DU senior offers perspective on millennials in workplace

LONGMONT — The millennial generation has been called every adjective from lazy to entitled to creative to entrepreneurial, but the most important describer of those born between 1980 and 2000 is … diverse.

That’s the message that Longmont Startup Week guest speaker Morgan Smith, study body president and senior at the University of Denver, shared at his discussion of millennials in the workplace.

In a population that has 83.1 million people, even if 90 percent of it falls in-trend with something, that leaves eight million people who are an outlier, which Smith said goes to show that millennials can’t be neatly put into one descriptive box.

But despite a generation that has differences within it — millennial 35-year-olds are very different from millennial 18-year-olds — there are commonalities.

Predominantly, there are two generational drivers amongst millennials: economic anxiety and a value-driven worldview.

Thirty-eight percent of millennials are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree or are underemployed. And 22 percent of those aged from 25 to 32 who don’t have a college degree live in poverty — compared with 7 percent for that age group in 1979. Smith added that the housing crisis means a millennial in Colorado working 40 hours a week 52 weeks a year would have to earn $21 an hour just to afford rent in a two-bedroom home, let alone a mortgage.

“It’s no wonder millennials move into apartments,” Smith added. “For them, their No. 1 factor in job satisfaction is salary.”

Another driver is values: For millennials, there is a desire to participate in small-scale local initiatives, such as volunteering in their community, that can have a ripple effect in world issues. And in the workplace, it’s less important to work at a place that donates to charity than it is to feel that giving back is something that is baked into the business model.

What these commonalities among millennials mean, Smith said, is that the workplace has to adapt to millennials, which makes up 26 percent of the population.

“There is no app for job satisfaction or for relationships,” he said. “We have to adapt what the workplace means to young people to help them develop those skills. Our generation was dealt a bad hand, and we don’t have the same skills. The workplace is the primary area of organization and primary mode of learning.”

More than technology or anything else that might appeal to millennials, the biggest thing an employer can do is provide good management and leadership.

“Your ability to maintain and engage young people is about management and nothing else,” Smith said.

What that means in practice is that employers should implement strategies that take into account employees’ economic anxiety and value-driven worldview. Make clear what the purpose and values of the company are, and make them more than just words written on the wall. Because salary is a big deal to millennials, if they can’t be paid more, provide flexibility in when they come in or leave by setting goal for them to meet rather than time goals for them to meet. Smith added that research shows that employees who feel they have flexibility in schedule perform better and buy into the company more.

“It’s not about giving millennials what they want,” Smith said, “but about making your business better.”

Another strategy is to provide personal development in the workplace. Managers should connect millennials with mentors and coaches and allow for peer-to-peer mentoring.

About 63 percent of millennials feel their leadership skills aren’t being developed, Smith said. But even more alarming is that 70 percent of millennials will leave the workplace in the next two years if their leadership skills aren’t being developed.

Fortunately, there are simple workarounds. Give young employees the chance to lead a team or project. Empower them to coach their peers. Challenge them to develop solutions to problems.

The future of the workplace is uncertain. Working over centuries has shifted from feudalism to mercantilism to industrialism to the modern workplace, and with technology, working is in the midst of another shift.

“There is a shift out of what we know works and are comfortable with into the great unknown,” Smith said. “Luckily, there are smart people leading the way, even if they are entitled.”