Did you know that by 2020 Millennials will comprise half of global workers, and in the United States, the number will be closer to 75%? The workforce is evolving at an unprecedented rate, and as a result, changes are coming.

Your business is likely to have three generations working side by side: Boomers (born 1946-1964), Gen X (born 1965-1980), and Gen Y or Millennials (born 1981-1997). A few from the Greatest Generation may be part of the mix as well, and Gen Z is on the way.

 A bar graph showing five generations in the workforc from 2005 to 2020. Millennials have the largest numberf from 2015 on, comprising over half the workforce.

Different characteristics

Times change. I remember hearing adults talking about “the good old days” or wondering what was happening to the younger generation when I was a teenager. Even working a TV remote was a challenge for some of them! That’s difficult to imagine today when Boomers are more likely struggling to connect a Raspberry Pi to a smart TV.

The social and economic milieu provides one explanation for the varying characteristics each generation develops. Take the job environment for instance. Older generations grew up with more job security, and often one income was enough to support a family. Younger generations have grown up in a world where job security is non-existent and technology changes at lightning speed. Millennials, the most educated generation, have seen mobile phones go from clunky to smart, and “Screens” have been part of Gen Z’s life from day one—many learned to swipe before they learned to walk.

Graph comparing characteristics of five generations in the workforce.

 Pew Research Center, April 2016

What millennials mean for employers

Each generation of workers brings its own contributions and challenges to the workplace, and millennials are no exception.


Millennials are less comfortable with rigid organization and value flexibility in work style and schedule. They like having choices. Bonuses that motivated earlier generations of workers are not as important to this group as work/life balance and the opportunity to develop their professional knowledge and skills.


Millennials expect to keep learning, quickly moving up in their careers. If they don’t experience that in one place, they’ll look for it somewhere else. Unlike older generations of workers who found a job and expected to remain for their career, over half of millennials expect to have 2-5 employers during their working years.

They are comfortable with technology-based training like webinars and online learning modules, working both independently and in groups. They also appreciate hands-on learning and coaching in the workplace.

Annual performance reviews are not enough. Millennial workers like ongoing feedback and clear goals. In the report “Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace” by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 51% of online survey respondents said on-the-job feedback should be given frequently.

Bar graph showing degree of imporatnce for millennial workers in many aspects of their jobs excluding salary. Work-life balance is most important.

Relative degree of importance (excluding salary) Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016


Technology is part of their life—a big part. They use it day-to-day at home, from planning or investing to finding the best place to make a purchase or the fastest way to go from point A to point B. Always connected, they expect to find state-of the-art technology used at work, too.

This includes communication. Many use personal as well as work technology on the job. According to the PwC report, 41% prefer electronic communication over face-to-face or even phone conversations. Some companies offer choice of smart phones as part of their employee benefits. Social networking is second nature. The technology gap can be a cause of friction between generations, but using social technology tools are how millennials work.

Challenge means growth

As a recent analysis by SHRM, “Millennials: Misunderstood in the Workplace?” points out, stereotypes about Millennials may cloud a truer understanding of just what they bring to the workplace. Like their coworkers, they value a work culture of openness, purpose, and fairness.

The increasing number of millennials in the workplace will require some adjustment by companies, but that isn’t bad. Nothing grows without rising to face some challenges. Even a lowly seed has to push up through a layer of soil before it can get on with producing flower and fruit.

As members of older generations observe, and sometimes lament, the world changes. So does our way of living in it. Change is good for us and good for businesses, too. While millennials can learn from more experienced coworkers and managers as coaches with plenty to share, Generation Y has much to offer, too. For example, they can share tech knowhow with those who are less comfortable with its growing importance in their workplace.

Working together, learning together: A win-win.


“Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace” PricewaterhouseCoopers

“Millennials: Misunderstood in the Workplace?”  SHRM

“It’s not too late to earn Millennials’ loyalty” The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016”

Joe Rotella, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Joe Rotella, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Chief Marketing Officer at Delphia Consulting
Joe is a leading thinker and a professional speaker in the areas of HR technology, marketing, and web usability. He is a well-recognized speaker for the Society of Human Resources Management.