Why We’re Looking at Millennials All Wrong

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American labor recently celebrated a return to its lowest unemployment mark since 1969. While positive for the labor force, this also means that supply chain leaders are in intense competition for historically scarce talent. In our recent Team of Tomorrow survey, 82% of supply chain leaders were somewhat or very concerned about the ability to attract top talent, 75% about talent retention, and 76% on succession planning and leadership development.

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A sizable piece of this talent conversation revolves around what to do about millennials and on whether they’re ready to take the reins in the future. Most public discourse would suggest that they’re a constant source of tension for most organizations: millennials are a locus for the innovation and digital-savviness required to compete in today’s world … but also demand too much too quickly, aren’t loyal, and refuse to follow the example set by generations before them.

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At least that’s what people seem to think. It certainly rang true in the millennial-themed breakout discussion I ran at this spring’s Live Americas forum.

However, I think we’re missing something important. I think this characterization is wrong, or at least misguided. Here’s why:

Early-wave millennials first started entering the workforce in earnest just around 2008, also known as the Great Recession. Since 2008, however, there hasn’t been a single year where unemployment didn’t improve year over year. Labor has enjoyed a 10-year economic expansion.

What does this mean? Better bargaining power for labor — and worse bargaining power for employers — that has increased steadily for a decade. Those “negative traits” associated with millennials are actually consequences of a healthy economy: labor can now demand higher pay and title internally, or go to a hungry employment market to find it elsewhere. Why should employees be loyal to a company and its time-gated raise and promotion schedule when they can get a 15% pay increase somewhere else right away?

But this isn’t just true for millennials; it’s true for all employees at the same time (even near-retirees to an extent). While it’s unarguable that young people always change jobs at a higher rate than older employees, the increasing rate of job separations tracks consistently between age groups and has gone up across the board since 2008. Are millennials uniquely disloyal, though?

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How about that — it turns out that millennials are actually the most loyal generation in the workforce if you compare their rate of job separations to previous generations when they were the same age. (Student debt, a millennial phenomenon, plays a large role here). For an even wilder comparison, millennials today are leaving jobs at just around the same rate as mid-career baby boomers in 2000. Yes, they’re leaving jobs more than their older colleagues right now (and at an increasing rate!), but to see this as a millennial issue is missing the forest for the trees.

So far, I’ve only taken a purely economic lilt; there are plenty of cultural and societal shifts also planted in this sprawling forest. All demographics increasingly demand things like better corporate social and environmental responsibility, more flexible work arrangements, and tech-enabled workplaces to mirror the ease-of-use of their consumer products at home. Not only are economic forces against us, our employees also demand wholly new ways to work and belong that are often incongruous with the old. No wonder this is a top priority for supply chain professionals!

This is why I believe that viewing talent strategies through a millennial lens is misguided; it doesn’t appreciate the secular shifts in our economy and society that change the demands and needs of all employees. Assuming certain things are millennial-only phenomena runs the risk of devaluing their importance for attracting and retaining talent at all ages.

I propose a different lens for our talent strategies instead — one that asks the following three questions:

 

  1. What is true for young employees in particular?
  1. What, due to cultural/societal/economic shifts, is becoming true for all employees? 
  1. Are there certain things that are unique to this new generation?

 

Answering these three questions should help us avoid wasting resources on millennial-specific talent engagement strategies that miss the broader shifts affecting our whole workforces. Let’s instead use our time, focus, and money on factors that would help all of our talent join, stay, and succeed.

Now that we’ve sorted this out, it’s time to get ready for a new batch of unfounded stereotypes about next year’s newcomers, Generation Z. Expect a sequel to this post in 10 years.

 

 

Charlie Sellars is Director of Global Chief Supply Chain Officer Programs for SCM World, A Gartner Community.

Author Charlie Sellars

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