Not Your Grandparent’s Workplace: What Makes Millennials Tick

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woman on computer
The global workplace is a changing dynamic these days, and no sector of the population knows this better than the millennial generation. Born at the tail end of the 20th century, a time best known for the advent of the clunky but versatile personal computer, the Walkman and equally hefty video cassette recorder, millennials have inherited a global workplace that belies a the personal me-ism of yesterday’s standards.

In fact, the workplace of today is increasingly more diverse, digitally adept and technically focused than ever before. And the 20 to 35 year-olds that are currently driving that innovation, says Nicolette Van Exel, SAP’s head of the Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative, know this high-paced arena is no longer their grandparent’s marketplace.

“[This] millennial generation grew up with access to information like never before,” said Van Exel. “It is a very, very conscious generation.”

The use of mobile devices like the cell phone, laptop and iPhone were really coming into prominence as this generation was heading off to school. By the time they were entering college, social innovations like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn were becoming a versatile part of school curricula. So for the millennials, technical innovation and social networking have an integral role not only in today’s marketplace but in the millennials’ vision of what really is important to their world. And as van Exel explained, that goes beyond the more rudimentary focus of the standard 9-to-5 job that dominated the economy in their grandparents’ age.

“This is the millennial generation that is super-entrepreneurial and is really focusing on making change that goes beyond just finding a job as a lawyer or becoming a doctor,” said van Exel. She said SAP has learned the value of harnessing that social focus in its own work with nonprofits and entrepreneurs, and has come to realize that matching that vision, just like matching those skills is good business sense for SAP. It’s also the future of a healthy global economy.

According to a study conducted in 2012 by leadership strategist Erica Dhawan, by 2025 75 percent of the global workforce will be made up of millennials. Van Exel said that SAP’s Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative takes that burgeoning workforce into consideration, and realizes that today’s social enterprises will play a significant part in the health of tomorrow’s economy. And being able to meet the talents of a community of workers that looks beyond what they earn will also be critical.

SAP uses several mechanisms to accomplish this. They make sure that their social enterprise projects, which pair nonprofits with emerging entrepreneurs address the needs of what are often niche sectors of the marketplace.

“I would say the most strategic and successful program today is the social sabbatical, which allows employees to go up to a month at a time to work with entrepreneurial nonprofits and also entrepreneurs from our emerging entrepreneur initiative,” said van Exel. The sabbatical “really builds not only a sense of community engagement, but … leadership skills.”

They also make sure that their hiring and training practices are in sync with the needs and functions of those programs.

“We align very strongly with our Human Resources group,” said van Exel. It takes into consideration that millennials have their own vision of career goals, and that may not include continuing in that same job if they feel they can’t align with the values of the company or job they work for.

“I think that millennials tend to jump from job to job quicker than we used to in the past. So I think retaining talent that you want in the company is a very, very important factor.”

Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, agrees with van Exel. A millennial himself, Poswolsky navigated the pitfalls of recessionary employment, only to realize that the high-paying, high-profile job wasn’t enough. It paid his bills, but like many millennials, he wanted more. He wanted to be happy.

“This is a generation that wants to align interest with purpose,” said Poswolsky, who notes that it’s also “a generation that thinks deeply” about what they want out of life.

After quitting his high-profile job at the Peace Corps in Washington DC, Poswolsky eventually landed in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the director of the Bold Academy and facilitator of the Hive Global Leaders Program, as well as a StartingBloc fellow who mentors other up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

One of his key pieces of advice to millennials who read his book is “Accept that there probably isn’t only one answer, and explore multiple answers.” That’s a radical shift from the advice of grandparents who counseled the sage idea to get a good job and once you get it, keep it.

Businesses that want to retain good talent said van Exel, have to also think just as deeply about what they can offer to a generation of workers that are looking for values and social impact. She says the corporate social responsibility element that is built into SAP’s business model speaks to millennials – both within its ranks of technical professionals and beyond, in the entrepreneurial setting.

“You really have to have a very, very compelling proposition for people coming into the workforce and especially in the technology sectors.” said van Exel.

Poswolsky agrees. Millennials want to work for “companies that have really thought about their values.” They also expect more from the work place and employers that realize that with today’s technology, there’s often more than one way to get the job done, including telecommuting that allow for personal life goals.

“So many jobs can be done [at home]” said Poswolsky, who challenges the notion that people need the strictures of an office job and set hours to get the work done. “They are going to work harder for you,” if they are happy.

And they are going to stay longer and remain engaged if they find that their values are appreciated and given an outlet for expression, said van Exel.

One of SAP’s accomplishments, said van Exel, is proving that these values can work pretty much anywhere in the world. Van Exel works with a team that interfaces with nonprofits and emerging entrepreneurs in developing economies like Brazil and India, where social programs that further education, or ensure there’s running water in a community, are often needed. Social enterprises are the glue that brings together the entrepreneurs and the nonprofits, and help both succeed.

But understanding the lay of the land in each economy is critical to the success of the partnership, said van Exel.

“[In] Brazil we found a very ready kind of infrastructure and entrepreneurial culture that we could easily engage with. It was very easy to recognize and mobilize.” That’s because there were already connections established in the private sector that helped incentivize the partnership and made it easier to engage with nonprofits.

“When you look at India, it is a slightly more complex market.” The size of the country and other commercial dynamics meant it took more on-the-ground work. But in both countries, as well as Kenya, where SAP is about to launch its first social enterprise program in Africa, the same opportunities for success existed.

“When you look at the similarities we find in those economies [you see] that there is a real opportunity to build a good partner ecosystem,” said van Exel. Having consideration for cultural differences and priorities are part of what drives that success as well.

Social enterprise is a critical part of this emerging global economy, and the millennial workforce and new values about what makes a job and a career are part of the dialogue that millennials are pushing. In doing so, they are also helping to remake the way we approach the world and the values that shape our future.

Image credit: Itupictures

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

4 responses

  1. I think older generations aren’t that different from Millennials — everyone hopes for purpose in their work. But today it’s OK to be open with aspirations for happy work. We’re no longer labeled hippies. And the old quip “Get a real job” fades away as real jobs of the future are more likely to give a nod to idealism.

  2. It seems that Millenials place a lower priority on making the most money they can, and a higher priority on their productive activities being rewarding in of themselves. Good for them! I’m Gen X but always been a Millenial at heart. For example, I took a 20-30% cut in my income, so that I could have full freedom between working at home or office as I choose, and a fully flexible schedule. This was well worth the trade! Most GenX people I meet are dumbfounded by such a choice, but Millenials understand it easily.

    Maybe I was born a generation early ;)

    1. Thanks for writing Mark. I suspect a bunch of Gen X can identify with millennials in this regard. I find I identify with the perspectives as well. Let’s hope the momentum keeps going. Sounds like it works for more than this generation. Great comment – thanks!

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