What do Millennials Really Want at Work?
Jennifer Williamson
Jennifer Williamson
Senior Vice President,
Corporate Communications
Sodexo North America

UnknownThey’re coming, they’re coming—and no matter how you refer to those born between 1980 and 1992, they are about to descend on the American workforce in droves. 86 million Millennials or 40% of the entire working population will pour into the workplace by 2020 according to a recent article in Forbes magazine. With the economy making a steady recovery and increasing numbers of Baby Boomers retiring, organizations need to focus their efforts on engaging the next generation of talent, and it may not be as hard as you think.

My Traditionalist parents instilled a very strong work ethic in me. When my peers and I entered the workforce as Generation Xers, we focused on working hard, gaining experience, adding value, remaining loyal, building authority and eventually earning our place at the senior leadership table.   But generally speaking Millennials have a different set of expectations on what professional success looks like and rather than discount them, we need to figure out ways to work with them.

The Millennial Generation, also known as Generation Y or lovingly referred to as Generation Me by author Jean Twenge, Ph. D, spans the ages of early 20s to early 30s and like every generation before them, Millennials are the young guns intent on reshaping how and where business gets done. While this might strike fear in the hearts of previous generations, especially Gen X, it also represents an opportunity to reconsider what drives all employees, regardless of their generation:

  • Who’s the Boss?—Remember that bumper sticker popular in the early 1990s that said Question Authority? Millennials don’t perceive leadership as a responsibility earned over time and with experience. Instead, they’ve grown up believing their opinions or ideas matter, regardless of how much knowledge or understanding they have. And they are very comfortable questioning authority. While at first this may seem disrespectful, what it really indicates is that Millennials are eager to engage and aren’t afraid or intimidated to offer their perspectives.
  • A Career with PurposeI’ve heard Millennials described as “working to live” which insinuates they aren’t invested in their organization or career trajectory. In fact, I believe it’s just the opposite. Gen Y is acutely aware of what they want out of work—they want to advance their career and succeed while working for an organization they believe in. They want to feel like they are contributing to something bigger than the bottom line, working on projects that have a higher purpose and making a positive contribution to society. It may appear too lofty, but it also signifies passion, drive, commitment and determination—all traits of top-performing employees.
  • Wherever Whenever Work CultureMillennials are technology natives and have grown up always being connected. Their personal and professional lives are highly integrated and because of that they don’t feel compelled to work a set schedule or adhere to a rigid structure. However, they are accustomed to being accessible 24/7. They are multi-taskers and value speed over perfection. They will get the work done, but it will be on their own schedule. In essence, Millennials want flexibility—but they aren’t the only ones! A recent study by EY (formally Ernst & Young) found that so does everyone else. In fact, Gen X cited flexibility as the most important non-cash benefit with 38% saying they would walk away from a position that didn’t offer flexibility. The takeaway? Flexibility is a motivator for all generations.

There is no question Gen Y will transform the workplace. They bring optimism, confidence, sensitivity and an awareness of the world and their place in it. Organizations focused on meeting long-term growth demands will need to adapt their thinking and implement the necessary cultural changes to accommodate employee expectations. By capitalizing on the unique contributions and strengths of this generation, we’ll create a better workplace and workforce for all generations.

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