How Millennials Will Change the World of Work

Corporate America isn’t prepared yet to deal with this generation’s demands as consumers and employees.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
May 29, 2014, 6:20 a.m.

Just 11 years from now, by the year 2025, mil­len­ni­als are ex­pec­ted to make up as much as 75 per­cent of the Amer­ic­an work­force. As mem­bers of this gen­er­a­tion starts to dom­in­ate cu­bicles and corner of­fices, they’ll drastic­ally shift the way the busi­nesses woo con­sumers, treat em­ploy­ees, and mar­ket them­selves to the out­side world.

Yet, cor­por­a­tions are not yet pre­pared to deal with the on­slaught of their de­mands, ac­cord­ing to a new study from the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, nor are they mov­ing fast enough to re­tain and at­tract mil­len­ni­al work­ers and cus­tom­ers. “All is we’re say­ing is: ‘Hey, look out,’ ” says Mor­ley Wino­grad, one of the study’s au­thors, who is a seni­or fel­low at the Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia’s Annen­berg Cen­ter on Com­mu­nic­a­tion and Lead­er­ship Policy.

Already, the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion dis­rup­ted the mu­sic in­dustry by re­fus­ing to pay for CDs or en­tire al­bums. They helped to elect the coun­try’s first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent in 2008, much to the sur­prise of the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment. Now, they’re push­ing to make over parts of the food in­dustry by pre­fer­ring to vis­it fast-food cas­u­al res­taur­ants like Chi­potle, sweet­green, and Pan­era Bread in­stead of Bur­ger King or Mc­Don­ald’s. This is just the be­gin­ning of the changes mil­len­ni­als will spur polit­ic­ally and eco­nom­ic­ally, Wino­grad says, as they look to sup­port com­pan­ies and in­sti­tu­tions that they be­lieve pro­mote good over profits. “Mil­len­ni­als as work­ers and con­sumers want the idea of so­cial causes car­ried in­to the mar­ket­place and the work­place. Not too many com­pan­ies have figured that out,” he says.

Oth­er sur­pris­ing data points from the Brook­ings study:

  • St. Jude Chil­dren’s Re­search Hos­pit­al topped one list of in­sti­tu­tions or com­pan­ies where mil­len­ni­als would most like to work, fol­lowed by the State De­part­ment (at No. 12) and the NSA (at No. 17). The FBI and CIA also made the list of ideal em­ploy­ers along with Google, Apple, Face­book, and Amazon — prov­ing that, apart from high-tech, mil­len­ni­als want to work for places they be­lieve help to shape the world.
  • Mil­len­ni­al con­sumers take an equally al­tru­ist­ic at­ti­tude when it comes to their pur­chas­ing power. An over­whelm­ing num­ber of those sur­veyed in 2013 in­dic­ated they were more likely to buy products from com­pan­ies in­volved in so­cial causes. At­trib­utes they want re­flec­ted in their pur­chases and the com­pan­ies they fin­an­cially sup­port in­clude kind­ness, em­pathy, and so­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity.
  • Fi­nally, mil­len­ni­als don’t like big banks. A study of more than 10,000 mil­len­ni­als found that the 10 least pop­u­lar brands among mem­bers of this gen­er­a­tion in­clude ma­jor play­ers of the fin­an­cial ser­vices in­dustry such as Bank of Amer­ica, JP­Mor­gan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Cit­ig­roup. An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of those sur­veyed said they would “rather go to the dent­ist than listen to what banks are say­ing.” Wino­grad and his fel­low au­thor, Mi­chael Hais, ar­gue that this in­tro­duces the very real pos­sib­il­ity that mil­len­ni­als could one day sup­port stricter cor­por­ate reg­u­la­tions es­pe­cially for Wall Street. “The fin­an­cial in­dustry is fur­ther be­hind the curve [on en­ga­ging them] than al­most any oth­er sec­tor in the eco­nomy,” Hais says.

So what can com­pan­ies do to deal with this soon-to-be 75 per­cent of the work­force? Well, leg­acy com­pan­ies such as Price­wa­ter­house­Coopers have tried to ap­peal to mil­len­ni­al work­ers by ab­ol­ish­ing un­pop­u­lar an­nu­al per­form­ance re­views and in­stead of­fer­ing more fre­quent feed­back. New­er busi­nesses, such as TOMS Shoes, already in­her­ently ap­peal to mil­len­ni­als. (The com­pany makes cas­u­al slip-on es­padrilles. For every pair a con­sumer buys, the com­pany gives away a pair to a child in need.) These lat­ter busi­nesses, built with mil­len­ni­al val­ues in mind, are in the best po­s­i­tion to take ad­vant­age of the com­ing changes in con­sumer at­ti­tudes.

Per­haps, the biggest takeaway from the Brook­ings re­port is that the look and feel of work will un­der­go a dra­mat­ic makeover un­der the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion. Busi­nesses’ usu­al tricks of keep­ing em­ploy­ees happy and pro­duct­ive simply will not fly by the year 2025. “The de­sire on the part of mil­len­ni­als for their daily work to re­flect and be part of their so­ci­et­al con­cerns will make it im­possible for cor­por­ate chief­tains to mo­tiv­ate mil­len­ni­al em­ploy­ees simply by ex­tolling profits, or re­turn on in­vest­ment for their share­hold­ers, or even em­ploy­ee salar­ies,” the au­thors write. It makes you won­der if the cor­por­ate chief­tains are listen­ing.

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