Two Things Employers Must Do To Survive in the Experience Economy

I was watching Last Week Tonight and John Oliver delivered a genius rant about the IRS (so funny if you haven’t seen). In between tech-shaming them for still using magnetic tape, pointing out that no person on earth could find this work interesting, and then asking us to please forgive them anyways, he mentioned something that really struck me: “The IRS lost over 13,000 employees between 2010 and 2014. Now, most IRS employees are over 50 and less than 1% is under 25.” For as funny as the bit was, it was equally scary because it exposes so much truth about the future of work.

It got me thinking: how will millennial values, priorities and work preferences impact individual organizations and even entire industries that don’t appeal to them?

In a global study, PWC revealed that 58% of Millennials said they would “avoid working in a particular sector solely because they believe it had a negative image – oil and gas was seen as the most unappealing.” While sector image varies by region, consider the reality for the finance industry in Ireland – right now, 30% of millennials will avoid the industry altogether[1].  If nearly 60% of a generation that will represent 75% of the workforce by 2025 is actively shunning you because of your reputation, what on earth can you possibly do to get the other 40% or so to pay attention while global political/cultural/economic trends either work for or against your employment image?

At the highest level, this is a two-step process. The first step is understanding the importance of experiences to this generation. The second step is engineering a work experience that authentically speaks to millennial values and priorities (and it better be authentic – because that’s one of the values.)

Let’s unpack the importance of experiences. Millennials have come of age during a financial crisis of epic proportion (yes, I know, so have other generations). 

With a depressing economy shaping their values, having experiences now trumps having “things”.  A recent survey from Eventbrite reveals that 78% of Gen Y would rather spend money on an experience than a thing; 77% say their best memories come from experiences and 69% say their experiences make them feel more connected to their communities, other people, and the world[2].

Beyond the economy, consider technology’s role in fueling a generation obsessed with gaining and sharing experiences. Look around, there’s anecdotal evidence everywhere.

Airbnb is disrupting the hospitality & travel industry. Why? Their technology platform creates immediate access to experiences through less expensive, non-traditional accommodations. Want to stay in an eclectic tree house in the middle of Washington for 4 days with your friends? Awesome! Want to go on a European jaunt that your parents wouldn’t have dreamt of in their 20’s? Go for it – you can rest your head for just $75 a day.

Another example is Instagram. It’s the fastest growing social network amongst millennials in 2014[3]. Why? It’s the most elegant way to share experiences (and you know that Earlybird filter just makes those selfies pop). Millennials stay hyper-connected for a reason. Their motivation to commune – the need for connection, relationships and community trumps all[4]. Sharing their experiences drives the social conversation and becomes the public expression of their identity (more so than money or status.) “Who I am is surmised from where I go and what I do, what I share and what I know.[5]”… Oh yeah, and if there’s no pic, it didn’t happen.

How can organizations in every industry (even the non-sexy ones) engineer an experience that millennials will be attracted too; that they’ll feel is share worthy? It’s already proving to be a huge challenge for the organizations that already appeal to millennials. A recent panel including two very different companies – Deloitte’s consulting arm and Silicon Valley’s Box – had both CEO’s acknowledging in unison they lose sleep over the challenges of attracting and retaining millennials. “Unlike perhaps the generations that came before them, the youngest generation in the workforce is unmotivated by a staple in the consulting world: title changes and promotions.” Instead, says Jim Moffat of Deloitte, “Young Deloitte employees are value and impact driven which is forcing the firm to re-evaluate their HR priorities.” 

This brings me to the second part of the process – understanding their values and priorities and making them part of the experience you deliver every day:

Personalized Personal Development: consistently for most millennials, personal development ranks very high, and in reality is driving the decision to accept a specific job more than any other factor – even pay[6]. It absolutely amazes me how much this generation values continued learning. We should all be grateful that they’re unsatisfied with 4 years of higher learning! The majority of millennials in Deloitte’s 2015 global survey feel that higher education only prepared them for two-thirds of the skills that businesses value most. While they feel strong on their “soft skills” like integrity, teamwork/collaboration and professionalism, they feel less prepared in terms of leadership, business knowledge or sales and marketing skills and they have no problem owning that. While their natural curiosity and motivation to learn helps, it is incumbent upon us to give them a tangible way to improve their skills on a very personalized level. I believe there’s a disconnect between the millennial perception of what strengths the business wants/needs – it’s very clear that innovative companies do indeed place a huge value on analytical thinking and collaboration – again – it’s on us to make sure they realize that!

Empower millennials with a way to learn at the personalized level in digestible amounts that fit into their day. For example, if they need to hone leadership skills, provide a tool that connects them with a relatable example of leadership within the organization that can offer tangible insight on how to communicate effectively with a team.

Work Life Balance: No newsflash here, this remains important to Millennials. However, we need to rethink what this means. A new HBR Millennial study drilled into this globally and found it’s more of a “work-me balance”[7]. Consistently, balance for millennials means “enough leisure time for my private life.”

What’s more interesting is that the study broke down further, how Millennials want to prioritize that private life.

Look at the chart below. The orange dot is ‘spend time with family’. The light blue one is ‘grow and learn new things’. Look at that blue dot – closely. In every region except Africa, that blue dot ranks above the green one ‘to have a successful career’ and way above the maroonish one ‘to have time to enjoy my hobbies.’

millenial chart


Guys,…this is one seriously ambitious, knowledge hungry group

Work life balance isn’t just about empowering work anytime anywhere through great technology – that’s now universal table stakes regardless of generation. It’s about helping Millennials fit in their priorities every day.

Engineer a work experience that encourages the individual to stretch a little every day towards acquiring a new skill or applying something they’re already great at to a completely unrelated task. Instead of always focusing them on a particular set of tasks that is associated with a specific role, try encouraging the application of a specific strength to something entirely new.

Sense of Purpose: Amongst what Deloitte dubs the coveted “super connected millennials”, 77% report that the company’s purpose is part of the reason they joined[8].” When they are considering what makes an organization a leader in the industry, they care very little about an organization’s scope or scale, its overt charitable activity, or the profiles of senior executives. What they want is an organization that treats employees very well, has a positive social impact, creates innovative products and has a defined purpose to which it is authentically true.

Create a hyper focus on the ability to articulate how individuals and teams at the local level contribute to the larger purpose of the organization. “How does what I’m doing right now specifically make an impact on what this company is about?” That means giving team leaders a way to gauge progress and offer coaching within the context of the work that is happening now – not six months ago.

Organizations that create an environment that fosters new experiences and innovation by stretching people – encouraging them collaborate and learn will rise to the top, fueled by a workforce that will naturally share these stories within their personal networks and increase the pull of the overall employment brand. Will Millennials singlehandedly redefine The F500? I say yes. They will reward the brands who engineer a fulfilling, worthy experience that helps them create a life, not just a living.

Photo credit: GoPro