, YouTube, iTunes U and TED talks which can easily be shared on mobile devices and distributed via social channels like Facebook or Twitter enable both personalised and collaborative learning. Additional possibilities include access to free MOOCs from credible sources, provision of generic or tailored online learning courses with topical and job-centric content, asynchronous computer mediated conferencing, gaming, augmented reality, and so on.

Reflecting on the above, I am struck by a feeling of déjà vu. Though emphases and priorities may differ, the concerns of millennials do not seem all that dissimilar to those of my generation (Generation X) and the many learners and colleagues I have worked with across age groups, seniority levels and cultures. Nor are the ideas I’ve outlined really new. What has changed dramatically is context and the transformative effects of technology on the way we learn, live and work. The world is faster paced. But we are all exposed to the same technological advances and experience the same work pressures. What works for millennials, therefore, will work for the rest of the workforce too.

The message then is this: even though we may have more similarities than differences, organisations still need to reconsider and diversify the learning proposition in creative and thoughtfully integrated ways to keep pace with and embrace technological shifts, appeal to the next generation of leaders and widen opportunities for learning across generations. L&D functions that have done so already are ahead of the curve. For some though, this requires overhauling clunky learning management systems, outdated provision and learning methodologies, and rethinking how best to invest the L&D budget for greater value and impact.

Maria Stafylarakis is a senior lecturer in management and leadership development at the Open University


  1. The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey: Winning over the next generation of leaders.
  2. Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision. Facts, Figures and Practical Advice from Workforce Experts 2016, Manpower Group.