Capitalizing on the generation gap with millennials in the workplace

As retiring baby boomers are replaced by millennials in the workplace, CIOs are scrambling to understand this generation's strengths and motivators. They're not what you'd think.

A new generation is entering the workforce, and as it does, IT managers are learning a new way of working with users: adapting to them.

Millennials -- those born after 1981 -- bring with them a new attitude toward life and careers. Considering that approximately 35% of the U.S. workforce is younger than 30 years old, it's crucial that CIOs understand what motivates millennials in the workplace. If they do, they can not only drive worker loyalty and create a successful working environment, but also avoid future staffing shortages.

And there's no time like the present: As millennials replace retiring baby boomers, it's anticipated that in just two years they will constitute almost half the workforce.

"The work-life balance thing is absolutely critical for millennials," said Jessie Newburn, a generational-dynamics expert and president at Stellium Communications in Columbia, Md., a company that helps businesses adapt to an era of social change.

One of the main things behind work-life balance is flexibility. For Jeremy Baumgartner, 29, the transition from college to the workforce hasn't been smooth. He faced poor working conditions in his first job, which he left. "I came in at 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock in the morning, and I was there until three in the morning; and that seemed a little outrageous to me," said Baumgartner, now a systems engineer for SRC Technologies Inc., an IT infrastructure company based in DePere, Wis.

The first half of the millennial generation was raised by baby boomer parents born from approximately 1946 to 1964, Newburn explained. After watching their parents sacrifice their personal lives to their careers, millennials have come to realize they don't want that life. "Family obligations and things like that should always come first. It's the understanding that people have lives," Baumgartner said.

Fewer than 13% of millennial workers want to work on-site a majority of the time, according to an Elance Inc. survey of millennials in the workplace.

Wanted: A family environment

Not only do millennials prize work-life balance for their own family life, they want a "work family" as well. "[Millennials] change the swinging of the pendulum toward loyalty, toward relationships that are meaningful. They want a non-contentious, more family-like environment with employers," Newburn said.

Michelle Wilson concurs. She's an assistant account manager at Columbia, Md.-based Atlantic Risk Management Corp. When asked what would give her the most discontent in her current role, she replied, "Not having the support of my supervisors is No. 1."

For CIOs accustomed to the quirks of Generation X (Gen X) employees -- those born from the early 1960s to the early 1980s -- this is a very different mind-set. "Gen Xers have this massive distrust of organizations, and they are never loyal to a company. They are loyal to the function they were hired to do," Newburn said. "They don't trust employers, institutions and organizations to protect them."

Millennials, on the other hand, expect that a company will help move them toward success. "Millennials don't want be told, 'We had to eliminate your position.' They want to know that even if we eliminate your position, you're still going to get training, you'll still going to work in the company because you're part of us. We'll move you forward toward your success, and you'll be taken care of inside of our world," Newburn said. Millennials entering the workforce expect, on average, to stay 8.9 years at a position, according to a recent study by San Francisco-based consultancy Achievers Inc.

Millennials in the workplace look for balance

Eager young workers find themselves struggling to be taken seriously by both their Gen X and baby boomer counterparts. "It seems to me from time to time that older co-workers are treating me as someone else's nephew hanging around the office," said Taylor Fultz, a 22-year-old quality assurance engineer at Amirsys Inc., a Salt Lake City health care software provider. When Atlantic Risk Management's Wilson, 28, found herself managing a workforce of mostly baby boomer staff, she noticed friction: "I was the same age as their children -- they were not interested in listening to me," she said.

Millennials want a non-contentious, more family-like environment with employers.

Jessie Newburn, president, Stellium Communications

"They [millennials] need employers who understand that they need to be treated differently," Newburn said. CIOs who recognize generational differences will create "opportunity for much more loyalty" from their IT staff, and will guarantee that they will enjoy a "stronger ability to develop employees and develop their careers," she said.

CIOs can take advantage of the loyalty and enthusiasm of millennials in the workplace, as well as the added technological understanding they bring -- but only as long as they acknowledge the generation's need for balance and respect. The results can benefit not only the league of new talent and the CIO but also information technology as a whole.

"They move the conversation and the cultural mood toward the common man, the average Joe and that we're all taken care of. That's part of what they bring back into the workforce and what they bring back into the culture. It's the tenderness that helps remind people that it's not all cutthroat," Newburn said.

"The time is ripe for us -- as a nation, individuals and companies -- to change."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, Site Editor.

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