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Betsy Myers

There’s good reason for America’s colleges and corporations to focus on millennials. The latest data indicate that approximately half the workforce in the United States will be millennial by 2020. At many accounting, finance and professional service firms, the average age of the workforce today is 27, which puts them squarely in the midst of the Millennial Movement. It’s also important to point out that the oldest millennials — who are nearing 35 — can be counted among the nation’s leading entrepreneurs, managers and executives.

Millennials Want Integrated Lives

Like many of my colleagues, I border the Baby Boomers and Generation X, and have worked closely with millennials for the past several years.

My first experience working with millennials took place back in 2007-2008, when I served as COO of the national Obama for America presidential campaign in Chicago. It was new for me and, because campaigns are made up primarily of this age group, I had to adjust and also appreciate.

I learned that respect for millennials is not just given, but earned. In addition, millennials have a comfort level and obsession with technology that I both admired and sometimes found difficult — they multi-tasked in meetings, for example, by listening while working on email, and they texted, rather than called.

But I was taken with the fresh way that they looked at the world, and I thought that their willingness to volunteer and spend their time on worthy projects around the world — including working for almost nothing on a presidential campaign — was impressive.

So, my take-aways — which mirror much of the published research, along with the study that Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business (CWB) conducted in 2012 — were pretty profound:

  • Millennials want to make a difference in the world and will choose workplaces that share this value.
  • Their definition of workplace success is the ability to integrate personal and professional lives.
  • They are more accepting and tolerant of differences that include gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
  • They are globally aware and more connected than any generation before them.
  • And they also do best when they have a variety of tasks and challenges that come with continuous feedback about both their progress and future path.

Isn’t this what we all want today? I think so.

Bentley’s recent PreparedU study punctuates those observations with this data point: 85 percent of those surveyed say that colleges and universities in America must impart more real-world expertise to their students. That said, there is an attitudinal gap that clearly needs to be bridged. You can see it in the 68 percent of business leaders surveyed who indicated that their organizations find millennials hard to manage. At the same time, almost 70 percent of the millennial respondents feel that the older generations don’t understand them. 

With that virtual impasse staring us in the face, where do we go from here? 

I keep coming back to two central questions:

  • As almost 50 percent of the workforce, “How can we best support the millennials, while collaborating with them to bring out their best?”
  • And, just as important, “How can we use them to make sure the workplace of today boosts our competitive edge in the global economy of the 21st century?”

This reminds me of a quote I once heard from Wayne Gretzky, one of the best hockey players of all time. When asked what made him such a success on ice, the “Great Gretzky” said: “I always skated toward where the puck would be. Because, the real opportunity is not where the puck is, but where it will be.”

Gretzky’s wisdom is tremendously relevant, because millennials are deeply talented, and they’re changing our workplaces while shaping the future.

In fact, they’re actually advocating the same things that women have been striving for over the last several decades — a workplace that harmoniously and productively blends both men and women. But the Millennials are doing this in a gender-neutral way.

The current workplace was designed by men for men; so maybe the ultimate gift that the millennials will give us is a modern 21st century work environment that supports today’s new employees.

But simply hoping for better mutual understanding won’t make it happen. More will be required, including:

  • The national dialogue convened by Bentley on millennial preparedness will need to be elevated. The study identified five major solutions. American higher education needs to implement them.
  • Businesses will need to get more involved, as the study findings suggest. Having largely absolved themselves of training responsibilities for their new hires, they need to work more closely with colleges and universities to provide preparation in a way that’s congruent with the overall goals of a college education.
  • That aforementioned impasse will need to be bridged. A lot of it centers on technology, older generations who are mystified by it, and younger generations that get it but don’t have either the right hard skills or soft skills. One possibility: more working teams in corporations that transcend differences across cultural, gender, generational, educational and technological lines. That’s basically Bentley’s teaching model today, one that many businesses might do well to replicate.

Suggestions like these are just a beginning. But the Bentley preparedness study at least provides a basis upon which to build. 

It’s something to think about. 

Betsy Myers is the founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University.