Millennials Don’t Have Different Needs at Work

A recent Wall Street Journal story revealed that some companies are paying “millennial experts” $20,000 an hour to advise them on employees who are born between 1981 and 1996. The article states that such experts aim to “help companies stem turnover and ensure young employees’ happiness at work.”

Such expensive services are justified by the common assumption that millennial employees are much different in our attitudes and values at work than other, meaning older, employees. Yet, that claim isn’t supported by empirical research.

In fact, studies show precisely the opposite — “targeted organizational interventions addressing generational differences may not be effective.”

Want to save thousands of dollars in millennial expert fees? I have a much cheaper solution—instead of paying other people to distill feedback from your employees for you, encourage ongoing feedback and let employees speak for themselves.

Those who think millennials have a special set of work needs sound as laughable as pundits who claim the cohort is killing entire industries. In both cases, corporate failure to adapt to demands of workers and consumers is magically attributed to the collective identity of 75 million people — large segments of whom happen to be massively in debt, underemployed, and unemployed a decade after the 2008 recession.

What is often left unsaid about millennials’ work lives is that the way companies measure employee performance hasn’t changed in decades. We are still expected to fit our questions, worries, goals, ambitions, and ideas at work into a single annual document, rate ourselves, send it to the “ultimate decider,” and call it a day.

Although some companies are actively re-imagining their work culture — think co-ops, work-life balance, ongoing feedback, transparent compensation practices, decentralized workflows — most organizations still hire outside consultants to understand their staff for them, and to pretend they are engaging their employees once or twice a year.

Given that one in five millennials today lives in poverty, it is clear why this manipulative way of managing organizations is often unaddressed by those in the cohort. First, because most workplaces conveniently don’t have a culture of continuous feedback and second — because fear of becoming unemployed often trumps our desire to speak up.

In other words, happiness in the workplace can’t be attributed to an age range, because it boils down to things all human beings need — communication, transparency, accountability, and fairness.

In the end of the day, companies have two choices: they can hire “millennial experts” and outside firms to tell them why their employees are disengaged for them, or they can simply ask employees for feedback on a regular basis.

The first choice creates a work culture where knowledge is treated as an exclusive insight that exists outside of an organization; the second choice allows employees to own their issues, tasks, and opportunities.

Kicking the can down the road each year may be convenient in the short run, but sooner or later unhappy employees are bound to look for an environment where their perspectives are valued —while others will stay disgruntled for years and even decades to come.

Richard Wolff, an American Marxian economist, traces this and other work-related issues such as sexual harassment to the structure of most companies today. Wolff’s nonprofit, Democracy at Work, “advocates for worker cooperatives and democratic workplaces as a key path to a stronger, democratic economic system.”

“If when you went to work you went into a community run democratically,” says Professor Wolff in one video, “where the people who work are their own bosses working to divide the labor among themselves — everyone holding everyone else accountable — you are not going to have a few people in the position to extort things out of other people…hiring and firing (would be) a collective decision, not one that is concentrated in a few people.”

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I believe this power imbalance — and not our parents, history, or idealism — is at the core of the inter-generational alienation we all experience at work.

Unfortunately, “address your inherently abusive work structure” isn’t much of a sales pitch these days, which is why “thought leaders” in the work motivation industry — the people LinkedIn and Twitter tell you to follow — dance around the issue like Theresa May at a photo op.

In a popular clip about millennials in the workplace, Simon Sinek concludes that it is a company’s responsibility to engage millennials, but not exactly because of the lack of democracy in the workplace.

“I hate to say it, but it’s the company’s responsibility — sucks to be you,” Sinek says. “I wish that society and their parents did a better job. But they didn’t. So we’re getting them in our companies, and we now have to pick up the slack…We have to work extra hard, to figure out the ways to rebuild their confidence. We have to work extra hard to find ways to teach them the social skills they’re missing out on.”

While I agree with Sinek’s conclusion I’d have to disagree with some of his reasoning. It doesn’t suck to be a company executive today — it’s more profitable than ever! And that’s the problem. Also, companies don’t need to pick up the slack, they need to learn how to listen not just to “adults under 40” but to all of their employees.

Blaming workplace unhappiness on society, our parents, technology, and demographics often deflects from the fact that we are not that different when it comes to our work needs. While this finding may not sit well with millennial work consultants whose entire sales pitch is based on conjuring generational work differences, it could motivate organizations to address their employee problems without the help of external age gurus.

In their book The Human Capital Edge, Ira Kay and Bruce Pfau found that “whether one looks across generation, race, or gender employees have generally wanted the same things from work.”

In an article published in Harvard Business Review, Pfau lists four key questions employees ask themselves when deciding how they feel about their workplace (according to the authors’ research):

Is this a winning organization I can be proud of? Employees want to be proud of the organization they work for. They want to work for a successful, high-performing company and for leaders with a blend of competence, integrity and vision.

Can I maximize my performance on the job? Virtually all employees want to be able to do a good job. That means working in an environment that will make the most of their skills and which provides the resources, information, authority and training necessary to perform at their best.

Are people treated well economically and interpersonally? People want to work in an inclusive environment where they are respected, valued and treated fairly. They want their opinions to count, and they want their contributions recognized and rewarded both financially and psychologically.

Is the work itself fulfilling and enjoyable? Everyone wants to enjoy the work they do and the people with whom they work. They also want to derive a sense of meaning and purpose from what they do every day.

These are hard questions to ask which is why many organizations prefer to silo such knowledge or defuse accountability by not even considering it— either because company “leaders” are afraid of their employees’ answers, or because they simply prefer the leverage that comes with organizational ambiguity, despite of its toxicity for majority of workers.

It is up to those who truly welcome diverse opinions, fairness, transparency, and empathy in the workplace to create more sensible work environments.

Those type of leaders will not be afraid of the answers to the questions above, but will find them instrumental in determining their own success as managers, co-workers, and human beings. Such leaders will understand that blaming outside factors only delays difficult employee questions regarding work stress, professional development, financial ambiguity, and meaningful work.

Hopefully, when millennials reach positions of power we won’t abuse it by recreating the Fantasy Workplace game that many of us have played, or by blaming our inability to adapt to the needs of employees on the next generation.

Writer & media maker. Founder of progressivespeaker.com. Essays on tech, media, politics, and propaganda. Bulgarian American. Follow my work at themeltage.com.

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