What Millennials Actually Want in Work

Inclusive Leadership
Minute Read

As a millennial, I am always being told what I am and what I want, especially when it comes to work.

On good days, I’m assumed to be a tech-savvy, socially conscious, and achievement-driven worker who wants to make the world a better place and create impact beyond myself.

On bad days, I’m assumed to be a tech-addicted, lazy, entitled narcissist who wants nothing more than a participation trophy and cash bonuses.

Of course, neither paints a totally accurate picture of who I am or what I want. I’m not that good or that bad.

What consistently surprises me, though, is how often I am told what I want instead of asked. This seems to be a common experience among my peers.

Millennials are the generation of people born between 1982 and 2004. Right now, they comprise more than half of the U.S labor force, and by 2025 they will represent three quarters of working-age people.

Since we make up most of the job market now and will make up even more of it in the future, I thought it was time to look at real research that asks us what we actually want in work and match that against my own experience.

For the record, I believe employees across generations want to feel autonomous, empowered, recognized, and masterful in their work. They just achieve those feelings differently.

For millennials, the research shows that two things help us achieve those feelings: mentoring and coaching and career path mapping.

Mentoring and Coaching

In PwC’s Millennials at Work survey, respondents were asked why they accepted their current positions. Overwhelmingly, these millennials answered the opportunity for personal development (65%).

Similarly, when asked what makes an organization an attractive employer, 35% answered excellent training and development programs. This came in third after opportunities for career progression (52%) and competitive wages or other financial incentives (44%).

Finally, respondents were asked to rank the top three most valuable benefits an employer could offer. The top response (22%) was training and development, followed by flexible hours (19%) and cash bonuses (14%).

Put simply, what millennials care most about is their own individual development within an organization, and whether their companies are ready and willing to invest in their holistic growth, instead of just offering healthy compensation packages.

As Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd observed in The 2020 Workplace:

“[Millennials] are committed to developing new skills and to work for organizations where they have coaches and mentors to learn from on the job.”

It’s no surprise that a generation that grew up with incredible expectations around athletic, academic, and extracurricular achievement still needs coaching and mentoring. We have been conditioned to think and grow through structured support.

As millennials increasingly make up not only our workforce but move into the majority of leadership positions, business leaders have to remember to offer more one-on-one learning and development opportunities for them.

This may mean adopting a 70–20–10 model, first introduced by Morgan McCall and the Center for Creative Learning, which provides development through 70% on the-job-experiences, 20% developmental relationships, and 10% formal training and reading.

For organizations too small to introduce a management layer capable of providing that 20% of developmental relationships, building external mentor networks or community programs between organizations may be one way to satisfy this millennial need.

If external collaboration isn’t possible, introducing more structured peer-to-peer learning models or introducing executive coaching or leadership coaching may also critically improve millennial commitment, satisfaction, engagement, and ultimately, performance.

Career Path Mapping

Millennials see career progression and a clear career path as essential. They have worked all their lives to get into four-year universities with specific end goals in mind, and while they largely expect to change employers two to five times over the course of their careers, they still want a trajectory to get there.

In fact, not having a trajectory may be exactly why they leave so much.

A Gallup study showed that 93% of millennials left their companies the last time they changed roles, which implies a lack of growth opportunity at their previous jobs.

Companies, especially technology companies focused on rapid change and growth, are not spending time with their millennial workers on how they evolve and progress with a company.

Instead, they are asking them to “figure things out,” “go with the flow,” and “get stuff done,” with little focus on the future.

But millennials are highly future-focused, as well as the most work-obsessed generation in recent history.

They’re also consumers when it comes to the job market. They are used to personalized, customized, and curated experiences. They don’t experience the same sense of brand loyalty or traditional attachment that the Greatest Generation or even the Baby Boomers did.

For the sake of talent retention, employers need to put processes in place to help millennials map out their career paths — both inside and outside of an organization.

According to Trisha Degg, VP of Talent Programs at the Illinois Technology Association and Executive Director of TechForward, career path mapping starts as early as the interviewing stages.

She recommends building flexibility into the role from the very beginning of the interview process and interviewing candidates for who they want to be as much as what they can bring to the organization.

That means asking development and career path questions as part of the first behavioral interview. Trisha asks questions like:

  • What are you looking for in a career?
  • How could we help you find it here?
  • How could we challenge you?
  • Do you think I can challenge you as a manager?
  • Do you think I can develop you as a manager?

How candidates respond gives Trisha a sense of how well the candidate can meet the company’s needs and vice versa. For high-potential candidates, these responses may provide the blueprint for a strategic plan around their careers at the organization.

At Hyde Park Angels, for existing employees, we determine our professional development goals and brainstorm our ideas for future careers and trajectories — both inside and outside of the organization — in one-on-one sessions with our leaders.

From there, we determine a match between an employee’s personal goals and ways to grow the organization. When the match is found, we tie the most relevant and important personal goals into our performance management and overall strategic objectives.

In many cases, simply having regular touchpoints to discuss career trajectories, examples pointing to how they might shake out at the company, and resources and guidance that facilitate career progression goals may be enough to keep millennial workers.

Graceful Exits

“The greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.”–William H. Whyte, “Is Anybody Listening?”

However, since millennials are consumers of work opportunities and expect to change employers over the course of their careers, it’s important to build systems that allow them to leave gracefully in a way that minimizes loss to companies.

Keeping disengaged workers on a team is bad for business. They underperform, bring down morale, and often encourage others to leave.

Those who nevertheless excel will likely still leave, which can turn into an operational and cultural nightmare. That is, unless the right expectations and communications are established at the beginning of a working relationship.

On the employer side, that means building a culture of trust, respect, and understanding where leaders are willing to let their workers build their own brands, explore opportunities, and mature out of roles.

Candor becomes essential. Trisha Degg emphasizes to her employees, “If you don’t want to be here, let me help find you the next thing.”

By taking the shame and secrecy out of disengagement, Trisha establishes a strong talent brand that will get shared with the broader community. That talent brand is essential is attracting new top-tier candidates.

This approach also increases the likelihood that millennial workers won’t leave their companies in the lurch, but will come to their leaders sooner rather than later when considering an exit. This lead time minimizes the cost of a transition or exit and allows for a replacement to be found and trained.

Fostering an environment that allows for graceful exits is critical for culture.As Trisha emphasizes:

“Life is too short to hate your job. I want you to love your job.”

Privileging purpose and satisfaction may even turn an employee’s exit decision around. The problem may not be the company but the role, and honest conversations about lateral moves into new areas, skills development, or even new peer groups may turn a disengaged employee into an engaged one. But that isn’t possible unless a culture of open, understanding communication exists.

And a culture of open, understanding communication is the kind that doesn’t tell a millennial who they are and what they want, but asks them.

Alida Miranda-Wolff is the Founder and CEO of Ethos, a talent strategy firm for tech companies focused on driving company performance by shaping talent and developing culture. Follow her work on Twitter and VentureBeat.

You Might Also Like

Want to keep up-to-date on the latest DEIB practices?

Subscribe to Our Newsletter