How to keep a millennial at your company? It ain’t with a ping-pong table


Why do these millennial workers seem unhappy? Are they about to leave your company?

LANSING — They’re accused of being entitled. They’re constantly on their phones. They switch jobs too frequently. They’ve killed everything from golf to department stores to cable.

Now millennials are disrupting American workplaces with their technological savvy and 21st-century value systems, which favor collaboration and work-life flexibility over hierarchy and a 9-to-5 work week.

That’s not a bad thing.

For all their bad press, millennials — the 20- to 30-somethings that have now surpassed baby boomers in number — are the future of work. And companies have a retention problem.

“It’s like with any generational change — you have to adjust and evolve to meet that generation’s needs and desires,” said Wendy Block, senior director of health policy, human resources and business advocacy for the Lansing-based Michigan Chamber of Commerce, herself a Gen Xer.

“In a tight job market, it’s tough to get millennials to stay for the long term, and (companies are) having to take a look at how to incentivize them to stay,” Block said.

“Their value system is slightly different than previous generations. They want a good work-and-life balance. They want a flexible work schedule and they really want to feel valued more than previous generations — meaning they want more openness with management, equality, a sense of purpose.”

Businesses around Michigan seem to have an unquenchable demand to understand this mysterious species.

To that end, the state chamber is in the middle of hosting a three-part webinar series on millennial psychology, from the impact of technology on their lives to the ways slang can impede intergenerational communication, to help human resources professionals and other managers learn ways to mentor, develop — and keep — their best young workers. Block says training programs related to millennials are among the chamber’s most-requested courses.

A Gallup report from 2016 estimated that millennial employees leaving their jobs sends a $30.5 billion annual shock to the U.S. economy in turnover costs.

Here’s the question, though: Is the millennial generation gap really so much wider than past generations that it takes special training to understand them?

Yes and no.

On one hand, the question paints the challenge with a broad brush. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, in part because the millennial generation (also called Generation Y) is simply too big.

The oldest millennials are 37, perhaps married with kids and taking on management roles at work. The youngest are 17, barely old enough to remember a world without the iPhone. Recent college graduates entering the workforce view the world much differently than someone who took his or her first job in the mid- to late-2000s.

(Full disclosure: I’m a millennial, born in the early to mid-1980s solidly after the Generation X window closed but before tech was mainstream. My first cellphone had an antenna. I’ll be forever grateful to have graduated from high school before social media was invented. I’ve never used Snapchat. I love the flexibility of working remotely, yet often find coworking spaces distracting. I spent nearly four years at each of my first two jobs. I don’t expect it’s realistic to assume someone my age will put in 30 years at a single company.)

One thing never changes: People in every generation eventually will have to interact with people younger than them, and young people will have new ideas about how to do things. (Remember when Gen Xers were supposedly a bunch of slackers?)

But the 24/7 flood of information at millennials’ fingertips, and the technological advances that enabled it, seemingly accelerated the chasm between young and old, said Jay Johnson, a 35-year-old board member of the Michigan Junior Chamber and a partner at Livonia-based Coeus Creative Group LLC, which provides training programs related to — you guessed it — the generation gap.

It’s also hard to overstate the impact of the late 2000s recession on how millennial employees perceive work today. Older millennials who graduated from college before or during the recession entered a job market at a time of mass layoffs and buyouts, frozen wages and shredded retirement plans. Some college grads, staring down five or six figures of student loan debt, couldn’t find jobs in their chosen fields or took jobs that didn’t require a degree, perpetuating the image of the barista with a bachelor’s degree. Younger millennials might have experienced their baby boomer parents, who are more likely than their children to have made their careers with a single company, being laid off.

“Here’s one of the common things that’s always asked: ‘It feels like the millennial generation has no loyalty,’” Johnson said. He thinks that’s less because millennials lack a sense of loyalty, and more because they lived through an economy that made it difficult for companies to be loyal to their employees.

“All of that has a psychological impact on the up-and-coming workforce that saw their parents lose some of those benefits that they were promised,” he said. “They come into the workforce with a little bit of skepticism.”

The Michigan Chamber’s webinar series bills itself as a tool to break down those perceived differences. A session this week will explore how the meaning of particular phrases could be misinterpreted — like what millennials hear when boomers and Gen Xers say, “You have to earn it,” and what the older generations hear when millennials say, “The struggle is real,” or “I can’t even.”

Amy Keely, who teaches the webinar series and has a background in sales and marketing, takes the interesting position said millennials as children weren’t taught about hard work the same way older generations were, and they’re less willing to sacrifice free time to work late into the evenings.

When older adults say, “You have to earn it,” Keely said, “in (millennials’) mind, they are working.”

Even using the phrase “managing millennials” could be problematic for the negative connotation it implies — that there’s a problem in the workplace that needs to be managed or controlled, Johnson says, adding: What would it suggest if the word “millennials” was replaced with “women” or some other subgroup?

What millennials want are collaboration and mentoring, he said.

“There’s a fundamental difference between managing somebody and mentoring them,” Johnson said, adding that employers should ask themselves whether the goal is to make the life of the manager easier or to foster better cooperation and results for the organization?

“That simple twist of language really ... makes it appear much more neutral; that it’s a dialogue about understanding those differences.”

He contends the companies that best encourage collaboration are the ones best poised to take advantage of millennial employees’ ideas for innovation.

That comes back to employers knowing their employees well enough to understand what types of things — benefits packages, work culture, flexibility, mentorship and professional development opportunities, the ability to contribute their knowledge of social media, being given challenging work — they can offer to help millennials stay and grow with their company, said Block, of the Michigan Chamber.

“It isn’t the ping-pong table in the breakroom, necessarily. It’s about helping people find that balance,” she said. “If an employer isn’t meeting the millennials’ job culture requirements, they’re going to have a harder time with retention.”

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Drew L.
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 10:35am

In discussing this topic with my friends, it seems that the main driver for people around our age (early- to mid-30s, presumably similar to the author) switching jobs is to gain better income and benefits. Employees right out of college in the tech industry where I live are making $40–60K, but if they stay at the same job for five years they're likely to only be making 10% more money than when they started, whereas if they switch jobs after three to five years they're probably making $60–80K. It's not an issue of loyalty, and it's not always an issue of culture, either. It's an issue of gainful employment.

Granted, this is anecdotal and based on my personal experience.

Paul Jordan
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 10:59am

Gee, how shocking that businesses are having an employee retention problem! Wow, who could have imagined that getting rid of incentives for loyalty (such as pensions) and the security protections afforded by union contracts would have a negative effect? Wasn't increasing the desperation and insecurities of employees supposed to make them happy to have ANY job? Don't they realize that their employers can fire most of them at any time, for any reason, and if they get a negative reference they'll be lucky to work again (and they'll need to work forever if they don't have a pension)?

Why aren't they happy? I just don't understand...

Mon, 08/07/2017 - 11:59am

This made me both laugh and sigh saying "god, it's so true" at the same time.

Company loyalty? You mean they (we) don't feel any loyalty after the companies decided to toss our 80+ year old grandparents under the rug by revoking the GM spousal supports they were promised? Why wouldn't watching your grandmum try to shop for insurance foster a feeling of corporate loyalty? Or watching the entire economy tank just upon graduation? That feeling of desperate scramble should have promoted a want to cling to whatever job one could find forever and ever, even if that was at McDonalds with unpredictable hours, no job security, no benefits, and a work environment that makes you want to gag and then fall over after shift....

Mon, 08/07/2017 - 1:00pm

Spot on, Paul Jordan.

Ken Kolk
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 1:04pm

Wow! Companies can't keep millennials for more than a few years! Who would have guessed that cutting benefits when we went through the "Great Recession" because they cut into the profits might make future employees less loyal. It's not just businesses that are discovering that if you want high quality employees who will be loyal you have to pay competitive salaries, which will clearly steadily increase and stay competitive, and you will have to treat these new employees with respect. Michigan's Public Schools are beginning to find that attacking teachers by labeling then as all being incompetent, cutting state aid so much that even experienced teachers are making poorer salaries than they would get waiting tables, constantly cutting benefits and pensions so taxes can be cut even more results in students who would make great teachers pick a different career. Now, suddenly there is a teacher shortage (it takes four to six years to get through a teacher preparation program). Wake up people, you want "loyal" employees and your kids (and future employees) to have great teachers then treat your millennial employees and our teachers with respect, pay good salaries, at a competitive level with a good chance of future increases, and use benefit packages to encourage that LOYALTY you want. You don't just get it because you have a job to offer them. The "Great Recession" is over!

Mon, 08/07/2017 - 2:01pm

My company is hiring people.....but after several bad experiences, we won't be hiring any more millennials. They are are arrogant, ignorant and without manners, decorum and have no respect for anyone other than themselves. I'll not pay their wage demands without a corresponding reason that they deserve that much. I'll not listen to their constant self agrandizement about how smart they are. Just because they know how to navigate the internet does not warrant my placing them in charge of any project. They are ignorant of history and without moral compasses. I'll not hire anybody who doesn't have knowledge and experience. I'm looking for team players that will contribute their weight to win the game.,....Not somebody that can't show up on time or work an entire day.

Mon, 08/07/2017 - 2:53pm

Wow. You forgot to mention that those neighbor kids better not accidentally toss their football into your lawn unless they want to lose it!

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 4:04pm

"...after several bad experiences, we won't be hiring any more millennials"
Is your company in Michigan? If so, your decision to discriminate against an entire generation based on a few anecdotes could lead to some legal trouble down the line. Although federal law doesn't protect those under 40 from age discrimination, Michigan law doesn't stipulate a minimum age.

John Q. Public
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 6:52pm

Jesse makes a stereotypical remark above, and Nick reminds that stereotypes aren't born in a vacuum.

My experience in hiring over the past ten or so years has been similar to Jesse's, but not completely. In mine, the 22-35 crowd consists of some really outstanding individuals, some enormous duds, and a vast majority that is 'meh': they show enough ability that they're worth keeping around, but not so much that I'm in a big hurry to promote them or put them in charge of anything. Pretty much like the baby boomers before them, and probably the generation that comes after them.

I think this article has been written so many times by so many people precisely because of that: far from oozing from every corner of the state, country or planet, as many would have us believe, "millennial talent" is at a premium so you'd better learn how to keep yours when you get it.

Twas always thus, but now even more.

Mary Fox
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 8:20pm

I just read the millennial responses. They are spot on. Young people aren't stupid. They just don't like being conned.

Robyn Tonkin
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 9:47pm

Our daughter is a Millenial (born in 1980) married to a Gen X-er, I guess (he was born in 1975). They are both much more like my husband and I then they are like other people from their generation. What they like best to do is take their 3 year old son and hike, swim, kayak or camp with him. He was camping when he was a baby in his special camping cradle. They both are internet savvy, but neither is heavily involved with their phone. Their phone is their phone, their computer is their computer and they watch a lot of documentaries on the tv. They make all their food at home, take sack lunches and at 37 and 42, have their pensions (note the plural) nailed down through judicious planning and forethought. They are the nicest people in the world, and are never entitled or rude. They have changed jobs only because they have had to move around and reposition themselves in order to provide for their own retirement and their son's future. They are educated, professionally employed and highly literate. They read books and magazines (real ones) every day. What can I say? Just two wonderful people in a very familiar American vein.

Jim Cupper
Tue, 08/08/2017 - 6:47am

In my opinion, the retention problem is not related to millennials per se. The problem is that companies have absolutely no loyalty to their employees, yet expect their employees to be loyal to the company.

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 2:52pm

You are spot on with this.