Engaging Millennials

by Hal Morgan
June 2016

Why we should care about engaging Millennials

We’ve reached a tipping point where Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000 and currently aged between 16 and 36) are the largest age segment in the North American workforce. In a few more years, as Baby Boomers exit the workforce through retirement, Millennials will be the majority of our workers—in many organizations they already are. And with Millennials now such an important part of our workforce, we should be concerned that, as a group, they have the highest turnover rates and the lowest level of engagement of all the generational segments.

Turnover: Millennials are networked, know how to find new jobs, and don’t hesitate to make a change if a better opportunity is presented. Twenty-one percent of Millennials have changed jobs within the last year—more than three times the rate for non-Millennials. Sixty percent of Millennials are open to changing jobs, compared to forty-five percent for non-Millennials (Gallup). If we want to get a return from our investment in recruiting and training younger workers, we should look for ways to help them learn and grow within our organizations.

Engagement: Engagement levels are low for all workers, but they are the lowest of all among Millennials. Organizations need the creativity, skills, efficiency, and dedication of Millennials in order to thrive. Younger workers come to the workforce with high hopes and aspirations, and with very real skills. They also come with expectations—that their skills and talents will be valued and used, that they will be able to lead satisfying lives at and outside of work, and that their ideas will be listened to and taken seriously. When they encounter rigid and inefficient work practices, inflexible managers, and a closed ear to their voices, their enthusiasm for work can be squelched. And that is what’s happening to many Millennials today.

(Gallup. 2016)

“Many Millennials likely don’t want to switch jobs, but their companies are not giving them compelling reasons to stay. When they see what appears to be a better opportunity, they have every incentive to take it. While Millennials can come across as wanting more and more, the reality is that they just want a job that feels worthwhile—and they will keep looking until they find it.” Gallup. How Millennials Want to Work and Live. 2016.

By listening to, understanding, and responding to the needs of Millennials, we can improve our organizations for everyone, building productivity, nurturing innovation, and strengthening the bottom line. The changes we make to engage Millennials at work turn out to raise engagement among workers of all ages.

The trap of over-generalizing
As we consider the needs and behaviors of younger workers, we must take care to avoid over-generalizing and stereotyping. It’s true that younger workers tend to have different expectations of and attitudes toward work than do their older colleagues, but this has always been the case. Older and younger workers adapt to and learn from each other and their work lives are enriched by that process—generation after generation. This newest generation of workers is the largest and most diverse in history. So it’s particular unfair to make sweeping statements about Millennials. And it can be damaging if those generalizations and stereotypes impact our views and expectations of individuals.

In this paper we cite data on differences between workers of different ages in their expectations of and attitudes toward work. It’s important to note that the differences are not huge, and are based on large samples of employees. So while, on average, younger workers are less engaged at work than their older colleagues and tend to place a higher value on flexibility and work-life integration, that data is based on population surveys and shouldn’t be used to understand individual employees. In your workplace, you’ll find highly engaged, work-centric Millennials and disengaged Baby Boomers.

The information here is offered to help you understand trends and large-scale shifts that are occurring in the workplace, so that you can take steps to engage the Millennials in your organization—and by doing so strengthen engagement and improve the productivity of your entire workforce.

“Even high-performing young professionals acknowledge the harsh economic realities they’ve seen and the stress they experience. Many in the United States continue to bear the burden of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. . . They have also observed firsthand the weakening of the social contract as . . . companies cut costs or closed doors, leaving committed workers and their families financially vulnerable. This has understandably influenced their decisions to join or leave companies and sharpened their desire to find meaning and purpose in the chaos of the world in which they’ve grown up.” Joanna Barsh, Lauren Brown, and Kayvan Kian. McKinsey Quarterly. February 2016.

Who Millennials are
Millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000, currently aged between 16 and 36:

  • Grew up with computers and the Internet and tend to be early adopters of new technology
  • Observed their parents deal with diminishing job security, often with financial hardship when jobs were eliminated
  • Have found their own experience of work profoundly affected by the Great Recession that began in 2008
  • Often carry a high burden of student loan debt
  • Are the most diverse generation in history, breaking down “hard” lines of race, ethnicity, and gender

What do Millennials want from work and life? How can we engage them at work?

Make work meaningful
Millennials are highly motivated and work hard—when they see the purpose of their work and believe the work to be valuable. Of course all work is valuable. Customers buy our products and services because they deliver value, and all jobs in an organization contribute in some way to that value. But that’s easier to see in some roles than in others, and in general is clearer as you move higher up in an organization. Millennials tend to be in lower-level jobs because of their age and relative inexperience, so managers and supervisors need to make an extra effort to connect the individual’s work to the organization’s purpose. When that happens, and younger workers see that their contributions are meaningful, it fuels their intrinsic motivation and they will go the extra mile for you.

That said, Millennials are highly attuned to opportunities to improve work efficiency, especially with appropriate use of technology. No one, at any age, enjoys doing low-value work—work that is repetitive, inefficient, and adds little value to the organization. Millennials, in particular, will be driven away by work they see as making poor use of their time and skills. The good news is that most Millennials don’t hesitate to suggest better ways of doing the work. (“Why don’t you use track changes instead of printing the document and marking it in hard copy?”) It’s up to the rest of us to listen and respond.

Keep them learning
Millennials are engaged by learning and opportunities for growth on the job. Both factors are highly correlated with engagement for this age group and, when missing, with the likelihood of moving to another job. Eighty percent of Millennials believe they need to continuously improve their professional skills and capabilities to remain competitive in the workplace and to continue adding value to the organization (Deal and Levenson. p. 150). They look for jobs and organizations that provide opportunities for growth and that encourage and support ongoing learning. Millennials are highly sensitive both to stagnation—plateaus where the work continues but learning ends—and to overload or other time pressures that prevent personal development.

To engage and keep Millennials, managers need to be aware of their younger employees’ aspirations for growth, and find creative ways to provide those opportunities. Those might include assignments to cross-functional project teams, even before they are ready to be full contributors, adding variety to work assignments, or simply sending the message that a set amount of time at work is expected to be used for skill-enhancement training. Millennials are comfortable with online learning tools and many are skilled at finding valuable micro-trainings (short-duration learning tools for specific skills). They just need the time and the permission to use them.

Coach and mentor
Employees of all ages want coaches, not bosses. We want autonomy to do our work well, and managers who provide guidance and help clear obstacles when needed. Millennials are especially sensitive to both good and bad management. Consider the quality of your organization’s line managers and supervisors, and the training provided to them. How confident are you that younger workers’ first experience of your organization will be under the leadership of a motivating manager? One who sets clear expectations, delegates effectively, takes the time to meet regularly with direct reports, listens well, and serves as a coach and mentor? Hats off to you if your organization has mastered this. Most haven’t. Take one basic measure: Gallup found that more than half of all employees meet with their managers less often that once a month. An organization’s lowest-level managers tend not to be its best. It’s the norm for people to move into their first management role with no or minimal training. And it’s the Millennials who bear the brunt of that lapse.

Younger workers need and appreciate mentors, too, in order to learn and grow. Creating a culture of mentorship, where those with knowledge and experience are generous about sharing and teaching, is a big part of building a work environment that engages Millennials. And mentorship isn’t all about older workers teaching younger workers. Two-directional mentorship is even better—finding opportunities for younger workers share their special expertise with older workers—about mobile technology and social media, for example, and about communication to reach a broad audience. Consider the networking opportunities and tools in your organization, and think about how to use them to make mentoring connections.

Provide recognition and ongoing feedback
As constant learners, Millennials want to know how they are doing—constantly, in real time. The old model of the annual performance review, with little feedback and coaching in between, just doesn’t cut it with younger workers, nor is it an effective approach for workers of any age. An organization’s goals and direction can change over the course of a year as new market opportunities arise, and we need employees who are responsive to those changes and who regularly contribute new ideas. To motivate for that behavior, we need to provide frequent recognition for actions that go above and beyond the job description, and managers and colleagues need to get comfortable with providing constructive feedback in the moment, while the work is in process. While some older workers dread and avoid feedback—perhaps from experience with unpleasant surprises in annual reviews—younger workers tend to crave and appreciate it.

“These young people have a greater expectation than previous generations had that they’ll be supported and appreciated, and financial rewards don’t always fill the bill. We’ve found that Millennials tend to be looking for something instead of or in addition to money—rewards that will benefit them in life- or career-enhancing ways.” Bob Moritz, U.S. chairman and senior partner, PwC. Harvard Business Review. November 2014.

Small wins at work—incremental progress toward important goals—are hugely motivating, and effective recognition of those small wins serves to enhance their motivational effect.

Enable work-life integration
Baby Boomers pushed for concessions to work-life balance when they began having children, and Gen Xers experienced first-hand how meager that early progress was. While older workers tend to be grateful for a little flexibility in how and where work is done, Millennials expect much more. They want to work hard and have fulfilling work lives, but they also want to have rich and rewarding lives outside of work. And they know that the technology is available to enable better work-life integration.

“Millennials are willing to and do work long hours, but they don’t believe that spending a lot of time in the office indicates they are working hard. Only 1 in 20 believes that how long people spend in the office reflects how productive they are.” Jennifer Deal, generational expert

When Millennials encounter old-school values and practices—rewards for face time rather than work product and a closed mind to more flexibility in how and where work is done—they start looking for other opportunities.

To win the hearts and focus of Millennials—and older workers too—demonstrate an understanding that work isn’t the sole focus of life and that each employee has unique priorities outside of work. That priority might be family responsibilities, continuing education, friendships, or simply fun. Be creative in considering new approaches to getting the work done to enable these outside passions, and to measuring productivity.

Be cool
Everyone wants to work for an organization they are proud of, and “coolness” is a factor in that, especially for younger workers. While coolness is almost impossible to measure, employees recognize it and put stock in it as they weigh where to work and what organizations are worth their full engagement.

One telling sign is the adoption of effective current technology. Older workers are comfortable communicating and getting information through PCs and laptops. Younger workers tend to use their mobile devices. In marketing to customers we pay close attention to how they receive information. We should be doing the same with our younger employees, enabling mobile access to work tools.

Authenticity is another aspect of coolness. All workers are sensitive to messages from leadership that ring false, but younger workers are hyper-attuned to signs of authenticity. They want to work for leaders who are honest, whose values are aligned with their own, and who respect the individuality and unique strengths and differences of all employees.

Millennials aren’t really so different

Reviewing the six themes presented here for engaging Millennials, two messages stand out:

  1. We would all, younger and older, prefer to work in organizations that take genuine steps to make these improvements. At some level, these are fundamental values that drive engagement for all employees. The ability and willingness of younger workers to “vote with their feet” when they are frustrated and disappointed by a job or an organization may serve as the catalyst that pushes us to make some basic changes.
  2. Some of these changes are hard, and will require work—training managers, putting communication into hyper-drive, rethinking how and when work is done—but some are easy. As with all change, progress will be made a step at time, and starts with making the decision that the end goal really matters. We do need Millennials in our workforce. We need them to be engaged and enthusiastic about their work for us. And we need them to keep learning and growing to help lead our organizations into the future.
“If you look at what their underlying needs and aspirations are, there’s no difference at all between this new generation of workers and my generation and my father’s generation. Every single human being wants the same thing in the workplace—we want to be treated with respect, we want to have a sense of meaning and agency and impact, and we want our boss to just leave us alone so we can get our work done.” Lazlo Bock, Google human resources (quoted in The New York Times, May 26, 2016)


Joanna Barsh, Lauren Brown, and Kayvan Kian. “Millennials: Burden, Blessing, or Both?” McKinsey Quarterly. February 2016.

Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson. What Millennials Want from Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today’s Workforce. McGraw Hill Education. New York. 2016.

Gallup. How Millennials Want to Work and Live. 2016.

Farhad Manjoo. “Companies in Pursuit of a Mythical Millennial.” The New York Times. May 26, 2016.

Bob Moritz. “How I Did It. . . The U.S. Chairman of PwC on Keeping Millennials Engaged.” Harvard Business Review. November 2014.

Rodd Wagner. Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees as if They Are Real People. McGraw Hill Education. New York. 2015.

Copyright © 2016 Hal Morgan.