The Unspoken Issue with Retaining Millennials in the Workplace

WARNING: there will be anthropological nerd speak throughout this article!

A desire to do better than previous generations is human nature, especially in Western cultures. We can debate the definition of "better," i.e. it does not necessarily mean money, instead, it can mean the quality of life. Yet, that aside, all of us have a yearning to move to greater heights than those who came before us.

This desire can be seen in our culture as well as in businesses. For thousands of years, constant improvement has been a great attribute for humans because it has led to incredible advancements in medicine, science, art, and other fields. Yet, there is an issue brewing in small and large businesses which goes against our cultural advancement model. We will get to that in a moment. 

Before we look at the issue, let's recap. This is the final article in a series on attracting, developing, and retaining millennials. First, we discussed the communication gap between generations, second, we examined how to attract millennials to businesses, third, we looked at the methods to develop young people, and finally, we will now identify components of retaining a talented millennial workforce.  

Also, it should be pointed out, if you are new to BizLatte, I am a former anthropology college instructor and currently a consultant. The goal of this series is to move beyond general cliches. We want to dive deeply into the cultural phenomenon of millennials in the workforce to find actionable solutions to real problems.

Now we can move onto the issue which will be at the heart of millennial retention for the next decade.

Violation of Social Contract

I told you I was going to nerd out :P 

Imagine a scenario. It is 15,000 years ago, and we are a small tribe living in Eastern Europe. Each of us has clearly defined roles based on our age, sex, and skill set. We work as a unified team to ensure the survival of the group. Many times, women provide the majority of food, while men hunt large game to bring back protein and fur for clothing and shelter. As a tribe, we are efficient and have clear social contracts. We feed each other, help each other, and there is a cycle of life from childhood through adulthood and then as an elderly member of the group. 

This is how humans lived for a vast majority of our existence. We assisted each other and knew our role, mainly based on our age and sex.

Fast forward to 2017. Life is completely different. Most people are out for themselves and culture is dominated by the power of large corporations, banks, and governments. These are not necessarily new issues. This power was seen in the early 1900's and the middle of the past century. 

The change is in the social contract.

At one time it was common for a young person to be an apprentice or start as an entry-level employee and work their way up through management and possibly an executive position late in life. The cycle would repeat with each new generation. Yet, something has changed. 

Modern medicine is amazing and people are living longer, i.e. a 60-year old now can be extremely healthy compared to their counterparts a few decades ago. Wait what does this have to do with retaining millennials? Everything!

Think about it. Boomers are going to stay in the workforce longer than previous generations because they are healthy and living expenses continue to rise. The same will be seen with gen x'ers, they will be even healthier than boomers and stay in the workforce until their 60's, 70's, and potentially 80's. What will this do?

It will create a bottleneck at the top of companies. The former social contract will be violated and many people will not reach high levels of employment simply because there is not enough room at the top. Let's thrown in one more variable . . . centennials or gen z, whatever you want to call them. This is the generation after millennials, i.e. people born in the years ~ 2000 - 2020. They are about to enter the workforce, as in, next year! 

What Do We Do

How about some solutions, instead of complaining about more experienced generations holding onto jobs, or young people not being patient. Culture constantly changes, this is one of the beauties of cultural evolution and the reasons I dedicated a decade of my life to being an anthropologist. 

We must come together to determine actionable solutions to this very real issue which will hit soon. Just imagine, in a few years, there are going to be four distinct generations in the workforce, all with a desire to do well professionally. 

Ideas need to be developed sooner than later. Depending on your business, these could come in various forms:

  • Building a flat organization structure for more positions of authority 
  • Providing more flexible working situations to compensate for lack of executive positions, i.e. many people will bypass striving for executive positions if they can work remotely
  • Moving to a more freelance/contract-based workforce (we are actually already seeing this)

The key is there should be dedicated teams within companies tackling these problems. For the past decade, schools have been obsessed with STEM courses and have completely bypassed one of the most critical aspects of education - creative thinking. Go ahead and mock me, yet I am always shocked at how many people don't have any background in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, logic and other fields which rely on long-term problem solving through quantitative and qualitative data. 

Companies should expand their notions of ideal employees and find workers skilled in longitudinal studies with clear goals of improving work culture. Yes, it takes time and resources. Also, the ROI won't present itself for years, but that does not mean these problems will disappear. 

Cultures, especially Western cultures, are burying their heads in the sand with large issues and letting future generations deal with the consequences of current actions. 

We will only see future generations succeed if we start to plan now and look for actionable steps to retain millennials and centennials.

The Choice is Yours

Most companies will keep doing what they are doing, and eventually, they will likely fail. Compare the Fortune 500 list from 1955 to 2015, how many companies survived? 12%, yes just 12% (source). Fortunately, that fate can be altered through proper strategic initiatives based on both quantitative and qualitative data.

The only way to actually build millennial retention programs and strategies is through dedicated action. If your business is interested in learning more about millennial integration programs, view our services on leading millennials

Matt Avery