Canadian Retailer Magazine | Human Resources

The Millennial effect

January 17, 2017
The Millennial effect

How successful retailers are embracing the employee of the future—in the present

BY JESSE DONALDSON

IN retail circles, there are few demographics more heavily scrutinized than that of the Millennial Generation.

The subject of countless magazine articles, studies, trade presentations, and surveys, they’re a generation that has been endlessly dissected—their buying habits, their values, their desires. But while their value as customers has been explored nearly to death, there’s an aspect to the Millennial generation that has attracted substantially less attention, one that is going to play a much larger part in the discussion during the years to come: their impact on the workplace.

As of 2015, Millennials made up 37 per cent of Canada’s workforce—eclipsing the Baby Boomers as the largest group in the workforce—and that number is projected to increase substantially over the next decade. As more Millennial employees enter the workforce, one thing is quickly becoming clear: what they want from an employer is very different from that of previous generations. They bring with them an unprecedented desire for flexibility, for work-life balance, for deconstructing traditional hierarchies. All of this stands to transform corporate culture from top to bottom. In fact, for many retailers, properly managing a Millennial workforce could be the difference between a business’ life and death.

Educated, diverse—and broke

Named in 1991 by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their seminal book Generations, Millennials (children born between 1982 and 2004) now make up 27 per cent of Canada’s population— roughly equal in size to the Baby Boomers. Already, they’re the most educated generation in history. They’re also the most underemployed. Across North America, 43 per cent live at home. Constrained by an uncertain labour market, crushing student debt, and sky-high housing prices, many have ended up delaying the traditional milestones of previous generations: careers, homes, and children.

“THE STEREOTYPE THAT THEY’RE A LAZY BUNCH—THAT ISN’T SUPPORTED. THEY’RE WELL-EDUCATED. THEY’RE HARD WORKERS. THEY’RE WELL-TRAINED. THEY KNOW HOW TO USE TECHNOLOGY. AND THEY’RE INTERESTED IN LEARNING— PERHAPS EVEN MORE SO THAN OTHER GENERATIONS.”

DOUG NORRIS
Environics

“If there’s one thing that really defines Millennials as a generation, it’s that the transition into adulthood is taking a lot longer than it used to,” explains Dr. Sean Lyons, an intergenerational researcher at the University of Guelph. “It’s taking people a lot longer to become established, and they’re reliant on their parents for longer periods of time. They have very high expectations for establishing themselves when they get out of university. But they still face a labour market that treats them like typical early-twenty-year-olds from a generation ago.”

In spite of these challenges, a recent Pew Research report found that Millennials remain optimistic about their employment and financial prospects. And as Doug Norris, Senior Vice President and Chief Demographer with analytics firm Environics, notes, as employees, many of the labels they’ve been saddled with aren’t borne out by the facts.

“The stereotype that they’re a lazy bunch—that isn’t supported,” he says. “They’re well-educated. They’re hard workers. They’re well-trained. They know how to use technology. And they’re interested in learning—perhaps even more so than other generations.”

Bridging the generation gap

With the percentage of Millennial workers steadily increasing, Susan Heathfield, an HR Expert and Management Consultant notes, the desire to properly manage those employees is also on the rise. To do this employees today are moving away from traditional notions of putting in time, preferring to focus on the work that needs to be done; according to a recent Pew Research Centre survey, 64 per cent of Millennials would do some work from home if given the opportunity, and 66 per cent would alter their working hours.

“Workplace Flexibility is huge,” Heathfield says. “Most Millennial employees will trade money for more workplace flexibility. Companies that aren’t willing to address this are going to be poor choices for Millennials.”

Going hand-in-hand with an increased focus on goals over hours worked, is a strong need amongst Millennials for feedback on their progress. In fact, 90 per cent of those surveyed by Futurecast said they would enjoy more feedback from their boss to make sure they’re on-track.

“With your Millennial crew, hours worked and face-time are not important to them,” Heathfield explains. “They want really clear goals and expectations. They want to know exactly what you expect. They want feedback every day about whether they’re actually doing the job that you want them to do. But they want structure more than other generations. They want to be able to walk away at the end of the day and say ‘I did my job. Now I can go play’.”

“WITH YOUR MILLENNIAL CREW, HOURS WORKED AND FACETIME ARE NOT IMPORTANT TO THEM. THEY WANT REALLY CLEAR GOALS AND EXPECTATIONS. THEY WANT TO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU EXPECT. THEY WANT FEEDBACK EVERY DAY ABOUT WHETHER THEY’RE ACTUALLY DOING THE JOB THAT YOU WANT THEM TO DO.”

SUSAN HEATHFIELD
HR Expert/Management Consultant

WHO THEY ARE AND WHAT THEY WANT

Millennials cannot all be painted with the same broad stroke. But generalities give retailers a sense of what they’re looking for from employers

37%

As of 2015, Millennials made up 37 per cent of Canada’s workforce— eclipsing the Baby Boomers.

27%

Millennials now make up more than a quarter of Canada’s population—roughly equal in size to the Baby Boomers.

25%

As of 2011, roughly a quarter of Canadian Millennials were part of a visible minority.

43%

Millennials across North America are underemployed, with 43 percent living at home.

64%

64 percent of Millennials would do some work from home if given the opportunity, and 66 percent would alter their working hours.

Source: Pew Research Centre

90%

Nine in ten Millennials would enjoy more feedback from their boss to make sure they’re on-track.

Source: Futurecast

50%

Half of Millennial employees want to work for a business that has ethical practices.

Source: Deloitte

Similarly unique

While consultants and advisers have nailed down many of the “Millennial Traits” detailed above, Heathfield, Norris, and Lyons are careful to warn against the dangers of tarring an entire generation with the same brush. In fact, Environics has taken it a step further, segmenting the Millennial population into six “tribes”, with names like “Engaged Idealists”, “Diverse Strivers”, and “Lone Wolves”.

“Is a 20-year-old Millennial the same as a 35-year-old Millennial?” Lyons asks. “No. That’s a really simplistic and dangerous way to look at it. Generations are a useful way to take a long view, and look at how things are changing over long cycles, but it’s dangerous to ignore diversity within that generation. Take a first-generation immigrant family versus a second, third or fourth generation. People who are visible minorities, people who are LGBTQ—all of those things are probably more important pieces of identity than generation.”

Nonetheless, learning to integrate and manage a Millennial workforce while meeting their needs will remain a key challenge for successful retailers in the decades to come. Luckily, as Lyons, Heathfield, and Norris point out, that transition is already well underway, with employers striving to embrace and celebrate their Millennial counterparts. After all, as Lyons explains, a diverse workplace is a successful workplace, and age—like race, gender, or religion—is just another form of diversity.

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