As of 2015, millennials (the generation born between 1982 – 2000) make up the largest cohort in the North American workforce. While the millennial may be mighty in occupying the current labour landscape, study upon study suggests a keen and often aggravating clash between the generations, whether it’d be managers versus new hires; partners versus associates, or beyond. Attempting to explore the chasm, a study commissioned by Elance-oDesk, the world’s largest online workplace, and Millennial Branding, a millennial consulting firm, surveyed 1,039 millennials (21 – 32 years old, with a bachelor’s, Master’s degree or postgraduate degree) and 200 hiring managers (33+ years old and responsible for recruitment or HR strategy within their business) on everything from their (in)ability to find work to generational perceptions to how work priorities change between the generations in order to glean some insight into how to best encourage the largest workforce to actually “work”.

The positive results of the study were as expected: 82% of hiring managers believe millennials are more technologically adept than prior generations, 60% of hiring managers and 74% of millennials agree that they are able to learn new things more quickly than prior generations, and 57% of hiring managers and 71% of millennials agree that they are more likely to come up with fresh ideas in the workplace.

For 26-year old administrative assistant, Amelia Chandri*, the statistics seem to ring true: “My first job out of University was working at an advertising agency in an administrative role. I went to school for sociology at Ryerson, something totally different, but I wanted to try something new. I had student loans to repay so I applied with a temp agency the summer after graduating and a job is a job… My managers were really impressed with some of my ideas, like putting a twist on the standard company slides or updating the website to make it more appealing for start-ups so that we could get more new faces coming in…[the managers] hadn’t thought of doing something like that before I came along and, frankly, I don’t understand how they didn’t consider it before me.”

While the advantages of hiring millennials are certainly noteworthy — remember, this is the generation which developed vast social and technological innovation including Facebook, Instagram, Uber, Air BNB and the like — the downsides of millennials in the workplace, however, are quite grim: 53% of hiring managers report difficulty retaining millennial talent, while millennials, in turn, consider quitting their regular jobs in order to work for themselves at a rate of 79%. The overwhelming majority of millennials, in fact, believe that it is significantly easier to start a business now more than ever before, given technological advances. The key differences between prior generations, which would otherwise be satisfied obtaining a secure, well-paying job, versus the current generation, waiting to flee the same security offered, however, are not particularly difficult to identify: Unlike previous generations where college degrees practically guaranteed a job with a relatively high salary and the proverbial American dream seemed within plausible grasp, the millennials have navigated their youth while exposed to devastating economic depression, a changing familial and social landscape, terrorist attacks which hit increasingly close to home, and a radical change in the education system, where rigor, merit and discipline were cast aside for a more favourable coddling and self-confidence-focused approach (for what else could yield the dramatic rise in the proportion of students who believe they are ‘above average’ in academic and mathematical ability, while standardized testing has seen some of the lowest scores in written and mathematical ability in years, as research suggests). More worrisome yet, a recent study indicates an increase of 30% in narcissistic attitudes in American students since 1979. Narcissism, defined as “excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centredness” and has been shown in the business world to be either incredible effective or ineffective.

Research by Roy Lubit published in the scientific journal, Academy of Management Perspectives, for instance, found that healthy narcissism in the corporate world is characterised by high self-confidence in line with reality, an enjoyment of power, valuing others in the workplace, and the ability to follow through on plans. Destructive narcissism in the workplace, however, is characterized by grandiosity, creating relationships with workmates only at one’s own convenience and advantage, exploiting and devaluing others often without any remorse, and becoming easily bored, often changing course. With a shared admiration for constant stimulation coupled with an acceptance of the characteristic of ‘flakiness’ as the adjective du jour, one might say millennials tend to skew left. 

As such, it should come as no surprise that hiring managers see millennials as 60% more narcissistic; 30% more money driven than their Gen X counterparts, yet 8% less confident and a staggering 46% less of a team player than previous generations. On self-perceiving narcissism, at least, 75% of millennials surveyed don’t particularly disagree:

“Am I narcissist? My first answer is obviously to say no because no one wants to think of themselves in a negative way and narcissism tends to be thought of that way. But, if I really consider it and I’m being honest, or if you ask my parents, I probably am. I think my friends are, so I guess that would make me that way too… I know I take way too much time caring about my make-up and what I wear to work because I like the attention…I talk a lot about myself and my needs even at work and have to stop and remind myself sometimes when talking to a colleague to ask how they are. I think being on Facebook makes people more narcissistic and I’m on it all the time, even at work, posting selfies,” Chandri says.   

With the perception (and data concurrence) of obsessively self-loving, sometimes skill-inept millennials as job applicants, hiring managers are increasingly focused on hiring for hard skills, with the near majority (41%) of hiring managers planning to increase the hiring of freelancers for this reason alone.

Perhaps the most astounding finding in the study, however, was how different a hiring manager’s perceptions of millennial priorities were versus the millennials’ own priorities. For instance, while 75% of hiring managers assumed earning potential to top the list of millennial priories, only 44% agreed.

According to Xavier Weitzmann, a UX (User Experience) specialist, it all comes down to meaning: “One thing I’ve noticed speaking with millennials—all university educated, many with graduate degrees—is although they value money and workplace incentives, they place greater importance on time and meaning.”

Thus, when hiring or wanting to retain millennials, the focus should not be on financial gains but other, less tangible values. For instance, 39% of millennials value learning from the people they work with and the team they belong to, and 25% value a good mentor, while 30% want exciting work. While earning potential is still a prime consideration for millennials, the data suggests that retaining a competent and qualified millennial will take more than just money. Instead, a greater emphasis should be placed on ensuring millennials have exciting work opportunities, good mentors and are surrounded by a team they can work with and learn from.

Weitzmann agrees: “Offering [millennials] either greater flexibility to enjoy their money, or opportunities to contribute greater meaning to society—or even in the workplace—would go far in retaining younger talent. People don’t want to think of themselves as replaceable automatons; and as the technologically literate, educated millennial seeks gainful employment, they also seek opportunities for their education, labour, and creative energies to generate greater meaning for themselves.”

Even when investing in a millennial employee, however, make note that the retention rate will nevertheless be slim, as 58% of millennials expect to stay in their job fewer than three years. With the overwhelming majority wanting to freelance, capitalizing on the attractive characteristics of freelance work may further incentivize employee engagement: A flexible working time and place; choosing what projects to work; no office politics; and a control over work load were rated as the most attractive characteristics of freelance work. Needless to say, the millennials are not used to a standard working environment and would much prefer having flexibility and their own say in it: “If employers are able to offer opportunities to get more meaning from their life through work, they will be far better off in attracting the top talent. Even hearing their creative approaches to problems—and actually listen, not just as a token gesture—can offer mutual benefits. They’ve been raised in an era of technological and informational abundance—leverage it!” Weitzmann says.

While harping on negative statistics and a looming undertone of instability and constant off- and on-boarding, keeping in mind that millennials are integral to the future of business and that they bring about creativity, innovation, and a large capacity to adapt can be an incentive to help foster millennials’ potential in the workplace; they may just reinvent it.

Written By: Mariana Bockarova