Millennials: Understanding the misunderstood generation

Interview with Dan Schawbel, Partner and Research Director at Future Workplace and Author, Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success.

Dan SchawbelAs the 2017 Quality of Life Conference date approaches, we sought out several experts to address some of the key topics that will be discussed during the two-day international event. One of the topics to be explored is the new drivers of engagement in the workplace, and how companies can anticipate and best respond. Dan Schawbel, Partner and Research Director at Future Workplace and Author, Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, provides some insight specifically on Millennials in the workplace.

Can you give us a snapshot of the current Millennial presence in the workplace?

Dan Schawbel: Millennials make up the largest percentage of workforce – as much as 70-90 percent in some industries, such as consulting for example. Whereas in more traditional industries, such as utilities, manufacturing or energy, the percentage is much, much lower. In terms of hierarchy, today, anywhere between 20-35 percent of Millennials are already managers with direct reports but fewer than 5 percent have reached the level of director or above.

There’s a lot of media buzz around “Millennials in the workplace”. In your research have you found any general misconceptions about what millennials value?

D.S.: Over the past two years, my consulting group has conducted more than 6,000 interviews and one thing we’ve found is that Millennials want to work in a physical office space. Contrary to what you may read, the “office” is actually not going to die. Research shows office space is declining per employee but at the same time, people don't only want to work from home.

Today, 35 percent of the American workforce are freelancers, and this is going to continue to rise to 40-50 percent in the next four years. A lot of Millennials don't want the same all-encompassing careers as their parents and some may even struggle to find a fulltime job, so many are seeking out the flexibility of freelancing – which is becoming a lot easier to pull off thanks to connectivity. But moving forward, we’re going to see a new type of workplace diversity. We’ll see more freelancers and full-time workers working in unison.

Is there any advice you can give to employers looking to engage with this younger generation?

D.S.: Yes, I would encourage them to revisit their approach to training. A lot of companies remain so focused on online training and trying to scale training and learning as quickly as possible to as many people globally as possible. But our research shows that only about 10 percent of workers are looking for that – it’s just not how they best learn. Millennials, in particular, want in-person training. They best learn from human interaction and in-person classes with peers around.

There will always be this general hunger for human contact and Millennials thrive in environments that offer meaningful relationships. They view their co-workers as their work family and their managers as their work parents, and they prefer to work in teams.

Have you seen any noticeable changes in the workplace that can be directly attributed to Millennials?

D.S.: We found that Millennials are more open than the older generations to talking about how much they earn and talking more freely about money with their managers – so that salary information is now revealed in the workplace. I think that one of the big mistakes a lot of firms make, is they think that providing flexibility is enough to retain talent. The truth is, if you're not paying your employees fairly, they're not going to stay with you. One of the interesting things we're starting to see is that the younger generation is closing the pay gap – especially between genders – because of this closeness and openness.

You mentioned fair pay as a strong retention practice, are there any other practices that can help employers keep top talent within the company?

D.S.: We often ask employees what qualities they look for in a leader. Two years ago, honesty was the most important quality. This makes sense because the younger generation doesn’t trust politicians, banks, wall street, CEOs, etc. Just think about what most influenced this generation: wars, terrorism, technology – but the biggest one is the recession. The recession connects to their spending habits and to their career choices.

Interestingly enough, this past year, one thing overtook honesty: communication. A leader's ability to communicate effectively and often is only going to become more important. This ties into our research on how the annual performance review is dying. More and more companies, from GE to Adobe are ending their annual review policy. Today, it's more about continuous feedback. In short communication is King.


Read more about Dan Schawbel’s insights into millennials in the workplace in Sodexo’s 2017 Workplace Trends Report.

Sodexo’s 2017 Quality of Life Conference was an opportunity to explore new solutions for tomorrow’s needs. This conference brought together some 50 inspiring speakers that looked at measurable and realistic ways to make progress.