Defending Gen Y: Why Millennials Mean Business

Pretty young business woman using mobile phone outdoor
Pretty young business woman using mobile phone outdoor

I'm on a mission to debunk misconceptions about one of the most maligned generations ever to enter the workforce: Gen Y, or the "Millennials." Roughly ages 18 to 30, Gen Y has been deemed everything from narcissistic to entitled -- and I'm being polite. Their motivations and work styles have been dissected, inspected and sometimes rejected by the media and their elders. But if you can break through the generational banter, you'll find Millennials aren't so different from any generation of young people.

Why am I on the soapbox? I oversee the recruitment of around 6,000 college students for Ernst & Young in the U.S. every year. I mentor this generation every day and join my organization in believing in their leadership potential. We know they're the future of our business, so we choose to focus on how we can help them be successful -- and I think you should, too.

Know the difference: Generational trait vs. life stage

In 2025, 75 percent of the workforce will be Gen Y, according to the Business and Professional Women's Foundation. If you don't begin to understand and adapt to this generation, in a few years your business will be in a very difficult spot.

The good news is a lot of discussion about Gen Y has been said about youth since time immemorial. It's common sense: people without spouses, established careers, children, houses or other middle age accoutrements often have different priorities.

But according to recent research by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), Millennials are, for instance, just as loyal to their organizations as anyone in their 20s has ever been. When they reach their 30s and take on more responsibilities, they settle down and change jobs less. This research also shows Gen Y is actually more inclined to listen to authority than Gen X or Boomers.

There's also a perception that Gen Y doesn't want to work hard -- that they'd rather spend time backpacking or starring in their own reality shows. While they do feel a full life outside work is important, the CCL found that desire is shared with Gen X and has more to do with life stage than generational traits.

Managing Millennials to benefit your business

Regardless of your personal opinions, making it your business to learn how to leverage Gen Y's strengths is good business. Here are some lessons we've learned along the way.

1. Adapt your communication style -- get social.

Gen Y is digitally literate and constantly connected, so your company must be too -- but genuinely. Your Facebook page and Twitter accounts can't just push messages out. Gen Y expects an authentic, two-way connection.

This means you must respond -- fast --to Facebook posts and tweets to your organization's social media channels. We've actively engaged in online conversations through our Ernst & Young Careers Facebook page since 2006 and just reached 100,000 "likes." Through Facebook we've fostered relationships with potential recruits and have found that giving up a bit of control and living with posts that aren't perfect actually make our online presence more credible. To get social you must be flexible.

2. Give them a cause. Be transparent.

We've all seen Gen Y launch movements around causes and start-ups they love. This generation is motivated by purpose and when you give them something great to believe in, they're pros at rallying support. Businesses should leverage this energy to get Gen Y on board with their mission and goals.

As individuals, Millennials perform better when they understand how their work fits into the big picture. A strategy+business magazine article that expands on the CCL research sums it up well -- Gen Y is as motivated as any other generation, just not by boring work. Who is? So when assigning important but mundane tasks that may be part of an entry-level job, explain how those duties contribute to their career and the business overall. When people understand how their work fits into the larger picture, that work becomes more meaningful and valuable.

3. Provide new opportunities -- from the very beginning.

We're finding Gen Y is bringing and demanding more international experience. We gathered 2,300 interns for our annual leadership conference in August -- nearly 90 percent had traveled outside their home country and 35 percent studied abroad. I love seeing these numbers climb and getting more questions about international opportunities when I'm on campus. Cross-cultural fluency is increasingly important, which is why organizations with international teams should encourage their people to develop a global mindset from day one. Select interns can even participate in our mobility initiatives through our Global Student Experience program, which assigns them to work in one of over 140 countries where we have a presence.

4. Offer on-the-job coaching.

Colleges don't provide a class on your company culture, so offer Gen Y hires a crash course on day one via peer counseling and on-the-job coaching. For example, we assign each new hire a peer mentor to communicate the unspoken workplace essentials. No one will walk through the door knowing everything, so give new employees a safe space to ask questions to help accelerate their success.

When Millennials become the majority

More than half of our people are Gen Y, so we know the strength, passion and drive they bring to our firm. For almost a decade, as Gen Y has continued to represent more of our workforce, we have been taking meaningful action to engage and retain these future leaders. My suggestions for those earlier in the process: incorporate the best of what Gen Y has to offer -- digital literacy, passion and a global mindset --into your culture. As for the rest? Remember, it wasn't too long ago when Gen Xers were "slackers" and Boomers were "hippies." We're all young once.