Millennials in the workforce: What they want, and how to manage them

By Michael Zimmerman


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It could have been Socrates who said, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

It could have been, but it wasn’t. Historians and Greek scholars have abandoned search of the ancient texts, concluding that the quote is likely spurious. Credit goes, at this point, to Gijsbert van Hall, the Mayor of Amsterdam, who asserted that the demonstrators of the 1960s acted fundamentally as youth had always acted — with disrespect.

And so it goes, today, were we to believe most baby boomers. “The millennials” are lazy; they act entitled; they disrespect their elders; they seek attention and chase indulgence; they live in the moment.

Our parents spurned the hippies, just as their parents spurned the “greasers.” It’s easy to spurn a label. But what’s behind the label “millennials?” And how much difference really exists between the workforce generations?

The millennials are here to stay

The length of a “generation” has long been up for grabs, particularly in workforce sociology, and the terms “boomers,” “Gen X” and “millennials” are not recognized by the Department of Labor and Statistics. However, many experts accept the definition put forth by Pew Research, which defines baby boomers as persons born between 1946 and 1964, Generation X as born between 1965 and 1980, and millennials as born after 1981 (Pew Research Center). To provide historical landmarks, that means baby boomers were born (roughly) between World War II and the Beatles Invasion, Gen X (roughly) between Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery and the U.S. boycott of the Russian Olympics, and millennials after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.

A Pew Research analysis of the 2015 U.S. workforce population (approximately 155 million persons) shows millennials comprising 35 percent of the workforce, Gen X 34 percent, boomers 29 percent and the silent generation (pre-boomer) 2 percent. This is particularly significant because only five years earlier, boomers and GenX dominated the workforce and millennials were just coming of age, at about 25 percent of the workforce.

By contrast, boomers are predicted to drop to 22 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2020 as more of them reach retirement age (Simon, What Motivates Baby Boomers at Work?), while the percent of GenX employees remains relatively stable (Simon, What Motivates Generation X at Work?). Some sources have predicted an even faster workforce population decline for boomers in other countries, estimating them at a mere 6 percent of the global workforce by 2020 (Manpower Group).

In addition to becoming the largest generational demographic for the foreseeable future, millennials are expected to surpass boomers in total income by 2015, and eclipse Gen X by 2020 (Clegg). This gives them tremendous financial power.

Anxiety and stress between the generations

This resulting shift in generational influence — if not control — has caused anxiety among some boomers, and workplace anxiety can lead to undue stress and ultimately low productivity. Rebecca Knight, writing for the Harvard Business Review, urges us to be aware of “generational tension,” which she defines as a lack of respect between colleagues from different generations. Particularly as millennials rise to prominence, more boomers and Gen Xers will find themselves being managed by younger coworkers, leading the older workers to wonder why they should follow someone with less experience (and leaving their younger bosses unsure how to handle their newfound authority). Dana Wilke, online editor for the Society for Human Resource Management, encourages younger managers to recognize older employees’ natural expectations to be seen as individuals, and to develop meaningful relationships with their coworkers. While younger managers may be content to manage through email, boomers value conversation (Wilkie).

labor force by generation

And because individuals tend to carry major historical events with them, throughout the human experience, younger employees may have challenges understanding the actions of their older coworkers, because they lack the context. How can someone who grew up in a period of relative affluence, for example, fully understand the decision-making process of a child of the Great Depression?

The workstyles of each generation may also lead to conflict, as Wilkie points out. Older workers are less comfortable being asked to multitask, thinking an interruption is likely to lead to loss of concentration and shoddy work product (Wilkie).

Then again, some workplace conflicts that appear to be generational may simply be due to differences in personalities. People who are fond of saying, “we tried that before and it didn’t work,” or “but this is how we’ve always done it” may simply be risk-averse or fearful of change. Yet, because both of those comments are more likely to be made by employees with tenure, younger coworkers may label the dismissive attitude a generational issue, instead of a personality issue.

And of course, many workplace conflicts result from frustration over who’s in control. As technology makes it possible for employees to do their jobs remotely, younger workers expect greater flexibility with their working arrangements. But their managers may have valid reasons why the community aspects of the workplace outweigh the need for individual freedom. And because the managers are more likely to be of an older generation, the employees assume the conflict over work hours to be a generational issue. (Alec Levenson)

EY: Do actual work skills differ among the generations?

In 2013, EY released results of a study involving more than 1,200 professionals across three generations, from boomers to millennials. Participants, split evenly between managers and non-managers, were asked to rate associates’ work skills as they impact the ability to manage effectively.

Seventy-five percent of managers identified managing multi-generational teams as a challenge, citing differing work expectations among generations and a lack of comfort with younger employees managing older employees as primary drivers. The group also identified perceived differences between generational work groups, including these (Ernst & Young LLP):

  • Millennials: Not surprisingly, millennials received the highest scores for being “tech savvy” (78 percent agreed). They were also viewed as “enthusiastic” (68 percent agree) and “productive” (58 percent agree), but scored lower on being a “team player” (45 percent agree), showing “adaptability” (41 percent agree), and being “hardworking” (39 percent agree), “collaborative” (27 percent agree) or “entrepreneurial” (29 percent agree Conversely, they also led in three out of four negative traits measured, including being “entitled” (68 percent)
  • Gen X: Gen Xers received top ratings for several management skills, including being a “revenue generator” (58 percent agree), “problem-solving” (57 percent agree), being “collaborative” (53 percent agree) and showing “adaptability” (49 percent agree). Most impressively, seven in 10 respondents said Gen X managers were best equipped to manage teams effectively overall, compared to boomers (25 percent agree) and Gen Y (5 percent agree). However, Gen Xers trailed boomers in displaying executive presence (28 percent agree vs. 66 percent agree) and being cost-effective (34 percent agree vs. 59 percent agree).
  • Boomers: Characteristically, boomers scored highest as being “hardworking” (73 percent agree) and “productive” (69 percent agree). They also received high scores for being a “team player” (56 percent), and being “essential for others’ development” (55 percent agree). Boomers also edged out Gen X as the “best” generation to “manage in challenging times” (48 percent vs. 44 percent). Though strong performers in most areas, boomers were not seen as particularly collaborative (20 percent agree) or adaptable (10 percent agree). Boomers also received the lowest scores for “flexibility” (21 percent agree) and “inclusive” leadership (16 percent agree).
  • On issues of inclusion and diversity. The younger generations showed significant skills at inclusion and diversity, with millennials edging out Gen Xers at pursuing diversity, or the ability to build culturally competent teams and to not discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, etc. (69 percent agree vs. 68 percent agree) and boomers pulling in at a mere 12 percent agree.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Many members of the silent generation were content simply to have a job. Boomers were more likely to scale the corporate ladder, regardless of sacrifice. Gen Xers, having watched their parents lose their careers and often retirement benefits, were skeptical of the corporate structure and began the entrepreneurial movement. And millennials’ career aspirations are unsurprisingly driven towards technology.

Worldwide, millennials want to work for organizations that align with their personal values, and are specifically disinterested in working in the oil and gas or financial services sectors, solely because of their image (Bank of America / Merrill Lynch).

Millennials also want to make an impact on their world. According to a 2016 study from the National Society of High School Scholars, the top 10 impact areas, as ranked by more than 13,000 high school students, college students and young professionals, were education (46 percent), health (32 percent), social justice (29 percent), environment/energy (29 percent), poverty/hunger (28 percent), science/technology/innovation (25 percent), violence prevention (25 percent), world peace (18 percent), economic growth (17 percent) and public safety (15 percent) (Susan Thurman)

Well, ‘you can’t always get what you want’

Unfortunately, young people entering the workforce seldom get to work for their most preferred employer; rather, it’s a matter of what jobs are available in their chosen geographies. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show millennials aren’t getting jobs in the fields they want, in part because the jobs just aren’t there. The three most desired employers among millennials, for example, are Google, Apple, and Facebook (Universum Global). But not even those giants of technology have space for the millennial tsunami.

Education and healthcare (both preferred occupations among recent graduates, if given the opportunity) have seen a decline in millennial employment, with 76 percent of the available jobs being held on to by Gen Xers and boomers.

Other jobs go unfilled, because millennials won’t take them. Reporting for NPR, Yu Sun Chin noted, “The insurance industry has a lot of open positions, and it’s scrambling to fill them. It’s targeting millennials, but many simply don’t consider insurance as a potential career — or think it’s boring. A recent survey from The Hartford showed that just 4 percent of millennials interviewed were interested in insurance as a career (Chin).” Similarly, construction, which is projected to add 790,400 jobs by 2024 (United States Department of Labor), is viewed as low-tech and too menial.

According to SHRM, even the federal government is struggling to attract young workers, despite a record percentage of workers planning retirement within the next five years, as young graduates express concerns over red tape, limited opportunities for career advancement, and high expectations of boredom (Bates).

The same survey referenced by Chin also cited other industries facing recruiting challenges based on low appeal to millennial candidates, including construction, retail and manufacturing (7 percent), insurance (4 percent), and wholesaling and utilities (3 percent) (The Hartford).

Together, the lack of “desirable” jobs, and the millennials’ aversion to “less desirable” jobs has created a perfect storm in the workforce. And so, young workers end up where they least want to be… retail trade, and leisure and hospitality. In fact, the percentage of millennials in the retail trade is five points higher than that of Gen Xers (14 percent vs. 9 percent), and the percentage of millennials in the leisure and hospitality sector is more than double the corresponding percentage of Gen Xers (13 percent vs. 6 percent) (United States Department of Labor).

Managing across the generation

Effective management in a multigenerational workplace requires a high emotional IQ. It requires reaching across generational divides, building coalitions among unlikely peer groups, tearing down stereotypes, and a great deal of empathy. Thankfully, the pool of respected resources is growing as we all learn together.

The following table provides a starting point for understanding each generation. But keep in mind, these are only generalizations. Each person, like each situation, is unique.


Keys to Understanding and Motivating Each Generation
Silent Generation Motivators: Money, respect, recognition (SHRM)


Preferred recognition style: Subtle, personalized recognition and feedback (SHRM)


Welcomed benefits: long-term care insurance, catch-up retirement funding (SHRM)


Additional thoughts:

·       Consider pension plans and retiree health care, flexible work schedules, and symbolic awards (Simon, What Motivates Traditionalists at Work?)

Baby boomers


Motivators: Money, flexible retirement planning, peer recognition (SHRM)


Preferred recognition style: Acknowledgement of their input and expertise; prestigious job titles, parking places, large offices (SHRM)


Welcomed benefits: 401(k) matching funds, sabbaticals, catch-up retirement funding (SHRM)


Additional thoughts:

·       Boomers are often ambitious about personal and company goals. They are relationship-driven and prefer on-site, traditional office environments that promote teamwork. Provide infrequent, formal feedback. Remember that they often base their personal identities on their work lives. (Simon, What Motivates Baby Boomers at Work?)

Gen X


Motivators: Bonuses, stock options, workplace flexibility (SHRM)


Preferred recognition style: Informal, rapid and public recognition (SHRM)


Welcomed benefits: Telecommuting and tuition reimbursement (SHRM)


Additional thoughts:

·       These employees consider “long hours” and “paying dues” outdated concepts. Their job security comes from a strong resume and continual self-improvement. They generally prefer autonomy and may display tremendous drive and ambition. They dislike being micro-managed and typically want to work independently. They think in terms of organizational impact and seek recognition from senior leaders. And they expect flexible schedules and engaging cultures from their employers. (Simon, What Motivates Generation X at Work?)

Millennials (Gen Y)


Motivators: Stock options, regular feedback (SHRM)


Preferred recognition style: Informal communication through company chat or social networks (SHRM)


Welcomed benefits: Flexible schedules, continued learning opportunities (SHRM)
Additional thoughts:

·       63 percent say their leadership skills are not being fully developed and 87 percent believe that a business’s success should be measured based on not just financial performance, but contribution to society. 70 percent believe their personal values should be shared by their employer. (Deloitte)

·       Millennials are much more likely to embrace nontraditional benefits and work/life balance than baby boomers. (Miller)

·       Millennials want to be mentored and coached. (Scott)

·       They are focused on collaboration. They want to share a sense of purpose with their teammates and work together on meaningful projects. And they are tech-savvy and appreciate opportunities to showcase their proficiency by contributing to technological solutions that support innovation (Simon, What Motivates Generation Y at Work?)


A few closing tips for thriving as a multigenerational manager

Beyond working with individual employees, it’s important to manage company-wide issues as well. To that end, we’ll leave you with a few organizational suggestions we’ve uncovered. Some will seem obvious, and some may be new. Our sincere hope is that every manager who reads this paper benefits in some way, applying this research and adding to the growing understanding we all share.

  • Try experimenting with mixed-age teams, and consider reverse-mentoring programs that enable experienced workers to learn from their younger peers (Knight)
  • Tailor your incentive plans to reflect where your employees are in their lives (Knight)
  • Field periodic surveys to monitor your employees’ demographics and needs (Knight)
  • Open your internships and apprenticeships to workers of all ages (Lori A. Trawinski)
  • Develop a program to assist workers re-entering the workforce after a long absence (Lori A. Trawinski)
  • Encourage open discussions that explore intergenerational differences to improve teamwork (Lori A. Trawinski)
  • Actively recruit talent across all ages to build a diverse and experienced workforce (Lori A. Trawinski)
  • Think more about life stages and individual career goals than about generations (Alec Levenson)
  • Leverage your organization’s early adopters of technology, regardless of age or experience (Alec Levenson)
  • Rather than forcing one generation to adopt another’s values or work styles, help each generation understand the other’s needs and language (Scott)


  • Avoid generation-based employee affinity groups; they tend to reinforce stereotypes (Knight)
  • Be wary of top-down management; instead, forge partnerships with employees of different ages and encourage them to share their opinions (Knight)
  • Never assume you know how to motivate employees who are older or younger than yourself; instead, ask them what they want from their professional lives (Knight)


Alec Levenson, Jennifer J. Deal. “Generational Conflict at Work: Separating Fact from Fiction.” SHRM Foundation. Alexandria, n.d. Web. 9 December 2016. <>.

Bank of America / Merrill Lynch. Generation Next – Millennials. Financial Investment Primer. New York: Bank of America / Merrill Lynch, 2015. PDF. 18 December 2016. <>.

Bates, Steve. Government Struggles to Attract Young Workers. 16 November 2016. Web. 9 December 2016. <>.

Chin, Yu Sun. “Insurance Industry Is Hiring, But Millenials Don’t Seem To Be Interested.” 15 March 2016. NPR. Transcript. 25 October 2016. <>.

Clegg, Jasper. 17 Incredible Charts that Show Why the Millennial Generation is Unlike Any Other. 23 May 2015. Web page. 17 December 2017. <>.

Deloitte. “The 2016 Deloitte Millenial Survey: Winning over the next generation of leaders.” Survey Findings. 2016. Report. 21 October 2016. <>.

Ernst & Young LLP. “Younger managers rise in the ranks: survey quantifies management shift and reveals challenges, preferred workplace perks, and perceived generational strengths and weaknesses.” EY News. New York: Ernst & Young LLP, 3 September 2013. Press Release. 18 December 2016. <>.

Lori A. Trawinski, Ph.D., CFP. Leveraging The Value of an Age-Diverse Workforce. Executive Briefing. Alexandria: SHRM Foundation, n.d. Web. 9 December 2016. <>.

Manpower Group. “Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision.” Survey Findings. 2016. Report. 25 October 2016. <>.

Miller, Stephen. At Open Enrollment, Millennials Value Financial Security and Workplace Flexibility. 12 October 2016. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

Newman, Cara. Boomers to Millennials: Generational Attitudes. 2014. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

Pew Research Center. The Generations Defined. 5 March 2014. Web. 27 October 2016. <>.

—. “U.S. Labor Force by Generation, 1995-2015.” Millennials Surpass Gen Xers as the Largest Generation in U.S. Labor Force. 11 May 2015. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

Scott, Adriana. Millennials’ Comfort with Technology Key to Company Growth. 17 June 2013. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

SHRM. Motivating Generations Infographic. n.d. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

Simon, Kara. What Motivates Baby boomers at Work? 24 March 2016. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

—. What Motivates Generation X at Work? 31 March 2016. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

—. What Motivates Generation Y at Work? 5 April 2016. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

—. What Motivates Generation Z at Work? 28 April 2016. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

—. What Motivates Traditionalists at Work? 10 March 2016. Web. 12 December 2016. <>.

Susan Thurman, Ph.D. NSHSS Scholar 2016 Millennial Career Survey Results. Survey Findings. Atlanta, GA: The National Society of High School Scholars, 2016. Web. 25 October 2016. <>.

The Hartford. “The Hartford’s 2015 Millennial Leadership Survey.” Survey Findings. 2015. Web. 25 October 2016. <>.

United States Department of Labor. “Employment Projections: 2014-24 Summary.” 8 Decmber 2015. Bureau of Labor Statistics. News Release. 25 October 2016. <>.

—. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey: Demographics. Current Population Survey Findings. Washington DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016. Web. 27 October 2016. <>.

Universum Global. “United States of America’s Most Attractive Employers – Trends and Rankings.” 2016. Universum Global. PDF – Slide Deck. 18 December 2016. <>.

Wilkie, Dana. Collision Course: The Multigenerational Workforce. 19 February 2014. Web. 9 December 2016. <>.

Legitimate differences between generations

While there is growing hesitation among employers to stereotype workplace generations, not all stereotypes are without basis. For example, Kara Simon of Maritz Motivation Solutions points out that “gamers” make up one percent of the U.S. workforce but will grow to 7 percent in the next four years (Simon, What Motivates Generation Z at Work?, 2016). Digital games could not have existed before the millennials, so the presence of “gamers” in the workforce is clearly a generational issue. Ironically, boomers are perplexed by gamers, despite the fact that electric pinball games, which received flippers in 1947, were a dominant pastime of the baby-boom generation. (The difference, of course, is that boomers couldn’t bring their pinball machines to work, and many employers are already experimenting with digital “gamification” as a training tool for millennials.)

Cara Newman, editor of Young Money, highlights several generational differences that may be useful to employers seeking to understand and manage a multigenerational workforce; here are just a few (Newman, 2014):

  • Boomers are more likely to trust themselves than to trust institutions; Gen Xers have a low level of trust for authority; and millennials are comfortable trusting institutions, though not necessarily the individuals in power.
  • Boomers chased prestigious titles and corner offices; Gen Xers prefer freedom from obligations; and millennials seek meaningful work.
  • Boomers grew up with controlling parents; Gen Xers’ parents were distant; and millennials’ parents were intruding.
  • Boomers tended to plan their families; Gen Xers put off marriage and were more likely to choose not to have children; and millennials often value their marriages and parenthood more highly than their careers or their personal success.
  • Boomers were often indulged as children; Gen Xers were more likely to be alienated as children; and millennials were protected as children.
  • Boomers often sought to attack oppression; Gen Xers tended to be more apathetic and focused on the individual; and millennials crave community and connection.
  • Boomers wanted to know, “What does it all mean?” Gen Xers need to know, “How does this work?” and millennials are curious to know, “How do we build it ourselves?”