How millennials will influence workplace culture

A growing leadership gap makes room for the next generation

“Who run the world?” That’s the rhetorical question Beyoncé asked in her 2011 hit song of the same name. She was singing about girls but pose that question today and the answer, when it comes to work, is millennials.

Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center study projected that millennials – people born between 1981 and 1996 – will leap ahead of baby boomers in 2019 to become the largest generation around. (Sorry Gen Xers.) By 2020, they will comprise roughly half the global workforce. No wonder businesses are focused more than ever on attracting and retaining millennial talent.

This is especially important in Alberta, which has one of Canada’s youngest populations. Despite a recent downturn, the province predicts a labour shortage of close to 50,000 people in the next decade, which will make attracting and retaining younger people more crucial than ever.

So what are the myths and misconceptions about millennials? How might workplaces change under their influence? And how can organizations help the next generation take up leadership roles?

Forget the stereotypes

millennials at workGeneration X were pegged as directionless and disaffected. Millennials, in turn, are allegedly lazy, entitled and impatient for advancement. They are agile with technology but addicted to it. Their wanderlust and inflated expectations have made them favour job hopping over loyalty to a single company. But studies of previous generations have proven this to be untrue. (In fact, Gen Xers changed jobs as often as their younger colleagues.)

“I get my back up when people say millennials are only interested in getting gigs.”

“I get my back up when people say millennials are only interested in getting gigs,” says Shannon Neighbour (Marketing ’00) of Edmonton’s Svensen Neighbour Recruiting. She places a lot of millennials with clients but admits her clients often struggle with understanding and motivating them.

“Millennials are very hard working as long as they’re doing something they’re passionate about.” And they crave feedback. “They want to know how they’re contributing to the success of the company,” says Neighbour. “They want to know how they fit into the big picture.”

Focus on strengths

millennials and technology

Fahad Khan (Marketing ’07) founded Canada Prime Marketing in 2009 – two years after graduating – and hires many millennials, believing they offer creativity and are inherently good with technology. Being part of that generation helps him understand their motivations and weaknesses. “We need people who are brought up with technology and understand it,” he says.

“We’re selective about who we hire.” Skills can be taught, he believes, but a drive to improve is mandatory.

Acknowledge values

millennials having the time of their lives

All of the generations share the same or similar values,” explains NAIT instructor Dr. Rhonda Betker, noting that each looks for achievement, balance and responsibility.

“Where the differences lies is with how each generation expresses these values. Millennials are driven to make their jobs accommodate their personal lives to pursue education or volunteerism.”

While career advancement is as important to them as it is to older generations, millennials also want to work for companies with compatible values. And they won’t compromise easily.

“They know very clearly what they want in exchange for their work, and will keep looking until they find the right job,” says Betker, who holds a PhD in management in organization leadership and teaches Bachelor of Technology students.

Create "two-way" learning opportunities

millennials becoming leaders, baby boomers retiring

In the next decade, boomers will continue to retire and the Gen X population isn’t big enough to pick up the slack, leading to a leadership gap. As millennials move into those roles, they will influence not only the bottom line but a company’s culture. The challenge will be to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.

The challenge will be to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.

“Millennials bring technology and change to the workplace, and they find themselves competing with older generations, who have more applied knowledge and investment in their area of expertise,” says Betker. She believes tech-savvy millennials are eager to learn and keen to build meaningful relationships through collaborative leadership.

“They prefer motivational leaders as coaches and mentors,” she says. The key is for current leaders to create what Betker describes as “two-way learning” between generations.

Khan shares the view that mentorship is key for millennials. In fact, he credits his own mentors with helping him build his business, which this year was named one of the country’s fastest growing companies by Canadian Business magazine.

“My mentor taught me that the person I am today is not the same person who will be successful tomorrow.”

Be flexible

millennial works from home

Gone is the 9-5 workday, as more staff look for schedules that fit their lives. Neighbour points to a paradigm shift.

“Millennials say, ‘I want to be valued for work I’m doing and be paid for work I’m doing. I don’t want to travel 70 per cent of the day. I want to be home to spend time with my family and friends.’ It’s very difficult for  a lot of companies to find people – and not  just millennials – who want to work really intense schedules.”

So what can we expect?

“We’ll see more diversity, and more flexibility in what peoples’ jobs look like, and in how organizations retain talented people who can’t commit to a 40-hour workweek,” says Neighbour. This might mean letting staff work remotely or part time, implementing flexible working hours or allowing job-shares.

Embrace diversity


“For organizations to be competitive, diversity is key. They need multiple voices – be it age, gender, religious background, you name it,” says Neighbour. Yet she thinks diversity is still a buzzword in business, despite the new ideas and perspectives it brings to workplaces.

“They are very focused on diversity and inclusion. They’ve grown up with it."

“We’re not necessarily seeing a lot of quantifiable action,” she says. This is where millennials can be a huge asset. “They are very focused on diversity and inclusion. They’ve grown up with it, and they’re bringing that mentality into the workforce.”

Let them bring about change

millennial dreams about the future!

Workplace org charts will “flatten out” as they become more collaborative, and the collapse of the management hierarchy could benefit millennials, Neighbour predicts. “I don’t think millennials like organizations where you have to go through five chains of command to order a pen.”

The impact won’t just be on office supplies, though: it could make companies more creative – and competitive.

Workplace culture will also be influenced by a change in priority. “Millennials want to be judged on their results, not on time spent on the clock,” Betker says.

“They are the best educated generation in the workforce so far."

“They are the best educated generation in the workforce so far and are highly attuned to their needs for growth. They want to know where they stand, where they are going, and how leadership will support them in getting there.”

For instance, Khan supports his staff by investing in their personal growth and empowering them.

The impact of all this change on companies can only be good news. Not only are millennials good at handling change, Neighbour points out, they’ll also help bring it about – whether through new ideas, more diversity or greater creativity. And that can only benefit the bottom line.

“I think everyone will be involved in the direction of the company,” she says. “And because organizations will be more diverse, they’ll have more ideas to pull from.”

Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.

Sign up today »