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The Great Millennial Awakening

Millennials are not leaving a job, but running toward better alignment between personal and organizational goals. They are looking for flexibility, transparency, feedback and skill development to start.

An isometric illustration of a desk with pens, pencils, and other items.

The phrase “Great Resignation” echoes past greats—the Great Depression, the Great Recession—and thereby resonates with the breadth and weight of periods of social and economic significance. But the trend of people in the workforce deciding to opt out and walk away from stable employment—as often as not without a specific step in mind—is better understood as a symptom and outcome of a larger transformation that has been under way for some time now. It is a sign that millennials, who represent the single largest demographic of the workforce, are coming of age and gaining greater prominence and influence of all types—demographic, economic, cultural. Better to understand this moment as the Great Awakening.

Millennials are more attuned and sensitive to their surroundings and environment, and they are more engaged. We know from research that employees, and especially millennials, want flexibility in the workplace, they want employers to focus on their holistic well-being, and they want companies to stand for values they share. We know that millennials want continuous communication and feedback, and we know that they know they will need to constantly upgrade their skills for the next challenge, or the next job, which may not even exist yet. 

They are not resigning because their boss is a jerk, or because their company doesn’t support social justice, or because their benefits aren’t good enough. They are not resigning primarily because something in their current situation is making them unhappy. Conversely, they are realizing what they do want. As they come of age, they are seeing what is more important than they previously realized. They are observing that what is in front of them does not align. They are gaining new awareness, new insight, new clarity—they are awakening—and they are choosing to pursue it. To do that, they must resign. 

Old hands in the employment marketplace tell their junior colleagues who don’t like their job, “Just make sure you’re not running away from something; run toward something.” This is wisdom that millennials already seem to have learned.

This lens for viewing the problem of large-scale resignation taking place in the U.S. today forces leaders to think about the solution differently. Stop wondering and worrying about how to keep people from joining the Great Resignation. Start thinking about what those people, those employees, those millennials, are running toward. Build it, and they will come.

Work from … Where the Work Gets Done 

The pandemic put a white-hot spotlight on the utility—and shortcomings—of remote work across a broad range of industries. But more than that, by creating

Screen Shot 2022-03-28 at 111922 AM.pngan environment in which working from home, or the beach, or Tasmania, has been normalized for a wide swath of the workforce, we now have learned that the flexibility it provides is a meaningful, valuable and expected quality of modern employers. 

As a result, companies must not only do the real work of examining and updating their policies and practices with respect to working from home, but they also must maximize their promotion of those policies as a selling point in the marketplace of job fairs, job postings, LinkedIn and anywhere else they compete for talent. A company that presents only the traditional path of commuting to a cubicle or an office will suffer by comparison. 

Own Your Corporate Conscience 

We know that millennials care. They care about social justice, democracy, the environment. Not uniformly, of course, but for leaders who play the percentages, the safer bet is that employees of a younger age skew toward the progressive end of the spectrum.

This is not to say that companies have to adopt a specific dogma or pass a liberal litmus test to succeed in recruiting and maintaining a workforce. Witness Hobby Lobby’s opposition to contraceptive health care coverage for employees and laws preventing discrimination based on sexuality, Chick-Fil-A’s history of donations to groups with anti-LGBTQ viewpoints, and others. These organizations have continued to operate and thrive despite the periodic attention these issues garner.

But what companies increasingly must do is be clear and upfront about where they stand, and it can’t be on the sidelines. Ironically, it is okay, and certainly not fatal, to tie the corporate stance on a particular issue to the company’s business and its goals—just be transparent about it. The modern employee, and in particular the millennial, wants the company name on their business card and email signature to be honest. Pure would be ideal, but in an increasingly polarized marketplace of ideas, purity is not realistic. Emulate the quality that deserves respect, regardless of viewpoint—honesty.

Just Talk to Me 

The days in which employees would be expected to spend hours toiling away at a desk or workstation, figuratively punching a clock and almost never seeing or hearing from a supervisor, are—happily—coming to a close. For millennials, this has never been an acceptable reality.

Perhaps it seems obvious now that the path to a more satisfied, actualized, highly engaged workforce is a comprehensive and engaged approach to communication. But too many employers, whether due to the overhang of past practice, sheer size and bureaucracy, or lack of incentive or enlightenment on the part of managers, are not moving quickly enough to reform their approach to the management and cultivation of talent. 

Millennials want, and expect, regular feedback. They want to know how they are doing, and to be able to interact with managers to better understand how their work fits into the goals of a larger project, work group or division. They want mentoring, and they want the opportunity to provide their own perspective on the work of others, up and down the org chart. Millennials view the 360-degree review as a natural, fundamental aspect of a collaborative work environment. Employers must promote their HR development practices as a value-add in the recruitment process.

Teach Me to Fish, Not Just How to Cook It 

Similarly, employees, especially millennials, aren’t just looking for a job, they are looking for a path. The opportunity for training, the acquisition of additional skills and advancement, is part of the package they expect in a modern workplace. 

The struggle for employers can be in rationalizing the investment in the training, which quite naturally and intentionally makes employees more valuable and more marketable, creating the risk that they will be recruited away or seek a different position. Employers must plan ahead so that employees can return the value of upskilling to the company through advancement and additional responsibility. And, even when that path isn’t available in a timely fashion, employers must recognize that the investment in training is a cost of doing business to be competitive for today’s workers.

Focus on the Core, Not the Consequence 

The persistent drumbeat of Great Resignation commentary has been a reasonable way for us to identify and acknowledge an important trend, and one that is having a significant impact on the modern workplace. But we should, in the interest of thinking more intentionally about how we can recruit, train, promote and retain the best possible employees to make our workplaces and companies better and more productive, reframe the issue moving forward. 

Millennials—in a manner that may only be more evident in Generation Z and those that follow—are thinking affirmatively and proactively about what is most important to them in their professional lives and making decisions accordingly. Employers need to recognize that millennials are not running away from something, they are running toward something.

Companies must thoughtfully and deliberately shape their policies and practices to be a desirable destination. Proactively design the workplace to provide the flexibility, transparency, feedback and skill development that employees want and expect. 

Then they’ll come running.

Jason Wingard, Ph.D., is President of Temple University.


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