By Andrew Clark, Director and Head of Global Information & Competitive Intelligence, UCB
Millennials, the single largest demographic in the workplace today, are often derided as lazy, disrespectful, and needy. They’re also criticized as being so addicted to technology that they email and text message information that should be communicated face-to-face to supervisors and coworkers.
However, millennials, the generation born between 1980 to 2000, are not that different from generation X (genX) and baby boomers in their work habits and expectations, according to social science researchers Jennifer J. Deal, Ph.D., and Alec Levenson, Ph.D., authors of the 2016 book, What Millennials Want from Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today's Workforce.
Regeneron’s experience with millennial employees supports the researchers’ findings. “At Regeneron, we don’t see drastic differences in work styles between the generations,” said Angi Calkins, executive director of talent acquisition at the Tarrytown, NY,-based biopharmaceutical company. Most of the difference is attributable to experience – more experienced colleagues draw more on that experience. In contrast, “Millennials are, many times, looking at on-the-job problems or challenges for the first time, so their responses may have a ‘fresh eye’ advantage,” said Calkins. Millennials make up about 36 percent of Regeneron’s workforce, and Calkins says that percentage is continuing to grow.
Most of the differences that do exist between millennial and older employees are due primarily to life and career stages, said Deal and Levenson, who conducted surveys and field studies that involved 25,000 millennials and 29,000 genXers and baby boomers in 22 countries. In the study, genXers refers to the generation born between 1964 and 1979, while Boomers is used for those born between 1946 and 1963. The study participants held support, professional, managerial and executive positions in 3,000 organizations representing a wide range of industries including life sciences.
“Where we are in our life and career influence what we want, expect, and need to be productive and happy at work,” said Deal, senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). Deal and Levenson added that not all millennials are the same. A millennial who has just graduated from college does not share the same life and work priorities of a millennial with children and a decade of career experience.
“How millennials view their jobs is not based on the generation that they are in but their role in the organization,” said Levenson, senior research scientist at the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations in Los Angeles. For example, different views about work characterize millennials in management positions who are responsible for the performance of other staff members, and younger millennials without supervisory responsibilities. “During the interviews, we often heard millennial managers criticize their staff members who were just a few years younger and were technically millennials,” Levenson said. The millennial managers said, “I can’t believe what young people are like these days.”
What works for a millennial employee at one life stage likely will not be as effective for another millennial who is at a different stage, according to Deal and Levenson. The researchers said supervisors can retain the best and brightest employees by considering the life and career stages of staff members when establishing policies that address workplace flexibility and benefits plans in particular.
Older workers often complain that newly hired millennials on their first job make too many mistakes. However, it’s unrealistic to expect these young workers to know everything about their employer that the older staff members took years to learn. They haven’t had the opportunity to learn all of the skills required to be a good worker and a contributing member of the organization, Levenson said.
Bashing Millennials Popular Pastime
The image of millennials as narcissistic and lazy has been created in part by the popular media. Case in point: Time magazine’s 2013 cover story, Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation. Also contributing to the negative caricature has been the tendency of older generations to bad-mouth younger generations. For example, in 1964, the American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, who was born in 1931, castigated baby boomers as the most self-absorbed generation in history in his New York Magazine cover story, The Me Decade.In 2014, The New York Times journalist Frank Bruni acknowledged the tendency of older generations to criticize the younger generation when he wrote, “Among Americans age 40 and older, there’s a pastime more popular than football, Candy Crush, or HBO. It’s bashing Millennials.”
In their 2016 book, Deal and Levenson described an “unexpectedly complex picture of millennials globally” that contradicts the popular portrayal of the generation. For example, their research revealed that millennials as a group are not lazy. “The majority of millennials work more than 40 hours per week,” said Deal, who is based in CCL’s office in San Diego. “In addition, millennials don’t expect to stop working when they leave the office.” Fifty-six percent of the 25,000 millennials in the study said that they worked more than 9 hours per day, and workdays of 10 hours and longer were reported by 33 percent of the millennials.
In addition, 91 percent of millennials said that they were contacted about work during their evenings and weekends, and 12 percent were contacted daily during their off hours. And, four of five millennials said that they routinely used their smartphones to read and respond to work-related emails during their personal time.
Deal and Levenson also found that millennials who work long hours could become less engaged in their job and begin to resent their employer. “Millennials don’t want work to take over their lives,” said Deal. “They want work-life balance.” More than 50 percent of millennials in the study said that their work often hindered their ability to fulfill personal responsibilities. However, 32 percent of the millennials said that they did not participate in their employers’ work-life programs because they worried that their dedication to their employer would be questioned, and they would be less likely to advance in their careers.
Millennials said that they regard flexible work schedules as a fair exchange for their willingness to allow work to interrupt their weekends and evenings. “Their attitude is, ‘I’m flexible for my employer. I read and respond to emails and telephone calls outside regular office hours. So my employer should be flexible for me,’” said Deal. She and Levenson added that millennials expect managers to focus on staff members’ performance and accomplishments, not where or when they do their work.
The researchers also found that millennials want their supervisors to give them autonomy. Calkins of Regeneron agreed. “Millennials like ownership over tasks and work product,” she said. “The good thing for us is that we are already set up to work that way. Everyone is empowered and given the tools to turn their ideas into reality.”
High-Tech, High-Touch Generation
One of the most revealing findings from the researchers’ surveys and field studies concerns millennials’ goal to integrate their work and home activities. For this generation, “it is not going to be either work or home life — it is going to be work and home,” the researchers wrote in their book. In a sense, that simple shift is the narrative that unites much of what the research team found.
Because of smartphones, texting, instant messaging, and other technologies, millennials are able to integrate their professional and personal lives. Deal and Levenson found that millennials want to work at organizations equipped with the latest technologies, which they regard as tools to improve their efficiency. “We’ve found that millennials like cool technologies that help to get the work done,” said Calkins. “Being in the biotech industry also allows millennials to work with, or invent their own, cutting-edge technology in the labs.”
Contrary to the stereotype, millennials are both high-tech and high touch in their interactions with bosses and co-workers. “Whether they were communicating with colleagues at lower, equal, or higher levels, approximately three-quarters of millennials whom we interviewed preferred face-to-face communication for each group as their first choice,” the researchers wrote in their book
“We found that if the conversation was important to them – to obtain feedback on their job performance, for example – millennials would want to spend the extra effort for face-to-face meetings,” said Deal. If the information was not that relevant to their work, millennials said that they usually relied on electronic communications. Deal recommended that supervisors coach millennials to realize that certain information should be communicated face-to-face even though they may not view the material as important to them
The workplace behavior associated with millennials that perhaps annoys older workers the most is their speaking up and sharing ideas early in their tenure. “Being ‘real’ is always important, and for millennials, real means being a little more candid and direct than managers might be used to,” said Calkins. Managers of millennials should be “good at sharing visions and goals and painting a picture of how each person’s impact is meaningful and fits into the big picture.
Because they want to contribute, millennials don’t believe that they should be quiet simply because of their brief tenure. “Rather, they think they should contribute as much as possible from the moment they join the organization,” Deal and Levenson wrote. “That attitude sometimes makes older peers and those higher up in the hierarchy uncomfortable.”
“Millennials ask for information and challenge authority because they want to do a good job,” said Levenson. For example, millennials fresh out of college might complain about one of their new employer’s business practices. The forced curve performance management process is one practice that attracts a lot of criticism, Levenson noted. In this process, supervisors are required to distribute their staff members’ performance ratings along a bell curve.
Millennials Want Frequent Feedback
The willingness of millennials and older employees to criticize their employers is influenced by several factors, including the economy. Millennials, genXers, and boomers hired during the 2008 Great Recession likely “kept their heads down,” and did not criticize anything, Levenson said. In addition, older millennial employees with previous work experience may be less likely to question their new employer’s business practices because they’ve learned in their previous jobs that “there are organizational processes that are very imperfect and can’t be easily changed,” Levenson said.
Levenson pointed out that most business practices, particularly at biotech and pharmaceutical companies, are justified. “When people’s lives are literally at stake, you have to have specific business processes and hierarchy to help prevent mistakes,” said Levenson, who has served as a consultant to several life science companies
Supervisors often complain that millennials too frequently ask for feedback about their work. “While 54 percent of millennials would like developmental feedback monthly or more frequently (daily or weekly), only 23 percent say they get feedback that frequently,” Deal and Levenson wrote in their book. “Millennials want feedback simply because they want to know how they can improve their work.” .
Calkins of Regeneron agreed. “Research has shown that millennials have higher expectations about feedback from their supervisors than previous generations,” she said. “We have invested heavily over the last few years in leadership, management, and supervisory skills training, and especially in improving performance feedback. Data shows that we have improved considerably, which helps with millennials and is good for all of our employees.”
Supervisors should provide all employees with regular and detailed feedback as a normal part of the workflow, not just at the annual performance management review, Deal and Levenson said. “Feedback of one form or another should happen at least every week or as frequently as work is delivered,” they wrote. “This is one of the most important activities a manager engages in, and yet it is typically not done often enough — especially for millennials.”
Another characteristic revealed in the researchers’ surveys and field studies is millennials’ desire to contribute to society. “Millennials want to do good in the world, but in their view, doing good does not compensate for lower pay,” said Deal. Like older generations, millennials expect to be paid appropriately.
“Millennials may have higher expectations that their work be meaningful and impact society positively,” said Calkins. “Because our business involves improving human health and as a culture we are more science- and patient-driven than financials-driven, we have been particularly successful at attracting millennials and mission-driven individuals in general.”
Among the millennials employed at Regeneron is Jennifer Battaglia, director, HR business partner. “Biotech is all about pursuing your passion while working for the greater good. If you are improving people’s lives through science, this industry is for you,” Battaglia said.
Deal and Levenson said that the majority of their recommendations for supervisors should prove effective with older workers as well as millennials. Calkins pointed out, “Millennials are making all of us better because what they are willing to express as their wants and needs are probably at the core of what everyone wants and needs in order to optimize their work relationships and impact.”