Employing millennials: challenges and opportunities

As baby boomers march toward retirement and Generation X pushes into middle age, “millennials” are emerging in the workforce. Born after 1980, the millennials, or Generation Y — like every generation preceding them – present their own unique set of challenges and opportunities.Millennials are already prevalent in the workforce and will be a growing presence for at least the next couple of decades. Praised for their grasp of technology, Web 2.0 applications, optimism and ability to collaborate, millennials are also thought to exhibit less than ideal professionalism, work ethic, independent decision-making ability and critical thinking skills.To some, millennials are “special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving” (see “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” Howe and Strauss, 2000). Others claim they have been molded by “helicopter parents” and an “everybody wins a trophy” mentality “to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves” (see “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” Twenge, 2006).Whichever assessment is on target, this age group will have a profound effect on organizations in the coming years.One thing we know for sure about millennials is that they are, like baby boomers, a large age group. Generation X, the generation between baby boomers and millennials, is 45 million strong, while millennials approach 75 million. This means that when positions need to be filled because baby boomers are retiring, millennials will rise in the organization more quickly than their generation X predecessors — providing leadership opportunities at a relatively young age.Another thing we know for sure is that millennials have grown up with technology like no other generation, particularly communication technology and the Internet.This means greater familiarity and skill with technology and perhaps, the dark side of this familiarity: less developed formal writing skills, less independence and less skill at face-to-face interpersonal interaction.Anecdotal comments from business executives are consistent on the real-life impact of this: Millennials write business letters that include abbreviations from the world of texting and chatting (for example, URW for “you’re welcome”); spend too much time on social networking applications (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and e-mailing friends while working; and have more difficulty than expected accepting anything less than positive feedback.Effective strategiesUnderstanding these patterns gives a foundation for developing an effective management strategy for millennials. The challenges are setting limits on the non-work related use of social communication technology, developing formal writing skills, nurturing independence and decision-making, developing face-to-face interpersonal skill and finding a way to deliver constructive criticism.Some of these can be met with performance reviews (setting limits, formal writing skills, for example) while others may require training managers to coach millennial subordinates on independence, decision-making, interpersonal skills and how to take constructive criticism.The opportunities are in tapping into millennials’ technological sophistication, their interest in collaboration and their interest in achieving. Some organizations, for example, use reverse mentoring to have millennials help senior executives learn social networking and other communication technology. This mentoring also can carry over into helping the executives understand how social networking and the related technology is affecting market research and the marketplace itself.Organizations have also facilitated a team approach to tasks to take advantage of millennials’ interest in collaborating and achieving. Millennials also present an extraordinary opportunity to understand their behavior as consumers, and therefore understand an enormous potential customer base.It’s hard to say at this point whether the challenges posed by millennials outweigh the opportunities they present. There is little doubt, however, that organizations that embrace the challenges will be in a better position to benefit from their skills and high potential.Brad Lebo, Ph.D., owner of Portsmouth-based Intellectus Business Coaching, can be reached at intellectuscoaching.com.