Millennial employees are changing the workplace. As the baby boomers make their way towards retirement, the race to attract, engage, and retain the second-largest employee pool has begun – but the game has changed. The recruitment and retention strategies companies have relied on for decades are now largely irrelevant as the needs, wants and expectations of this new generation are very different from their predecessors. When it comes to how to engage and retain millennials in the workplace, you will need a new strategy.

If you treat millennials like older generations of employees, they’ll very likely leave – not because they aren’t capable of hard work, or feel entitled to instant C-level status. It’s because they’re different. If you can recognise those differences and learn to work with them, you’ll have a workforce with wonderful energy and passion, and the tech-savvy skills to use to your advantage.

Millennial employees want career growth and opportunity

Millennials don’t fear change. Quite the opposite. They fear a lack of change. This is the generation that coined the terms YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out). This means that if they don’t believe in what they’re doing, they have few compunctions against walking out the door and finding something that does engage them.

They don’t worry about unemployment (they can always move in with their parents or start their own businesses). They do fear wasting precious time in jobs that don’t allow them to do their best work and pursue what they feel passionate about. Because of this, deciding your organisation’s purpose is a huge opportunity to reach millennial employees, which is why you will find an engaging purpose at the center of strong methods for millennial employee engagement.

By reputation, millennials are the high maintenance ‘want a trophy just for participating’ generation. It’s far from a fair assumption. Growing up in an unreliable economy, millennials understand that low starting salaries and zero job security are inevitable in most cases, and accept them as compromises necessary to follow their dreams.

Gallup’s study of the millennial generation, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, revealed that 6 out of10 millennials are open to different job opportunities, and only 50% plan to be with the same company a year from now. Unsurprisingly, engagement numbers correlate to these statistics: Only 29% of millennials reported feeling engaged at work – 71% were not engaged or were actively disengaged. What makes millennial employee engagement levels so different?

Considering that millennials will make up as much as 75% of the entire U.S. workforce by 2025, it behooves businesses to understand them better.

Fortunately, millennials are one of the most closely documented, studied, and talked about generations ever. Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the documents, studies, and discussions regarding the wide gap between older millennials and younger ones.

Millennials comprise anyone born between 1982 and 2004, a 22-year span. The older segment graduated college in the middle of the recession and watched job opportunities and entire career fields cease to exist before the ink on their final papers had dried.

The youngest millennials are early in their careers and have never known a time without the internet or cell phones small enough to fit in your pocket.

How to engage all millennials in the workplace

A common business mistake is thinking that all millennials are alike, when in fact, there are subsets within the millennial generation that require different ways to feel engaged at work. Here is a cheat sheet of characteristics all millennial employees share, and characteristics specific to the older segment or younger segment of the millennial generation.

Pan-Millennial Employee Characteristics

Why wouldn’t you use social media at work? Millennials don’t understand this. They’re probably using social media at work to do their work, and, they’d argue, do that work faster and better thanks to all of the thought leaders they follow on Twitter.

They understand how to compete. Competition to get into the right preschool, middle school, high school, college, internship, and job – they’ve done it all, and they know that competition only gets fiercer with every year. They are eager and adaptable. Introduce them to new concepts in open environments, such as with an office book club.

They also know how to stand out (and the younger half of the generation may be even better at this than the older segment). The younger millennials take ownership of their public identities in ways the older millennials never had to worry about, which employers can use to their advantage. Millennials are natural marketers because they’ve been marketing themselves since childhood.

Older Millennial Employees – Forged in the Fires of Recession

Older millennials were forged in the fires of recession, and like their Depression-era grandparents, the inability to find work left a big impression. But a very different impression.

Whereas their grandparents valued job security, older millennials have learned that nothing can be counted on and stability is a myth. And they adapted. If there isn’t a job available, they’ll find several part-time jobs or make one up themselves. This segment is making a name for itself by throwing out the rule books and creating their own career paths out of necessity.

They hedge their bets. You’ve heard of the side hustle? According to a study by Bankrate, 45% of millennials earn extra cash on the side compared with 39% of Gen X’ers and only 28% of baby boomers. The side hustle is a millennial thing, but here’s what you should know: They’re not just doing it for extra money. Side hustles are usually something millennials passionately pursue.

They’re entrepreneurial-minded. When you don’t have a job to go to, you invent one. Today, 60% of millennials consider themselves to be entrepreneurs, and 90% recognise entrepreneurship as a mentality. This is great news for employers because entrepreneurs are highly creative and motivated problem-solvers who want to take ownership of their own initiatives. Hire them, and you’ve got the raw materials for a self-managing company.

Younger Millennial Employees – Inextricably Connected

Younger millennials look at a company very closely before applying, interviewing, and accepting a position – but they aren’t looking where you think. They are checking out your ratings on Glassdoor and judging your social media, and the social media of your employees, to see what they’re saying about you. This is a good thing. They’re investigating your company culture to make sure you’re a fit for them (and they’re a fit for you). Considering how much they care about company culture, millennials make a great addition to your employee engagement committee.

What drives millennial employees to leave jobs

A quick search of the headlines suggests that feelings about millennial employees are still ambivalent. Although the millennials and their younger Gen Z cohorts make up almost half the workforce now, the headlines about these two groups still skew negative.

It should be no surprise, then, that millennials are leading the charge in ‘The Great Resignation” and resigning at some of the highest rates of any cohort. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers ‘Pulse of the American Worker’ survey found that millennials were more eager than other generations to make a change, with more than a third saying they planned to look for a new job after the pandemic, compared with about 25% of workers overall.

They’re not just chasing higher salaries, either. Instead, many millennials report leaving their jobs to garner improved mental health, combat employee burnout, and try wholly new careers.

According to a new survey by The Harris Poll, 74% of millennials and 68% of Gen Z are reassessing their lives and goals and often putting less emphasis on money and more emphasis on work-life balance and flexibility.

How to retain millennial employees

Workers of every stripe and generation appreciate having a clear vision from leaders, understanding how their role contributes to the strategy and purpose, having access to the tools and training needed to do the job, and recognition for their efforts.

However, to retain millennial employees, leaders will need to address some of the nuances impacting this group, which means addressing the negative perceptions and subsequent behaviour of their peers. Three steps to take: 

  • End the bias against millennials

It’s past time to identify biases against millennials, and consciously end them. A good place to start – set assumptions firmly aside, and focus on peoples’ contributions, efforts, and outcomes.

  • Cut the gimmicks 

What’s going to drive more lasting success and employee engagement? Bean bag chairs and foosball, or leaders who are focused on employees’ wellbeing, career development, and quality of life?

An article from Fast Company gets to the heart of workers’ priorities:

“The research suggests that companies should invest more in training managers to communicate respectfully and nurture employee well-being, rather than kitting out offices with trendy new accessories. And in the post-COVID-19 era, when many employers are offering the flexibility to work from home, solid communication from superiors will be even more important than having a cool office.”

  • Refocus on the fundamentals of healthy employee engagement

A study by the University of Missouri and Kansas University noted the importance of what we consider employee engagement basics to millennial workers:

“Autonomous respect — acknowledgment by supervisors — and respectful engagement, or a respectful workplace environment, were drivers of job satisfaction, loyalty, and retention and other positive measures.” 

If your organisation has paused its assessment of employee engagement due to the chaos of the last few years, it’s probably time for a checkup. Organisations and their people have changed dramatically and understanding what’s working and what isn’t will help leaders improve morale, motivation, and employee retention – for millennials and their peers.

YOLO and FOMO are very real, and partially explain the millennial tendency to job hop. They don’t want to limit themselves and are more likely to leave jobs in which they feel pigeon-holed. Give them room to grow, support, and provide outlets for them to use their talents, and you’ll keep them longer (and they’ll be happier, more engaged, and more productive).