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Leadership Now

Why Everyone Is Wrong About Working With Millennials

Millennials aren't as lazy and entitled as they're made out to be. Why everyone needs to adapt to the workforce of the future.

[Image via Unsplash | Dietmar Becker]

There appears to be a prevalent sentiment among some business decision makers that millennials—soon to be the largest workforce in history—lack a strong work ethic and require too much flexibility in the workplace. And many end up blaming higher education for these perceived issues. Are colleges and universities to blame for inadequately preparing millennials to succeed in the 21st-century economy?

We decided to bring these questions to an audience of CEOs, senior executives, and public sector officials at Bloomberg’s recent The Year Ahead: 2014 conference. Armed with initial findings from a comprehensive study on millennial preparedness commissioned by Bentley University and conducted by KRC Research, we set out to explore the disconnect in perceptions between generations and identify solutions.

First, the definition of "preparedness" in today’s working world is different than it was for Baby Boomer or Gen Xers. Being prepared for work, or possessing a range of professional skills that allows one to succeed in their first job, while also laying the foundation for lifelong success, speaks to using both sides of the brain, combining critical thinking with creativity and collaboration, to effectively meet the needs of the workplace. Preparedness in today’s context also requires strong communication skills and digital literacy, as well as an understanding of how to work with previous generations.

Sixty-three percent of business decision makers and 68% of corporate recruiters say that it’s difficult to manage millennials.

As we see from other research studies, more than 50% of business leaders say that millennials lack the professional skill sets needed for even entry-level positions. True or not, the sad reality is that many business professionals do believe that recent college graduates are not adequately prepared to succeed in the workplace.

For educators, this perception means they need to reassess their curriculum. For business leaders it means recognizing that future competitiveness depends on embracing the talent of the millennial generation. Together, we can find a way to ensure we are delivering a return on investment to graduates, all the while improving our businesses and strengthening the economy.

Seventy four percent of non-millennials agree that recent graduates offer unique skills that add value to the workplace.

From our experience in both academia and the workplace, we see a different face of the millennial generation than the persona often described—one that can greatly improve business productivity. College students and graduates are more passionate than ever before. They are innovative, collaborative, and results-oriented. Contrary to popular belief, they do possess a strong work ethic, albeit one that is defined differently. Millennials care very much about the end goal, but less about the path they take to get there, and they dislike the red tape to which businesses often adhere.

Seventy-four percent of non-millennials believe that businesses must partner with colleges and universities to provide curriculums that properly prepare students for today’s workforce.

So how can we close the preparedness gap? One solution: higher education and businesses collaborate to better meet the needs of today’s workforce.

Businesses must realize the importance of adapting to millennial employees in order to leverage the advanced, forward-thinking ideas that they can provide. For example at PayScale we employ a great deal of millennials, and we have noticed the importance of giving frequent feedback to employees and receiving it back from them. After all, millennials have been used to receiving feedback throughout their lives from parents and teachers. While they may be adept at using technology, they still need to learn how to express themselves appropriately through the many tools available. It’s our responsibility as managers to teach them this so they can communicate more effectively with their colleagues of all ages.

Meanwhile, leaders in higher education need to fully integrate professional skill-building that reflects the marketplace, along with the holistic benefits of an arts and sciences education—this is the approach we take at Bentley. Colleges need to also focus on building their career service offerings, provide hands-on training through internships, and consider the importance of corporate immersion courses in developing future leaders. They must ground their curriculum in real-world experience so millennials are prepared for lifelong learning beyond campus gates.

In turn, millennials must adapt as well. They’ve grown up in an accelerated, on-demand world and often expect everyone around them to be working on the same fast track. Their aspirational views can be seen as entitled and their agility can be misunderstood as overconfidence. The onus is on all of us—including millennials—to work harder to understand each other and adapt to different work styles.

Ultimately, our economic, social, and cultural future lies in the hands of the millennial generation. We must work together to unleash their full potential to ensure we remain a competitive, innovative, and vibrant society.

Gloria Larson is president of Bentley University, and Mike Metzger is CEO and president of PayScale.