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What Is a Millennial?

The generation of workers born roughly between 1977 and 1995, known as millennials or Generation Y, represents the biggest shift in the U.S. workforce since the baby boomers came of age. Eighty-million strong, they will soon account for the majority of American workers, especially as boomers start to retire.

But it's not just their vast numbers that make
millennials important to the labor market. Workplace experts say they're
unlike previous generations, and that's forcing a cultural shift on
companies and managers. According to Stan Smith, a national director for human
resources at accounting giant Deloitte, millennials are team-oriented, eager to
tackle huge challenges, and quite particular about their leaders. "They
won't do something just because you say, 'I'm the
manager,'" Smith says. "On the other hand, they'll
work hard for someone who truly mentors them."

Why Millennials Matter Now

Look closely at the population figures in the box above.
There are more millennials than baby boomers, and there are more than 50
more millennials than Generation Xers. If that makes you wonder
where all these kids are going to find jobs, think again. We’re on
the brink of a pronounced talent shortage as the baby boom generation nears
retirement. (According to the Conference Board,
64 million skilled workers will be eligible to hang up their gloves by the end
of this decade.) In the coming years, both Gen Xers and millennials will be
called upon to help fill the big shoes left by exiting boomers.

The effects of this imminent brain drain already are
apparent across the labor spectrum. California police departments now host boot
camps for 12-year-olds in the hopes of grooming future officers, while Deloitte
is publishing books and launching interactive websites in attempts to woo high-school-age millennials. Despite the current recession, college recruiters and HR staffs talk about the “seller’s
market” that companies face. Until recently, many millennials
collected multiple job offers before making decisions, and experts see the trend returning when the economy perks up. One Manhattan-based national
consulting firm has even sworn off “exploding” job offers,
those that squeeze applicants with tight deadlines to either accept or decline
a position.

Why Millennials Matter to You

Sure, you’re going to need millennials simply to
put butts in seats. But these workers are also change agents who may force you
to rethink and improve your methods of recruiting, training, and management —
the lifeblood elements of your company. They’re accustomed to working
away from their desks, using everything from library computers to smartphones
and laptops. They got intense and individualized mentoring from teachers
and coaches, and they were never told that their elders should intimidate them.
“The world is a flat hierarchy to these kids,” says Peter
Johnson, director of admissions at the University of California at Berkeley’s
Haas School of Business. “Whether you think it’s a good or
bad thing doesn’t really matter. It’s a market condition.”

Many companies have realized they need to change with the
times: UPS has begun to abandon its training manuals for hands-on learning in staged
neighborhoods; Deloitte empowers its middle managers to offer flexible
scheduling to their team members, and Google bypasses corporate hierarchy by
making its brightest new millennials managers and granting them direct access
to the company’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Millennials’ Strong Points

According to Lynne Lancaster, a consultant on generational
issues in the workplace, millennials were the first generation to grow up with
soccer moms, doting dads, and trophies for participation. All that adult
attention gave them confidence and a knack for following directions. In
addition, says Lancaster, many millennials’ lives have been heavily
scheduled since childhood, so they understand achievement and heavy workloads.
And growing up with PCs has contributed to their comfort with technology and
social networking. “There definitely are the speed processors among
them,” says David Morrison, who runs Twentysomething, a consulting
and marketing firm focusing on young adults. “They’re quick
learners and quick to put together information. In that way, they’re
an incredible asset to any team.”

Millennials are nicknamed Generation Why for a reason.
Experts say they're like living, breathing
search engines, asking question after question. This gives company mentors a huge opportunity to shape
millennials’ workplace beliefs and attitudes. These days, mentoring
programs can be found everywhere from Fortune 500 firms to the basic-training
barracks of the U.S. Army.

Millennials also are motivated by work they find
meaningful. For some, that means the chance to give back through a
company-sponsored charity. For others, it’s finding value in the
daily work you give them. “Philanthropy doesn’t resonate
with me,” says 24-year-old Dan Siroker, an associate product manager
at Google. “What motivates me is working on products that I think
help people’s lives.”

Millennials’ Weak Spots

Perhaps you’ve heard tales of their unreasonable
demands (“I’m not working overtime!”) and
disarming gumption (“Can I have a word with the CEO?”). The
cliches do contain grains of truth. As children who grew up hearing about the
entrepreneurial heroics of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, millennials may be quick
to leave your company for what they think is a better opportunity —
it doesn’t even matter that these are belt-tightening times. “In
the last few years, I’ve definitely noticed a surge of young
entrepreneurs — we’ve lost a couple of great employees,”
says Zaw Thet, CEO of 4Info, a Silicon Valley-based text messaging company that
does work for MTV and NBC. “It might sound surprising, but retaining
people has become harder.”

Here’s another surprise: While millennials are
talented text messagers — they tap out up to eight times more monthly
mobile-phone messages than baby boomers — they’re not all
technology wizards. “We’re advising companies to perform
technological assessments as part of their new-employee orientation,”
Lancaster says. “Young new hires might be phenomenal on a cell phone
but not as great on a computer.”

How to Talk About Millennials

Terms associated with millennials:

Helicopter Parent: Parents who hover over their millennial
offspring. Acting on the notion that they know best and can help their children
make decisions, Helicopter Parents hope to prevent their kids from making

Black Hawk: A Helicopter Parent who goes to
unethical lengths to help his/her child. A dad who helps write his kid’s
college application essay is a Black Hawk.

Trophy Children: Children driven to succeed in part
to please their parents’ need for elevated status and bragging

Boomeranging: The act of children moving back into
their parents’ homes after graduating from college. Parents often
welcome their millennial children back into the house. The children are sorely
missed and get the opportunity to squirrel away money for a down payment on a
house or to start a business.

Additional Resources

Rising: The Next Great Generation
by Bill Strauss and Neil Howe.
Published in 2000, this was the first broad profile of the generation.

href="">When Generations Collide by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman. Solutions to workplace clashes based on
generational differences.

href="">Managing the Generation
by Bruce Tulgan. A step-by-step guide to adjusting your
communication and management styles for a wide span of generations.

PBS’s “ href="">Generation Next”
webpage. Informed by the network’s documentaries on Millennials, the
site offers a compilation of audio and video clips, as well as profiles and
news stories.

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