Authored by Duncan Field, Manager, Research & Executive Projects

Public perception of millennials is often negative. We have vague notions of entitlement, narcissism, and laziness. As we continue our discussion on inter-generational dynamics in our organizations, we need to address these notions, which have taken on a mythological affect. How do we challenge these ideas, and how much truth do they contain? Most importantly, how do these ideas impact our organizations and our ability to develop leaders?

The Mercenary Generation

The idea of loyalty, and most importantly disloyalty, plagues millennials across Canada and the western world. In a charity context, there is much concern not only about loyalty of employees, but also donors. From most available metrics, it appears that millennials are less loyal to our organizations. Even more troubling for religious organizations is the generational difference in how individuals relate to religion or religious causes. Pew Research shows that millennials are less likely to identify as religious and are less likely to hold religion as an important part of their lives, even if they identify with spirituality in similar numbers as their elders. An Abila report holds that this affects patterns of giving, meaning that millennials on average are giving less to religious organizations and charities than previous generations. This is paradigmatic of a more general shift from institutional or organizational loyalty to a focus on causes. No longer are young adults primarily motivated by connections to institutions, especially religious institutions, but rather they’re motivated by a cause or purpose.

This distinction is at the heart of the perception of millennials as disloyal. In both charitable giving and in employment, the connection to institutions is diminishing. Supposing a relative stable job market, millennials are drawn to work that furthers a cause they care about. This could help explain some of the figures provided by Millennials at Work, a 2011 PWC report, which appears daunting to potential employers:

  • 54% of respondents expect to work for 2-5 employers in their career
  • Over a quarter of respondents expect to work for 6 or more employers throughout their career

This data seems non-committal. Developing effective employees takes an investment of time, resources, and effort. Developing effective leaders requires even more of the same. Yet the generational attitudes of potential employees and leaders may make us hesitant to invest those resources. High turnover means high recruitment and training costs. This is especially true if  your organization takes the time to invest in the professional development of employees, whether through formal education,certifications, or other means. These are commitments from the employer that have budgetary implications. We need to be good stewards, so how do we navigate an uncertain pool of applicants and employees? As we continue to see more and more millennials take leadership roles in our organizations, how should you reconcile your ideas of leadership development with these facts?

Consider the time-frame in which the millennial generation came into the spotlight. Some of the oldest millennials were just getting settled in the workforce during the 2008 financial crisis. The recession meant layoffs, austerity in the workplace, and magnified competition in the job market. Where education was an asset in previous generations, it is now a requirement, made even more burdensome by the comparatively higher costs of tuition and educational materials. This appears to have had an obvious effect on millennial attitudes towards loyalty. We have seen not only our parents affected by economic recession, but our own opportunities dramatically reduced during a formative period of our lives. The effect has lead to widespread belief that millennials will be the first generation in recent memory to be worse off than their parents by retirement. Whether true or not, economic recession can help explain millennials’ distinct view of organizational loyalty, especially when their transition into the workforce came at a time when the loyalty of others did little to shield them from layoffs.

This should not be a completely foreign concept for workers of older generations. The concept of a one organization career has not been widely adopted in recent memory. While millennials may have a demonstrably higher rate of turnover, the underlying concept is something that is shared with previous generations.

In our context, as we explore the loyalty of millennials, how have our organizations treated the younger part of the workforce? We can decry the mercenary habits of millennials at large, but what is our reputation from a potential employee’s perspective?

A Seat at the Table

Across almost every study on millennial work attitudes, you will see a variation of the following:

One of the most important deciding factors for millennial job seekers is the opportunity for leadership and career development.

This is something that is shared between millennials and previous generations, but it’s placement as the deciding factor (52% according to PWC) can inform your own recruitment and development strategies. While the data shows that millennials are more willing to leave an organization than their predecessors, the reason for that attitude is not primarily financial. Millennials are generally ambitious, and often expect to progress quickly within their organizations. This expectation is often at odds with what is reasonable, but illustrates the point that millennials want a seat at the table.

According to a 2016 Deloitte study, the millennial employees most likely to leave an employer are more likely to hold the following beliefs:

  • I’m being overlooked for potential leadership positions;
  • My leadership skills are not being fully developed

While this approach has the possibility to reflect the potentially unrealistic expectations of millennials, it’s clear that there are many potential causes for turnover. Successfully recruiting and retaining millennial talent will require transparent development and communication. Are you allowing millennials the opportunity to give input on high level decisions? How often do you allow younger workers a seat at the table, even if they are contributing above their current ability? Whether rightly or wrongly, the millennial generation wants and expects to be mentored, developed, and included. So how should you respond? One clear option exists, as research shows that mentorship correlates with a millennial’s willingness to stay with an organization – The greater the opportunity for mentorship, the greater the likelihood of employee retention.

Shown in this way, the wants and needs of millennials are not much different than those of Gen Xers or those who came before. We all want the opportunity to develop not only our expertise, but also our leadership abilities. The differences really occur in the realm of expectations. What may have satisfied Gen X may not translate to the majority of millennial workers. This could be in part to millennial entitlement, but it could also be the result of a changing work and job market, as needs change as the workplace changes . Either way, our time is best spent discussing common solutions that help address these differences.

In order to alleviate some concerns about leadership development, employers should:

  • Maintain transparent communication with young workers about opportunities for development, and give appropriate feedback that allows workers to adapt and meet expectations;
  • Include young workers in leadership decisions or discussions, including occasional opportunities for which they might not otherwise be qualified. This allows you to gauge their abilities and ambition, but also allow the worker to stretch themselves and see the bigger picture;
  • Discuss the development goals of your millennial workers, and work together to manage those expectations and track progress, as appropriate;
  • Mentor those who show interest in developing and growing in your organization.

For millennial workers, there are similar actions that can help the situation from the other end:

  • Communicate your leadership development wishes and expectations;
  • Be willing to make a compromise or adapt your expectations to what is realistic in the organization and the current range of opportunities;
  • Be transparent about your satisfaction with current opportunities, and allow for employers to respond. Things are not likely to change if you feel stunted but say nothing;
  • Don’t take opportunities for granted. If you are given a leadership opportunity, take full advantage and be thankful – entitlement is a sure way to limit future opportunities, regardless of your performance.

The common factor for both parties is communication and compromise. Both employer and employee need to be willing to adapt and provide input to the other so that both sides have the information they need to make good decisions, which often result in a change of circumstances, not a change of job.

Are Millennials Less Loyal?

After attempting to explore some of the facts and contextual clues, the question remains – are millennials loyal? As with most things, the answer is “It depends”.

It depends on how we define loyalty. From an organizational perspective, it appears that millennials are less loyal in the traditional sense. The data certainly suggests that millennials are demonstrably more willing to leave a job than previous generations. If we’re talking about unqualified, one-sided loyalty, then the answer must be yes – millennials are less loyal.

But if we look at the motivations of millennial workers, is it honest to claim disloyalty when a generation feels as if they are not being given a fair chance to develop? If millennials did feel that they were being adequately considered for leadership positions, and if they did feel as if they were being adequately developed as leaders, would their willingness to leave remain the same? This is a difficult question to answer on many levels.

Perhaps you’ve come to the conclusion that generational expectations and norms don’t align with your definition of loyalty. Consider that millennials are loyal in a different sense – They are loyal to the causes they care about. They identify with causes and the narratives that surround them, which actually makes them more willing to interact with the organizations that further those causes. This means that they are more likely to engage with your organization online, more likely to get involved in a discussion, and more likely to promote your cause on social media. They want to be involved, and they want assurance that their contribution, whether time, money, or influence, is having an effect on the world. Organizations would benefit from leveraging that enthusiasm, not only as a means of connecting with clients and donors, but recruiting and retaining younger talent.

In this context if a worker feels that their time and expertise is better utilized at a different organization, it is possible or even likely that the employee feels that they are being loyal. The trouble for organizations is that this concept of loyalty exists outside of institutional boundaries.

From loyalty to mission fulfillment

You can settle for a negative view of millennial loyalty, but I think that attitude does a disservice not only to potential employees, but also to your mission. On a practical level there’s a need to adapt to the workforce as it changes. If millennials are driven by causes and the ability to contribute, then organizations need to figure out how to integrate those factors. How effectively is your organization telling the story of how you satisfy a need? To what extent are you allowing young leaders to take risks and develop? How willing are you to take the risk of investing in someone that society says is more likely to leave? This leads us to a catch 22, where we’re hesitant to take chances on potentially disloyal employees, but that very hesitance is what helps inspire the disloyalty itself.

The idea of loyalty, or disloyalty, is large and overwhelming and forms the basis of many negative opinions of millennials. Yet when we reduce the situation to its most basic principles the actions we can all take to improve the working relationship aren’t especially onerous.

Employers should:

  • Provide guidance and mentoring for young employees
  • Clearly communicate opportunities for development, and areas of conflict between employee and employer expectations
  • Include young employees in opportunities where they can learn from others, even if this occasionally means allowing them to operate beyond current responsibilities
  • Encourage professional development of employees
  • Be willing to take a chance on young employees

Millennials should:

  • Be receptive to guidance, instruction, and mentorship from leaders within the organization
  • Communicate their expectations, concerns, and positive feedback about current opportunities
  • Be willing to compromise, and adjust development and other expectations to what is fair and appropriate
  • Attempt to salvage the situation before choosing to leave – work environments are far more flexible when both sides are willing to communicate and compromise

Communicating and compromising go a long way towards a well-adjusted workplace for both employer and employee – regardless of demographics. With millennials, it is more important than ever to be transparent about the possibility for development and progression in the workplace, as well as how effectively your organization furthers a particular cause.

Even by adopting this method, and sincerely investing in young workers, it’s possible to experience turnover of millennial workers higher than expected, as there is always the risk that people will leave. This risk-principle holds true for millennials as well – even if millennials communicate and come to the job willing to compromise and adapt, it’s possible that they might not be given a fair opportunity to develop. The only thing we can control is our particular approach and actions, and hope that they other side responds in kind. We will all have hits and misses. It’s tempting to focus on the misses, which are easily measured in time lost, money spent, or resources used, but missing opportunities to hire game-changing millennial workers has its own cost – a cost that can also be measured in dollars and mission fulfillment.

Successfully fulfilling our mission, both now and in the future, requires that both sides approach the workplace with a healthy attitude. Navigating the modern workplace and workforce is a requirement for all of our organizations and careers. Both sides have much to benefit, but the biggest benefit is felt by the people and causes we serve. On that we can all agree.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *