Entitled to Empowerment: a three part series on understanding and working with Millennials

Blackboard with the word Millennials.

Every generation finds the one that follows confusing and often scary, but few seem to have been as professionally difficult to understand as Millennials. I regularly hear business owners and leaders scratch their heads and groan about millennials. What do they care about, how do I motivate them, how do I retain them or incentivize them effectively? I watched a former boss, a very astute and experienced manager overseeing hundreds of employees, fight mightily to tow the traditional line and suppress the undercurrent of forces pushing up from his young (increasingly millennial) workforce. The company struggled mightily with it, and now sits somewhere in the middle, trying to put a glossy veneer on a traditional environment. The symptoms of this disconnect are extremely high turnover, tons of negative GlassDoor reviews and a subversive undercurrent of dissatisfaction that leadership constantly combats. In this series I hope to punctuate how a committed reader could improve their own business and avoid some of these pitfalls.

Depending on who you talk to, Millennials are those born from the early 80’s to early 2000’s. I was born in 1981 and think of myself as able to walk the line and observe the old and new mindset. Millennials are a demographic of extremely bright, motivated, digitally-literate, complex and hard-working individuals, but their talents must be tapped in a way that coincides with who they believe they are. After all, they make up 28% of Portland’s population and 26% Nationally. If you get it right, you have the opportunity to hire and promote from the largest demographic in America. If you fail, you will find your company ageing and struggling to keep up with nimble, innovative newcomer competitors coming at you from all directions.

At Upward Technology, we have been effective in hiring, managing and promoting Millennials up through our ranks, and I hope some insights may be valuable about how we’ve done it. This is a three-part series: Who Are Millennials, What Motivates them Professionally, and What Can Any Business Do to Adapt to the Needs/Wants of this Generation?

Who are Millennials?

Friends Connection Digital Devices Technology Network Concept

The first thing to understand about Millennials is that many view the world as a complex, connected, dysfunctional and crowded place. Through the use of social media, exposure through the internet and cheap travel, they have a sense of interconnectedness and social responsibility. They are exposed in harsh, stark ways to a world that faces profound challenges. Some may not have a voice or feel empowered, and live at home until they are 30, supporting the lazy stereotype. But most are not on the sidelines and are willing to face a changing world as an active participant, and it isn’t hard to understand that they are lead to the profound question: “Why am I here?”

In parallel to this, Millennials are collaborating and discussing their world views, challenges, experiences, fears and hopes publicly. Work, or “what you do” become an integral piece of this persona. As the personal and professional intertwine, the lines blur and work becomes another piece of a swirling, digital, interconnected continuum in that person’s life. This is where the urge for work/life balance comes in, Milennials don’t necessarily distinguish the two in compartmentalized ways. Email, media, opportunity, it’s all 24/7. They will gladly work all hours, if they can also mix in the other important elements of their life that compete for their time.

Professionally, Millennials constantly peek at each other’s homework; what does your office look like, what perks do you have, how are you comped? I call this “Social Unionizing”. Traditional unions were organized to provide a unified voice for better compensation and better working conditions, the collective of employees could exert significant influence on employers and force them to come to the negotiating table. Social unionization does the same thing but over a much broader population.

Finally, Millennials feel empowered. They are empowered by the vast set of choices they have, information at their fingertips, the technology they use & the availability of opportunities. This leaves them hungry for innovation. The (real or perceived) ability to change their circumstances is readily available; so if they don’t like something, they want to know how they can change it, or they disengage from it.

Do you see where this is going? Millennials like a good story. A real, authentic story. In many ways, they are legacy driven, they want to be a part of something greater. Many are very financially motivated, but can’t be coerced to compromise what they believe with a paycheck. They look for consistency and sincerity across message, and need to feel like their role contributes in a meaningful way.


Ivey Business Jounal

Census Bureau

Entrepreneur Magazine

Check back on the Upward Blog soon to read the next part in our three part series about Millennials and what makes them tick. Thanks for reading!