Why are businesses treating millennials differently from every other generation? We’ve seen an avalanche of contradictory studies about what young people supposedly want in recent years – as well as countless “helpful” articles on how to “deal with” millennial staff.
Employers are worried about how to attract and retain this generation, but they shouldn’t be.
The main danger of fetishising millennials, or in fact any generation, lies in focusing on the needs of a sub-group that isn’t representative of the whole.
The most stereotypical characteristics of this generation become exaggerated and over-analysed. In the case of the proverbial “millennial”, the focus of many studies has been on their sense of entitlement, need for fun at work, and expectation to climb the career ladder quickly. These are less the traits of an entire generation, but more likely those of a university educated, white, middle-class individual.
The reality is that the majority of millennials do not match this stereotype. They likely have a range of different experiences and levels of education, and live very different lives. After all, technically a millennial is anyone aged between 20 and 38.
There is, in fact, so much variety within a generation that we end up further dividing them. An article by Adweek suggests that there are 12 different kinds of millennials. Perhaps splicing a workforce by their date-of-birth is somewhat arbitrary?
In fact, over 20 studies have found that, across all ages, when it comes to what matters in work, we all have more in common than in contrast.
Employees of any age want to learn and grow, to make a difference, to have security, autonomy, recognition, and – of course – to be paid fairly.
Big changes in an employee’s life obviously impact what they want at work. However, they often don’t follow a neat chronological progression. For example, an added caring responsibility – for a child, a parent, or a partner – can dramatically shift how someone sees work, and this can happen at any age.
Clearly, once we lift the bonnet of the trends and buzzwords, age quickly becomes irrelevant. People’s backgrounds, experiences, and current context come into focus to help us understand their behaviour.
So what can businesses do to get this right? Avoid building a culture that fetishes millennials or any other group.
Even a well-meaning strategy will foster discontent, as the narrative of generational differences leads to a toxic culture of tribalism. Instead, focus on simply making a good place to work, with fair and accountable practices.
An example of a well-executed culture shift comes from Barclays. It established alternative mentoring schemes geared towards diverse learning and support from others regardless of age. This allowed people from different departments and age groups to exchange knowledge in ways that were previously unlikely.
BMW provides another interesting case study. It implemented a series of improvements originally intended to accommodate older workers.
The change, however, resulted in a safer and more comfortable workplace for employees of all ages. This lead to encouraging cross-generational input, introducing flexible and mobile working options, and practical learning processes that benefit both younger and older employees alike.
While these examples are paving the way for an office that considers all of its people, they only scratch the surface of the issue.
The main effort in the HR department of any workplace should be on understanding people, not millennials. Focusing only on the new kids on the block not only parses a company’s workforce arbitrarily, but also assumes that it has already got it right for everyone else – which is likely not the case.