Emory Report
February 27, 2006
Volume 58, Number 21


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February 27 , 2006
Are U.S. employers ready for the Millennial generation?

BY bennett voyels

Since the 1960s, each generation of young people has been described as more violent, more alienated and more selfish than the one preceding it. But two faculty members at Goizueta Business School say the generation born since 1982 might be bucking the trend.

The Millennial Generation, as they’re now known, are apparently a nicer bunch in many respects than the prior two. Yet in spite of their many positive qualities, integrating Millennials into today’s workplace may not be straightforward, according to Andrea Hershatter, senior lecturer in organization and management, and associate dean and director of Goizueta’s BBA program; and Molly Epstein, assistant professor of management communication.

Brimming with self-confidence, Millennials want positive work that offers more than a chance to earn a living, the professors said. They want attention from their bosses, a workplace with clear rules and a chance to do work that will benefit society. Their desires are so different, that Epstein says smart companies are adjusting their recruiting tactics and work environments to meet the Millennials’ very different needs.

Why are they so different? Part of it may be that they have been raised very differently than the Generation Xers before them.

“The original research comes from William Strauss and Neil Howe,” said Hershatter. “One of the issues they have pointed to is major differences in their upbringing. A lot of the things people perceived as problematic outcomes as the result of how GenXers were raised—latchkey kids, lots of autonomy, plenty of freedom, not a lot of attention to their care and well being—were completely reversed with the Millennials.”

Millennials see themselves as part of the institution and extend that relationship into their lives in ways that GenXers, the generation born between 1961 and 1981, have not.

“It is not unusual for me to get an update from a Millennial graduate that starts with, ‘You would have been so proud of me…’” Hershatter said. “Of course I am proud, but I am additionally struck by the fact that they actually care what I think. I see this as part of a generational desire to maintain a lifelong link with the institutions that have shaped them on a very personal level.”

Over the past year, Epstein has surveyed more than 800 students at Emory and four other institutions, about half of whom are Millennials, the other half GenXers. Among the most striking findings of her survey:
• Nearly 70 percent of Millennials agreed with the statement, “Authority figures should set and enforce rules,” compared to around 40 percent of GenXers.

• Sixty percent of Millennials agreed with the statement, “I trust authority figures to act in my best interest.” Only 40 percent of GenXers agreed.

• Nearly 60 percent of Millennials said they “felt comfortable asking for special treatment,” while only 40 percent of GenXers felt that way.

The biggest difference for employers, professors say, may be that Millennials are looking for work with much more meaning and significance than those who came before them. “Work for work’s sake is not going to cut it,” Hershatter says. “They need to understand what the organization stands for and what their role in it is; they are much less likely to be focused on their next step in terms of career progression, and more likely to care about making a meaningful contribution in their workplace.”

This interest in service appears to be deep-seated, Hershatter said. Millennials have already shown an unusual tendency toward good works. In the past few years, there has been “an unprecedented rate of high school volunteerism, unbelievable achievement in terms of individuals and clubs gathering together to make things happen,” she said. “As a collective, they have already proven to be both socially conscious and very action-oriented, with measurable results.”

Epstein said that on many campuses service sororities and fraternities are extremely popular. “They are growing like gangbusters because this generation has been told their whole lives that they’re special, they’re privileged, and it’s their duty to give back,” Epstein said. “When I tell my fellow GenXers about the growth of service organizations among college kids, they’re very surprised. GenXers were very inwardly focused during our college years, and helping others was not high on our list of priorities. Millennials seem to have a stronger sense of self and confidence. Volunteerism is just one of the many ways they show it.”

Hershatter fears that this group, which has led such a structured life, may have difficulties if they run into situations that are less structured and ambiguous than their life experiences have been so far.

“They don’t do very well in situations of ambiguity,” Hershatter said. “They have been protected and directed since early childhood. The helmets they have worn during every potentially dangerous physical activity are a great symbol of their early years. From ‘nanny-cams’ to after-school programming, to teaching-to-the test curriculums, to early (and binding) college admissions, they have been shielded from unstructured time and unknown outcomes their whole lives. They have not had to be big risk-takers thus far.”

Epstein, who has consulted with major companies on how to adjust their workplaces to make them more Millennial-friendly, said that with Baby Boomers now beginning to retire, employers need to make some adjustments in order to attract and retain the workers they need.

“If [companies] maintain the status quo, Millennials are very likely to up and leave,” Epstein said. “They will leave a job in the first month or months and they have the confidence to do that … because they have very high self-esteem. They also are very confident in their ability to find another job.”

This article is adapted from its first publication in Knowledge@Emory, the electronic newsletter of Goizueta Business School.