From Paycheck to Purpose: How Millennials Are Changing Work

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer March 16, 2016

HR will have to make significant changes to accommodate the Millennial generation, said Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, a research-based management consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., and Omaha, Neb.

Millennial workers’ tendency to value what they do for work above all else has been the most crucial societal shift to impact the workplace in decades, he told attendees March 15 at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

At about 83 million strong, Millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000—have surpassed the Baby Boomers as the nation’s most populous generation. Understanding their needs, behaviors and motivations will improve engagement, retention and productivity, Clifton said.

Only about one-third (31 percent) of employees are engaged at work, with Millennials the least engaged group at 28.9 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.

“On the other end, you have 20 percent who are actively disengaged,” Clifton said. He described this group as people who are “not just miserable” on their own, but will bring others down, too.

That leaves 50 percent who are just going through the motions, he said.

He recommended that employers figure out which of the three buckets each of their employees fits in, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because there’s a great deal at stake.

“There’s no reason that 30 percent engaged can’t be 70 percent, and that the actively disengaged can’t be in single digits,” he said, citing “enormous variation” between companies.

And to engage Millennials, employers need a new playbook, he said. “I think Millennials will be better employees than my generation [Clifton, at 64 years old, is a Baby Boomer], but you must create the right environment for them.” If HR doesn’t shift its thinking and practices to accommodate these workers, he said, “you won’t attract stars. You’ll have employees, yeah, but not stars. If you do happen to get lucky and hire a star, you won’t hold them.”

What’s Changed

Clifton said success for his generation meant marriage, having a family, owning a home and taking a two-week vacation. “Millennials get married later in life, or not at all. They have fewer kids, or none at all. Their job is their life. If the job doesn’t have meaning, their life doesn’t have meaning.”

Instead of focusing on a salary, today’s 20- to 30-something worker is more focused on work/life balance, being valued and making a difference, according to Clifton.

Clifton outlined how perceptions about work have changed since he was a young man:

  • From satisfaction to development. Employee engagement for Millennials isn’t about soft perks like free lunches, “ping-pong tables and espresso machines,” as is sometimes depicted, he said. Today’s young generation of workers wants to contribute and add value to the company. “ ‘Satisfaction’ is condescending. They want a higher purpose and want to know what they can become.”
  • From boss to coach. Command-and-control management practices are a thing of the past, according to Clifton. “This is a big shift. They want bosses who are committed to developing and maximizing their skills and strengths.”
  • From annual reviews to ongoing conversations. “The annual performance review does not work for this generation,” he said. “The problem with the annual review is that it’s always looking back. You can’t deliver purpose and coaching once a year. You need at least one touch a week.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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