An article published in late 2016 by the IESE Business School forecast that by 2025 75% of the global workforce will be millennials. Academic researchers, consultants, and managers agree that millennials present a unique management challenge. For nearly a century management theory has been grounded in scientific management principles: hierarchical structure, management by objectives, accountability, metrics, and control processes. This 20th-century approach to managing will not work with millennials.
Generations prior to millennials generally trusted the institutions that curated the belief system and culture of their generations: government, schools, churches, authority, big business. There was a shared belief in the inevitability of societal progress and individual achievement. Success had a formula: a college education, marriage, and a family, lifetime employment with a respected employer, and the dominance of western values.
For millennials, these orthodoxies no longer ring true. The foundational institutions have been shattered. Partisan bickering has destroyed confidence in government. Churches were rocked by scandals. Schools are a bureaucratic mess, unable to perform their primary mission successfully. Employers broke the implied social contract with their employees. In the aggressive pursuit of short-term profits, loyal employees became disposable; thousands were laid off. A college degree was no longer a guaranteed ticket to lifelong success.
“Work ethic” was a self-identified distinctive characteristic. But not anymore, and perhaps for good reason. If you can’t trust employers to keep you employed beyond next week why would you be committed to them?
Millennials have a different perspective on work. Work should be a positive experience; it should be fulfilling. Employers should be committed to goals beyond financial return: social justice and sustainability for example. They want to know how they are contributing to the success of the organization and how the organization contributes to the betterment of the world. They need continuous feedback and they expect career progression. They need to be valued as individuals.
Given the existing tight labor market in the US, where there are more open jobs than there are unemployed job seekers, talented millennials are in demand. Out of necessity practitioners are leading the effort to find new and more effective ways to recruit and manage millennials. The contemporary dynamic technology-driven economy demands employees with 21st-century skills. Employers need talented managers who understand millennials and who can effectively manage them.
These trends have important implications for the management education delivered by business schools and for in-house management training and development. Millennials are already the largest single demographic group in the labor force, and as reported above by 2025 they will be well over 50% of employees. Managers must be technology savvy. That means more than understanding the impact of technology on their business. They must meet millennials on their own ground – communicate with them via text or tweet or mobile video – whatever way works best for the millennial employees. They also must be sensitive to the unique expectations of millennials concerning the work environment and how they wish to be managed. Traditional command and control management approaches won’t work. Older managers will need to develop new management skills and management processes.
Rule of thumb: If a college or a corporation is teaching management and leadership the same way as they taught it 5 years ago the curriculum is probably out of date. Millennials are an exceptionally talented generation – but they are different and they demand to be managed differently. The competition for talent is intense. Organizations that demonstrate that they can effectively manage millennials will have a leg-up in the pursuit of the most talented employees.
Bob Boehner is a Principal Lecturer at Saunders College of Business. In his Executive Leadership courses in the Executive MBA curriculum, students gain exposure to the relevant management and strategy topics that impact business leaders. As the workforce evolves rapidly, management must strategically adapt.