Give Gen Y a Chance

Millennials need to be moving through the ranks and have the energy and desire to rise to the challenges.

After I wrote a blog post questioning whether millennials are ready for leadership a few weeks ago, software company SAP got in touch with me and shared figures from their Workforce 2020 study, which talks about how millennials are progressing in the workforce and the demands that they have as they move through the ranks. I interviewed Karie Willyerd, the workplace futurist in the HR line of business for SAP Cloud, on the data, and more specifically, challenges that come with a mature workforce. Below are edited excerpts from our interview.

Let’s talk about your study. What data points stood out to you?

Willyerd: The most surprising thing in our Workplace 2020 findings was that Gen Y is not as different as we think they are in terms of what motivates them and keeps them satisfied at work. We surveyed across 27 countries, and fairly consistently Gen Y prioritized the same things as other generations, with money being a top consideration. Where this wasdifferent is the United States, with development eking out money as a top satisfier at work. In other countries, Gen Y rated development higher than the other generations.

Another item that was markedly different was how much feedback Gen Y wants at work. Baby boomers are OK with feedback a couple times a year, Gen X about quarterly, while Gen Y wants feedback monthly. So their biggest demands, compared to other generations, are feedback and development. 

With 50 percent of the workforce leaving in the next 10 years, millennials need to be moving through the ranks, but do they have the energy and desire to rise to the challenges companies provide?

Willyerd: If we use traditional retirement age planning, you’re right that 50 percent will be leaving in the next 10 years in the United States. However, the percentage of people over 65 staying in the workplace is increasing every year, so we can expect far more age diversity due to advances in health care. I met someone who is 104 and still working, and more recently a woman at a technology company who decided to retire before she hit her 100th birthday.

Karie Willyerd, SAP
Karie Willyerd, SAP

To your question, though, it is exactly their drive, energy and passion that Gen Y brings to the table that smart companies will leverage. I think we need to do away with a mindset that age should equate to organizational level, and create more fluid structures that allow people to not only step down in level and responsibility but rapidly step up as they demonstrate the ability and willingness to do so. If we don’t give Gen Y opportunity, they will see that opportunity elsewhere. That’s how much drive they have.

What kind of development are they going to need to successfully take over leadership positions?

Willyerd: Because Gen X is such a small generation in comparison to the others, there simply aren’t enough of them to fill the baby boomer roles. Gen Y will have to step into big roles faster than we have seen happen than in the last 30 years. We simply can’t wait until someone is promoted, or later, to start giving them training. Jack Zenger reported that managers typically got their first leadership training ten years after they got their supervisory role.

In my view, we need to be developing people with leadership skills far before those skills are ever needed. In our Workforce 2020 study, ironically executives ranked leadership skills for nonleaders as much lower than other attributes. I don’t see Gen Y needing to learn significantly different leadership skills than prior generations; they just need to learn them earlier and faster.

Do you think the proper development opportunities currently exist? How can they be improved?

Willyerd: The biggest gap we have now in fully engaging Gen Y is in the development space, in my view. People will trade money for extraordinary development opportunities, whether in formal or informal learning. Gen Y wants mentoring, but only 50 percent of the executives told us in our survey that they had formal mentoring programs.

The other challenge we have is that when you have a mature workforce, you don’t have to set aside as much training budget. We will not have the luxury of replacing the baby boomers with deep experience, so we will need to put training dollars back into our business models. 

Finally, we need to improve how we think about and support informal learning. Gen Y is what researcher Mark Prensky called “digital natives.” They can learn how to fix a car, increase their social media presence or generally make life hacks all through social media. We need to keep on improving the ways we allow them to collaborate and learn from each other. That will take a paradigm shift from how CLOs have thought about what and how they offer development opportunities.