Generation Gap: How Millennials are challenging traditional work practices

Millennials want to be more involved in the workplace with direct access to the decision makers. But the transition from flexible college deadlines to fixed company targets can be difficult, says Helen O’Callaghan.

Generation Gap: How Millennials are challenging traditional work practices

ELEANOR Healy loves that her boss sits across the desk from her. The 23-year-old from Drogheda works for an e-commerce teen fashion accessories company in New York. She got her marketing associate job five months ago.

“Our office is in Tribeca, with a small team all working in an open space environment. I actually sit beside the CEO of the company every day. Which has its advantages — you get feedback straight away and you’re able to bounce ideas around with everyone.”

Having the boss in close proximity is great, says Healy — it “makes you work harder, but also lets you see first-hand what’s  involved in running a start-up company”.

All of which sounds typically millennial — very Net Generation or Generation Y, as the cohort born between the early 1980s and the early noughties are also known. Most likely, someone from Generation X (pre-millennial) would prefer the boss a few offices away with several doors between.

“Millennials want to have visibility with the CEO, so they’re sometimes willing to bypass their line manager,” says work behaviourist and executive coach Fiona Buckley, who teaches graduate programmes to millennial groups.

“They’re not afraid to ask awkward questions in interviews — about time off, annual leave, salary, organisation growth prospects. Previous generations were shy about asking these


Buckley has never seen a millennial put company before themselves, unlike previous generations.

“Millennial commitment and loyalty is to themselves, to their career. They’re very enthusiastic, once what they’re doing aligns to their career and sense of purpose.”

Millennials have no problem saying no. “We often have to coach workers from earlier generations on how to say no. When millennials say no, they’re assertive — they don’t feel guilty.”

Salary’s often not the main motivator for millennials — like the 26-year-old Buckley coached, who had two job offers, one offering €15,000 more. “A lot for a 26-year-old,” says Buckley.

The woman took the lesser-paid job. “She liked the boss a lot more. She liked the immediate manager — they talked more about her career and prospects.”

Writing for Forbes, Jeff Fromm, co-author of Marketing to Millennials and president of millennial marketing consultancy FutureCast, suggests average tenure for millennial

employees is two years — compared to five for Generation X and seven for baby boomers. Observers agree millennials won’t stay if there’s no perceived gain for them.

Work psychologist Patricia Murray knows of a millennial employee, out of college with a master’s degree, in his job for 18 months and looking to change. “They made him a line manager and he decided he’d stay another 18 months to get the experience on his CV. We [Generation X] didn’t have that jump-ahead ambition.”

Murray says millennials arrive into employment from a university culture abounding in concepts like “coaching, mentoring, support — words associated with being facilitated”. They expect the same at work.

Millennials look for mentorship more than direction, agrees chartered psychologist Niamh Hannan (

“They look for feedback — they’re not happy with the once-a-year review. Millennials don’t work for you, they work with you — they’re a more collaborative, inclusive generation.”

This makes perfect sense to New York-based Healy: “Getting credit and feedback’s very important, especially just starting out in your career journey. It’s good to keep your head in check. You sometimes feel you’re giving your life away to your job, so it’s nice to get recognition — your hard work isn’t taken for granted.”

The US Bureau of Labour Statistics predicts millennials will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2030. Millennials work everywhere, says Buckley.

“Being tech savvy, big tech companies are a natural home. Many indigenous Irish companies have big graduation programmes.”

But while we get excited about Google, Facebook, and foreign direct investment companies, Noel Recruitment operations director Siobhan Kinsella says 60% of employment in our economy is in small-to-medium-enterprises, the majority of which are non-tech. “Many of the organisations people work for have less than 10 people.”

Millennials seem a confident bunch who know what they want. Growing up, the click of a mouse brought them whatever they wanted right now: Solution to homework problem, online game, fitness app, likes on social media. Their parents said they were special — ‘follow your dreams’. Employers say they’re independent, enthusiastic, thrive on culture of entrepreneurship and autonomy, and crave flexibility and work-life balance. “They’re willing to work long hours, but if they finish at 3pm they won’t want to hang around ’til 5pm twiddling their thumbs. They’re less willing to conform without thinking,” says Hannan.

But there’s a flip side to this apparent confidence. Millennials are technically capable yet uncomfortable when it comes to face-to-face communication or talking on the phone, says Kinsella.

“Their research skills are excellent — they can consume and interpret vast quantities of data very quickly — but the amount of time they spend communicating using their keyboard versus face-to-face is leaving them at a disadvantage in the workplace.”

A large proportion of most jobs involves dealing with people. “So the better you are at relationship-building and conversation skills, the more you’ll get nuances of a situation, the faster you’ll work. Inter-personal interaction is key to benefiting your organisation and your own development.”

Kinsella believes those who came of age in the 1980s had more cause to develop resilience — vital in the workplace. “Not everything goes to plan at work. Having perspective, being able to brush yourself off, and continue your focus is hugely important.”

It’s an ability she believes millennials may not have. Their screen-dependent,

social-media-driven lives are always about putting out the best version of themselves. “I have yet to see anybody unhappy on social media. They hide anything negative, whereas, in a work context, it’s reality all the way.”

Hannan says millennials lack real confidence because they haven’t built up skills to deal with disappointment and failure. “Growing up, they got things immediately. They got a medal even if they came last. In order to grow self-esteem, you have to give kids responsibility, let them make mistakes. Many millennials had everything done for them. The real world of work isn’t like that — you must be able to deal with ups and downs of criticism, delay gratification; Mammy can’t get you promotion.”

Millennials can tend to look outside of themselves for source of problems/faults — often a feature of youth, says Murray.

But there’s another factor: Millennials haven’t been brought face-to-face with their own inadequacies. “They’ve been getting acknowledgement since playschool — ‘aren’t you great for climbing the curtains’. They have no intimate relationship with their own shortcomings. The first place they get exposure to their failings is in the workplace — not the best place, because the workplace is in the business of profit-making.”

Buckley coaches millennials to slow down — not be so impatient for promotion right now — so they don’t miss out on key lessons of those early work years. She says problem-solving is hugely challenging for them. Used to having information at their fingertips, they don’t work through complex issues step by step. “They can make decisions very quickly without thinking of the consequences.”

Not everybody sees the millennial generation as a breed apart. “There’s always a dynamic as we transition from college, where we’re with peers and everybody’s open and searching in some way, out into the workplace where all of that falls away,” says Dr Maeve Houlihan, director of UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business.

In every generation, she believes there’s tension between “ages and stages” in the workplace — millennials aren’t radically different. “The people I teach and see placed in employment are quite serious, focused, they have a balanced view. They’re concerned about the world, they want to have an effect.”

There’s no doubt millennials face unprecedented pressures: The housing shortage, practical impossibility of saving for a home when rent costs more than a mortgage, not to mind challenges posed by hook-up culture for finding a lifelong mate.

“Millennials place a huge emphasis on career and travel. Dating and looking for a life partner are secondary,” says Buckley. “Yet, they feel huge social media pressure to be the best person they can be, which includes having a partner.”

It’s this addiction to technology and social media that Hannan sees as the big pressure facing millennials. “Relationships are a key to long-term happiness. But real relationships take time. You often have to navigate through some discomfort — ‘did he mean that’, ‘what does this mean for us’. That work can’t be done through phone or social media.”

Hannan suggests those older than millennials could help them see social media isn’t the be all and end all. And millennials have lessons to teach us: This is a generation not just about gyms and juice bars, but about stuff really worth pursuing, such as not wasting time on the small stuff; not working round the clock but having work-life balance; having a social conscience; and contributing to something bigger.

“Times have changed – we need to get with the programme,” she says.

Spotting an employer stand covered in doughnuts at a Grad Ireland graduate career fair led Nicola Kingston to her HR role at frozen bakery company ARYZTA in Clondalkin.

The 24-year-old from Waterford was in her final year of a business degree, specialising in HR, at WIT. “An ARYZTA representative approached me, asked about my degree, and said they were looking for a HR graduate. I really clicked with her, I liked the sound of the company and I applied.”

The lengthy recruitment process required online application, psychometric testing, video screening, phone interview, a day of activities at an assessment centre, final interview, presentation of references, and medical assessment. After four months, Nicola was offered the role and started in August 2016.

Her job involves supporting HR managers in tasks around recruitment, supporting grad programmes around career fairs, presenting inductions (HR section) for all new hires — the company employs more than 550 on-site in Dublin — and helping organise company social and wellbeing events.

“I work 9am-5.30pm. I have flexible hours, it’s not a problem if I want to start and finish early. Sometimes I stay back 45 minutes to finish off things but not that regularly. Five of us work in the HR office. We’re in our 20s to early 30s. The atmosphere’s good, we go for dinner quite often, and we go shopping to Dundrum together.

“Work-wise, what’s important is getting exposure to as much as I can. I want to be a sponge and learn about the business, not just in HR, but other areas as well.

“When millennials start their first job, they often don’t know where to start. We’re spoon-fed at college, given daily reminders of projects two weeks away, constantly reminded ‘don’t forget this’. Deadlines don’t always mean deadlines, extensions can be granted.

“At work, a deadline’s a deadline. You’re responsible for prioritising your own day. There’s nobody beside you looking at your Outlook calendar, saying ‘oh look, you’re double-booked for 10am’. This transition can be challenging.”

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