How to heal the Millennial work disconnect

Why engaging employees for the long-term is no longer just an HR issue

March 31, 2016

The future success of any business will depend on its ability to hire and inspire the most talented members of the millennial generation. However, that task looks more daunting with every new piece of research exploring millennials’ attitudes to the workplace. In the last few months, studies from both Deloitte and PwC have highlighted a growing disconnect between what the most talented millennials want from their professional lives – and a generations-old workplace culture that is struggling to catch up. It seems an increasingly difficult rift to heal. That could be because organisations often treat it primarily as an HR problem, to be solved through benefits, performance review practices and flexible working hours. These are all important of course, but they can’t solve the issue alone. The millennial work disconnect is bigger than that: it’s also a marketing challenge.

Deloitte’s study warns that two-thirds of millennial graduates in full-time jobs plan to leave their current organisations by 2020. In fact, 44% would like to be out the door in the next two years. In the PwC survey, only 18% said they expected to stay with their current employer for the long term. “Winning over the next generation of leaders,” as Deloitte titles its report, seems increasingly problematic given such high turnover rates. The fact that most of the millennials in these studies were working in skilled roles in large corporations, had little impact on their loyalty. Their experience of the workplace still left them frustrated.

Can businesses ever make millennials happy?

“Millennials tend to be uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures and turned off by information siloes,” PwC explained in the introduction to its report. “They expect rapid progression, a varied and interesting career and constant feedback. In other words, millennials want a management style and corporate culture that is markedly different from anything that has gone before.”

To members of my own generation, this seems strange. They know that the global economic crisis has left all workers competing for fewer skilled roles. Many would therefore expect talented millennials to be grateful for the types of jobs held by those in the Deloitte and PwC surveys. But such expectations are a case of one generation projecting its own instincts and attitudes onto another.

If anything, the depressed job market has persuaded millennials to rely on themselves and put their own interests first rather than subsuming those interests to that of a company. It makes them demand more, not less. Because they are less confident about having job security over the long-term, they feel a greater need to get what they want from that job now, rather than waiting for rewards in the future. PwC’s survey picks up that many have compromised on things that are important to them to land their current role, but these compromises haven’t softened their stance; they simply make them more determined to leave as soon as they can find something better.

The challenge of keeping millennials happy can bring about positive changes within businesses; in many respects it’s a welcome opportunity to challenge how things are done. However, some demands simply aren’t possible to accommodate for everyone – and these are the demands that talented millennials are prioritising above all others.

Both Deloitte and PwC pick out frustrated leadership ambitions as one of the most important factors giving millennials perpetually itchy feet. They expect to rise rapidly through organisations – and have a clear sense of what they will progress to next. Yet at the same time, they expect a better work-life balance whilst pursuing these career goals. Work-life balance was the single most important factor when choosing an employer, according to Deloitte, with the opportunity to become a leader coming in second.

Given that businesses can’t really avoid having a pyramid structure, with fewer leadership roles than non-leadership roles, frustrating many of these expectations is unavoidable. We can help millennials to develop the skills they will need to lead, we can try to be as clear as possible about career progression opportunities, but we can’t guarantee future leadership roles for everyone, we can’t guarantee when they will be available, and we can’t guarantee that they won’t involve some significant personal compromises.

Empowering millennials through shared values

This is why focusing on other aspects of millennials’ relationship to work is so important. If they are going to have to make compromises (and the vast majority will have to), then it’s important that those compromises feel worthwhile; that they align with what’s important to people rather than compromising what’s important to people.

This isn’t just a question of keeping millennials happy, it’s about empowering them to work in a way that will enable them to be successful and achieve their goals. More than anything, it comes down to imbuing organisations with a sense of purpose. You can’t inspire a next generation of leaders for your business without a clear and compelling vision that they can choose to buy into.

Deloitte’s study found that 44% of millennials had turned down a job offer because the organisation’s values were at odds with their own, and 55% consider personal values as very important when making decisions at work. Given this, it’s not surprising that 9.3% identified ‘a sense of meaning from work’ as one of the reasons for choosing a particular employer, making it one of the five most important factors outside of salary.

A reputation as an ethical, responsible business is an important element in satisfying millennials’ demand for values aligned with their own – but it’s not the only one. Those surveyed by Deloitte also judged potential employers by product and service quality (63%), employee satisfaction (62%) and customer satisfaction (55%).

In short, working for a brand that they can admire as business customers or consumers, is a powerful motivating factor when it comes to getting and keeping a job. “If I’m working on something I enjoy and am passionate about, I will be motivated,” as one graduate told PwC.

The importance of purpose to a balanced working relationship

To me, this suggests that the real challenge of the millennial work disconnect is about building a sense of brand purpose; being able to express both internally and externally what your business exists to do – and why that matters. I’m able to say this from the perspective of working within a business that has such a purpose – and I can see first-hand the impact that it has on the people that work at LinkedIn.

I also know that more and more of our clients are focused on communicating their own sense of purpose more clearly. They know that this is important, not just to win customers, but to build the type of organisation that talented millennials can buy into. It enables this generation to see the value in what they do every day. And when it comes to helping millennials get to where they want to be, there’s arguably nothing more important than this.