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

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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