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Millennials see work with 'purpose' as highly nuanced

Stones in a spiral under water
ShutterstockAnatoli Styf

Millennials, and what makes them tick, is part obsession, part mystery, for HR professionals today. But they aren’t so easily defined; this demographic needs to be more nuanced if we are to understand them better.

PwC Chief Purpose Officer Shannon Schuyler’s talk at this year’s GreenBiz 16 was my "a-ha" moment on millennials: We are lumping them all together and it’s clouding how we approach our HR strategies. 

Heather Clancy’s coverage of Schuyler’s talk aptly notes how Schuyler cautions that we must stop categorizing millennials as one homogenous group. Schuyler is focused on millennial employee engagement because they make up 80 percent of PwC firms in 2016.

Stages: From first job to 'transition' to 'figured out'

Millennials varies widely depending on what stage they are in their life and career path, and HR professionals need to pay attention to the fine print. Caroline Ghosn, co-founder and CEO of Levo League, defines millennials based on three stages:

The Starter: Just starting out, leaving college and entering the workforce, and potentially in his or her first job. Millennials stay in their first job out of college for an average of 16 months.

The Transitioner: In the quarter-life crisis and changes jobs frequently. This is when millennials are trying to figure out the meaning of their work and what their place is in the world.

The Integrator: Figured out what their place and purpose in the world is and are no longer up at night agonizing about it; have written their personal "mission statement" and is thinking about how to integrate work into their life.

Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report similarly broke down the millennials into subcategories based on where they are living and who is living with them.

Dependents: Living in someone else’s home.

On Their Own: Living in their own home without children.

Starting a Family: Living in their own home with children.

Is 'figuring out' synonymous with 'finding purpose' synonymous with 'sustainability'?

As a sustainability professional when I hear about millennials trying to figure out the meaning of their work, I assume they are interested in sustainability. That is me translating what I am hearing to the language that I know. More likely I am the wishful parent assuming this child wants to follow in my footsteps.

The reality is that millennials see purpose differently. It is not just about corporate sustainability and saving the planet. It is about #BlackLivesMatter or #BernieBro. It is about something that has happened in their life that has left a lasting impression.

Searching for a little humanity

Schuyler uses the word "humanity" to describe the millennials’ purpose. They want their career to be tied directly to their overall outlook on life. In this way, the line between the personal and professional is blurred, because they aspire for their work to be part of who they are and for their personal values to align with their work. 

Refreshing the HR strategy 

In understanding these nuances, HR professionals would be wise to make adjustments in their recruitment and retention efforts to:

  • Reframe roles and professional development opportunities to better support differences in purpose among millennials.
  • Contextualize the meaning of each person’s work so that millennial employees understand how their work has impact.
  • Be more thoughtful about expectations and don’t assume your definition of purpose is the same as your prospective employees'.
  • Customize communication to millennial employees depending on what stage they are experiencing in their life and career.
  • Schuyler says stories connect people and purpose, so place high value on storytelling — for both how your millennial employees can be empowered and make a difference through their role, and how your organization is trying to affect social or environmental change in the world.
  • Keep it human — millennials want to feel connected, so always be thinking about how to infuse that human element into the workplace culture.

Timing is everything

Schuyler advises in forming the connection with employees during their starter stage to be available to provide support to the employee when she reaches a transitioner stage. She says it is crucial to engage them in this upfront honeymoon employment period. But engagement isn’t enough. Millennials must be engaged in a way that resonates deeply with who they are as an individual and how they define purpose for themselves. 

Employee's purpose not the same as employer's purpose

Employers are making the assumption that purpose is the seen the same by the company as it is by the millennial employee. But it isn’t. The better we understand their perspective, the more aligned employers can be about their millennial employees.