Deciphering the Millennial Generation

As design firms grapple with how to hire, retain, and work with millennials, it turns out the next generation isn’t so different after all.

by Kadie Yale

In the last few years, much has been researched, discussed, and fretted over regarding millennials— the generation born between 1980 and 2000—in the commercial design industry. There is both special consideration for the ways in which designers create space for the growing millennial consumer base and conversations surrounding the ways in which corporate leadership can foster better relationships with their incoming and junior-level employees, particularly this younger generation and baby boomers.

IIDA’s report “Diversity and Design: Why Gender, Equity, and Multidisciplinary Thinking are Essential to Business” noted that the discussion surrounding age diversity and cultures resulted in one of the most heated debates during the association’s 2016 Industry Roundtable. At the event, Crossville's Mark Shannon referenced a recent report from The Economist: “‘When asked what workforce characteristics will require the greatest change in human resources strategies over the next three years, more than half point to conflicting values across a multigenerational work-force.’ This is shaping my view of diversity.” With millennials comprising a projected total of 40 percent of the population by 2020, it is vital for organizations to understand how to work with this generation.

However, the question of what to do about millennials is in no way a new conundrum. In 2002, Claire Raines wrote in her book “Connecting Generations: The Sourcebook” that she received “questions every month from business people looking for something about the newest generation of workers.”

While the expectation at the time was that millennials would enter the force as a hybrid of Generation X, those in management positions were finding their new employees alien. Raines continued, “In this uncertain economy and highly competitive business environment, companies across North America recognize that the differentiator is their people. Those organizations that emerge as winners in the battle for talent will have their fingers on the pulse of the newest generation.”

Why is there this disconnect between the age groups? While there is a need for more research relating to the average age of designers in the last 20 years, it’s important to note the impact that the Great Recession had on those entering the workforce between 2007 and 2014. In its 2015 Industry Outlook, ASID stated that more than 40,000 U.S. interior designers were practicing in 2007; less than 30,000 were reported just three years later. In a January 2016 article in Forbes titled, “Young, Gifted and Held Back,” millennial concerns regarding economic stability are justified thusly: “Many of their woes can be blamed on policies [favoring] the old over the young … In many countries, [labor] laws require firms to offer copious benefits and make it hard to lay workers off. That suits those with jobs, who tend to be older, but it makes firms reluctant to hire new staff. The losers are the young. In most regions they are at least twice as likely as their elders to be unemployed.”

During the recession, the “losers” were mostly young Generation Xers and older millennials who were not high enough on the corporate ladder to be indispensable, but paid more than entry-level positions. With hiring freezes in businesses around the country following layoffs, the result is a larger gap in generations between those who continued to be employed during the recession and those who have entered since the recovery period, as those in the middle ground often had to find new industries or attend higher education during the duration of lower employment.

The Great Recession also resulted in a change of opinion regarding loyalty to a particular company or industry. In November 2016, Harvard Business Review released an edited transcription of its August roundtable with Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Lebien Sørender, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, and Inditex CEO Pablo Isla. Regarding the newer generation of workers, HBR asked, “Are millennials actually different, and do they require you to adapt how you handle talent?” Sorrell responded, “Attitudes among young people have changed. Rather than sticking at something for a long time, they go from job to job—like bees going from flower to flower and getting pollen. My father once said to me, ‘Develop a liking for an industry, build a reputation within it, and build something for the long term.’ That’s not in fashion today.”

While much has been said regarding millennials—how and why they think, the idea that they are an opinionated and coddled generation, etc.—with special consideration given to changes in technology, communication, and even the idea that they have developed entitled attitudes from their childhoods, little has been discussed about the ways in which media, particularly television sitcoms, may have swayed the ways in which they approach work.

The trope of sitcoms has long projected the idea that the office is a place of discontent. For much of the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, traditional office jobs were depicted as a dull lull between the excitements of life outside the cubicle walls. The forerunners of popular shows like “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and even “Dinosaurs,” were often only depicted in the office to amplify the impression of their unhappiness.

“The Flintstones” opens with Fred Flintstone excitedly leaving work within the first 10 seconds of the credits, literally running home via his stone car with a yell of “Yabba dabba do!” If the workplace is shown in any sort of positive light, it is often via unconventional jobs, as with Jerry Seinfeld’s career as a stand-up comedian on “Seinfeld,” or Danny Tanner acting as the funny-man cohost on the fictional talk show “Wake Up, San Francisco” on “Full House.” Traditional office life was rarely seen as anything other than a break in the real plot to show a character’s discontent.

However, this doesn’t mean office life with millennials necessitates throwing away conventions and installing a beer tap beside a ping pong table to lure them toward their office stations (though this is a fun idea for all generations). Jamie Gutfreund, chief strategy officer for the Intelligence Group, a division of the Creative Arts Agency that forecasts consumer preferences and trends, noted in a January 2014 article for Forbes, “What Millennials Want In The Workplace (And Why You Should Start Giving It To Them),” that the firm found a majority of millennials have a priority to make the world a better place, would like to have flexible work schedules to accommodate “work-life integration,” and, “[t]hey’re not looking to fill a slot in a faceless company.” In short, millennials don’t want to be the unhappy, unnamed extra in the background of a sitcom office, checking the clock constantly until they can return to “real life.” Particularly as work-life balance makes way for work-life integration with communication technologies allowing us to work around the clock, the reality is that work makes up a major portion of our lives and is therefore not a pause button on the “real world.”

Harvard Business Review pointed out similar findings from an IBM Institute for Business Value study (2014) which was highlighted in its April 2016 article, “What Do Millennials Really Want at Work? The Same Things the Rest of Us Do.” In the study, percentages of millennials who agreed with long-term goals such as “make a positive impact on my organization,” “work with a diverse group of people,” “do work I am passionate about,” and “manage my work-life balance” rarely varied from the percentages who agreed in both the Generation X and baby boomer categories.

So while the office aesthetic may have changed between baby boomers and millennials, and onwards to the approaching Gen Z or “builder” generation who have just begun their post-high school careers, the heart of the situation remains the same: Employees of every age group want to feel appreciated, like they are making a difference, and that their voices are heard. Millennials don’t want to feel stagnant any more than those in other generations, however the instability of the economy when they entered the workforce taught them that they are easily dispensable; therefore, they may feel more comfortable changing jobs until they find one that feels like the best fit. Instead of “develop[ing] a liking for an industry” as Sorrell’s father told him, millennials are more fitted to discover an industry they like, particularly as fewer young adults are getting married, having children, and owning property, which would require a more steady means of income.

In fact, once a millennial is able to feel they fit into an industry, it is easier for an employer to retain them. Opposite the belief that millennials are hard to please, Harvard Business Review stated that a study conducted by CNBC in 2015 confirmed that “[m]illennials reported being more satisfied with training and skills development they receive, compared with 76 percent of the rest of the population; 76 percent were satisfied with their opportunities for promotion, 10 percentage points higher than the rest of the population.”

What this means for the design industry, particularly in hiring and/or working with millennials, is that while perceptions of what the younger
generation wants may seem adverse to what has been seen before, little has actually changed beneath the surface. Trends should be perceived as such with corporate and workplace decisions being made to better the organization as a whole, taking into consideration the individuals on the staff rather than preconceived generational stereotypes. The office doesn’t need to be a place to have fun and kick back over employee happy hours, but instead should focus on the current scientific studies providing evidence that the most productive employees are those who are able to gain wellness-minded advantages such as natural light, time to get up and move away from their desks, and work collaboratively in environments where they feel their time and opinions are respected.

And, at the end of the day, the best method of conveying what both management and employees expect from an office setting is to sit down to an honest discussion, rather than trying to decipher each other’s thoughts through stereotypes.