Donald Fry: Twenty-somethings bring a different culture to the workplace, says McDaniel’s Casey

By: Donald C. Fry

One of the best ways to get a sense of today’s changing workplace is to understand that American workers have evolved from the “live to work” attitude of the World War II and baby boomer generations to the “work to live” philosophy of today’s twenty-something millennial generation.

That’s a core dynamic framing the larger issue of how to absorb into our workplaces a new generation of employees whose habits, thoughts and attitudes toward work and life contrast those of their older managers and colleagues, McDaniel College president Dr. Roger Casey told those who attended his presentation at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s June 28 seminar “Minding the Millennials: Working with Young Adults.”

Understanding this generation of technologically savvy, I-Pod-plugged, Facebook-driven and somewhat impatient young people in a hurry who were born after 1982 is a key to integrating them into workplaces that for decades have reflected a different culture.

With millennials “everything is abbreviated, everything is shortened. If you really like something, you have to shorten it,” Casey said.

The millennial generation constituted “a radically different student body” that started appearing on college campuses around 2000. Now that this generation has entered the workforce, “either the workforce is going to have to change or young people are going to have to change” in order to achieve a balance between “phenomenally different” generational perceptions of the nature of employment, Casey said.

A workforce survey by Spherion, the national staffing company, identified contrasting attitudes about work between millennials and older generations. For example, more than 70 percent of baby boomers and older generations feel sticking with an employer helps with career advancement and frequent job changes will damage your career, but less than 19 percent of millennial generation workers agree with that premise, said Casey.

He detailed “phenomenally different” perceptions between older and younger workers on the topic of what constitutes a good work environment. For example:

• Only 57 percent of older workers prefer employers constantly weed out non-performers, but 80 percent of millennial generation workers want non-performers weeded out.
• While only 36 percent of older workers prefer lots of ongoing workplace training, 70 percent of millennials want training in the workplace.
• While 93 percent of older-generation workers prefer work that’s clearly defined each day, only 53 percent of millennials prefer it.

Older generations are generally more accepting of being paid for seniority, prefer being left alone to do their jobs rather than attend training seminars, and like the scope of their jobs to be clearly-defined. But millennials are telling us something entirely different.

They’re saying “I shouldn’t be paid on longevity. I need to be paid on what I’m producing.” They’re also saying “every day I want to learn something new … teach me something.” Rather than have a clearly defined work routine, millennials are saying “change it up, make it different, I don’t want any kind of routine,” said Casey.

These kinds of differences raise “the possibility for an enormous amount of tension in the workforce in terms of the way people see their connection to the organization and the way people define what a good organization is,” he said.

However, approximately 95 percent of workers in all generations agree on one key element that makes for a good workplace – employer flexibility that helps the employee meet family obligations. That’s significant common ground among the generations, said Casey.

He noted recent research among college students revealed raising a family is now scoring higher among students than being well off financially.

Casey, whose scholarly passion is studying the impact of generational issues and social media, admited “obviously no one generation is characterized by all the same things” and he offers “very broad strokes” about the millennial generation.

Nevertheless, here’s Casey’s broad brush: “Millennials are the most protected, the most sheltered, the most secure generation in American history in many ways.”

Why is this? First, millennials have grown up in a culture that teaches, from birth that “everything in this world will kill you.” Terrorists will kill you, abductors will kill you, chickens will kill you, the sun will kill you, shaking hands could kill you, Casey said. They “have grown up in a media world in which the whole goal of the nightly news is to scare the heck out of you.”

This cultural environment has, for this generation, created one of the biggest stereotypes: “helicopter parents,” he said. “Parents that are immensely involved in the lives of their children, of their young people, of their twenty-somethings in a way that previous generations never saw.”

Previous generations, when they went to college, didn’t want anyone to know they had parents. Contrast that with today’s college campuses where the dean of students has now become the dean of parents, Casey noted.

How does this cultural environment and upbringing impact millennials? For one thing, researchers are finding an enormous amount of anxiety among millennials, some of it stemming from a perception that “failure is not something that you’re really allowed to do,” said Casey.

Casey offered a litany of observations about what to expect from millennials in the workplace.

Millennials are anxious, something of a “me” generation, connected, networked, multitask-oriented and diverse. All of these factors, said Casey, shape their workplace personalities and attitudes in a number of ways.

Millennials love family and seek praise, he says. Even little rewards make a difference to them. They seek lots of feedback and are terribly afraid of failure. They seek ownership, and like to be included in decision making. They like things explained to them, not just be told to do something. It helps to personalize things, even to make it a “game.”

The twenty-something generation wants it all sooner rather than later. Millennials project a “when can I be a VP” attitude. They also need to have fun, are extremely digitally savvy and know how to network. They like to work in teams, yet need to feel unique, Casey said.

Millennnials like to build on the strengths of their differences, recognize that everyone doesn’t necessarily view the world in the same way, and know that their sense of identity may be different from others, Casey said. They are also driven by a strong desire to do good things for the world.

Here’s a thumbnail summary of a checklist Casey offered for achieving success in workplaces increasingly populated by a new generation of employees:

• Remember that millennials love family.
• Praise, feedback and rewards are key.
• Help them problem-solve and counter their fear of failure.
• Give millennials ownership, build on their sense of cooperativeness, and include them in decisions.
• Take advantage of their penchant for networking and digital technology.
• Put millennials in positions to “do good.”

Anyone who has read “One Minute Manager” or a number of other popular books on managing will recognize basic elements of this checklist.

While the technology and culture of the millennial generation may be different from previous generations, what young workers want isn’t ultimately much different from what everyone else wants, Casey said.

He pointed to a 2001 report in the Financial Times that quotes a 60-something worker’s assessment of the newest generation entering the workforce: “We wanted what they want. We just felt we couldn’t ask.” 

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