Gen Y: Not So Different After All

Contrary to the headlines about generational differences, new research on learning needs and retention reveals shared views on workplace training and technology across generations.

A few days ago CNBC asked a question that of course caught my eye: Why do millennials get such a bad rap at work? It made me start researching how different the four generations in the workplace are, which turns out, is not that different at all.

Myths and stereotypes aside, I started digging into how different generations’ learning needs differ. I interviewed Wayne Applehans, president and chief product officer at Jones/NCTI, an employee-training consultancy, to discuss the training and technology employees across all generations are looking for and whether corporate environments are providing them. Below are edited excerpts from our interview.

Let’s talk about workforce learning and technology. Your study found that there aren’t as many differences in different generations’ wants as we may think. Explain that.

Applehans: We read so many news stories lately that play up the differences among the generations in the workplace. The perceptions and myths about the generations pervade the headlines. As part of an ongoing research effort to better address the evolving learning and development needs of broadband industry clients that we began in 2014, Jones/NCTI conducted a national survey of 422 employees representing the three generations currently in the workforce (baby boomers, Generation X and millennials) in January 2015, which we detailed in our white paper, What Gap? Generational Views on Learning and Technology in the Workplace. We set out to understand generational views of learning and development, and how the different generations want to use technology at work.

What we found was surprising. It doesn’t matter if you are new or advanced, or where you are in your career, learning and development matters to everyone, regardless of age or life stage. Instead of major differences, we found striking similarities across all three generations when it comes to training and technology.

Our key findings included:

  1. Three types of training — all with a personal touch — rank the highest for all three generations as both for “preferred learning style” and “most helpful to their current role.”
  2. Seven in 10 respondents say job-related training and development opportunities impact their decision to stay with a company.
  3. 70 percent of employees say corporate technology and training tools fall short when compared to personal technology.

What are some specific similarities that stand out to you?

Applehans: First let’s start with making training personal. It doesn’t matter where an employee is in their career; companies need to provide learning and development with a personal, mentoring touch. Even with millennials, who are often labeled as being detached, sometimes the opposite is true. Young people today are the ultimate multitaskers, but they still crave personal interaction, such as in-person feedback, one-on-one coaching, hands-on training with a supervisor, manager or peer. Mentoring will never be replaced with technology.

Wayne Applehans, Jones/NCTI
Wayne Applehans, Jones/NCTI

The other big insight is one that we heard loud and clear, people are looking for some type of commitment from the organization, in terms of career path. We need to train to retain. Employees need to feel that their company is making an investment in them … that their managers are thinking ahead about their future — beyond their current role. This was further emphasized in our November 2014 research on retention — 83 percent of those surveyed indicated a clearly defined career path is the primary reason they wanted to stay with their company.

The third similarity was that employees feel that company-provided technology is not up to par with personal technology. Trends including Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and Bring Your Own PC (BYOPC), the Internet of Things (IoT) and the proliferation of smartphone apps to track every aspect of life are changing the way we think and work. Employees expect more from corporate technology offerings. This rings true for all of the generations: baby boomers, the technology pioneers whose use of technology became a part of how they got the work done; the Gen Xers, or sandwich generation, who are avid users of personal tech; and the millennials, whose affinity for technology has become a part of their DNA. In particular, we found that all employees say they want more sharing, collaboration and training tools.

Where do you think there might still be differences?

Applehans: There certainly still are nuances specific to each generation that we need to be aware of when connecting with employees.

Our research shows that all generations say in-person learning makes the most impact. Technology trends do influence the generations though, with the newest workers leading the way. We found that game-based learning is gaining popularity with millennials, which offers new opportunities for companies to test gamified learning tools for entry-level employees or younger workers.

Our research also shows that everyone wants to learn in order to do their job well, and that job-related training and development opportunities impact retention. While training matters to all generations, it’s most important to younger workers who may be more mobile and eyeing new opportunities as they advance in their careers. Our researchfound that 75 percent of Gen X employees ranked learning and development as important to their decision to stay with a company, as opposed to 71 percent of millennials and 61 percent of baby boomers. Gen Xers may also be questioning their company’s investment in their career — what are their benefits available? Almost no one has a pension any longer. They crave reassurance.

Finally, as employees are expecting more from corporate technology offerings, it is the baby boomers, those who remember the pre-Internet workplace and are exposed to new technologies by their children, who are most critical of company-provided technology. Only 23 percent of baby boomerssay company-provided technology is current and relevant, as compared to 30 percent of GenXers and 32 percent of millennials. Gen Xers are a little less critical, probably due to the fact that they aren’t in the same demographic in terms of salary, and millennials are used to working on their own devices and are less expectant of company-provided technology.

What can learning leaders do to better cater learning and technology to employees?

Applehans: Offer choices. Learning programs need to offer a variety of choices — a mix of peer and manager training with individual feedback and coaching, manager and peer mentoring and weekly team meetings, combined with classroom learning and online courses. Most importantly, companies need to provide a personal experience to help encourage all employees.

Communicate your future vision. In terms of training, companies should be training with the intention of showing that there is a future within their organizations, and that each employee has a critical role to play. Companies should make ongoing investments in learning and development, including building clearly defined career paths, to support corporate retention efforts. Some companies see triple-digit turnover rates with entry-level employees. This is why a focus on retention is imperative in today’s workplace.

Examine your technology. Technology is transforming how communities, businesses, and individuals work, play and engage with the world around them. Especially with the proliferation of open-source and cloud-based tools, employees expect work technology that’s easy to access and use. While we have found that people still love the physical aspect of books, times are changing, and as the younger workforce matures, more of these resources need to be made available on phones, tablets, etc.

Make it interactive. As I said previously, gamification is becoming increasingly popular among the millennial set. In our survey, it ranked as the fourth most preferred learning style for that generation and a July 2013 Gallup poll found that gamification can increase employee engagement by 60 percent and that engaged employees are 43 percent more productive. Companies need to think about including some sort of interactive-based learning into their offerings — this includes contests, games, anything that provides a competitive element to the learning program.