Understanding the Nonprofit Millenial

I have had many conversations over the last 5 years with various nonprofit leaders complaining about issues with managing the millennial generation (born 1980 – 2000). As often as I hear this complaint, however, I more often hear managers speak of the passion of this generation. As a sector, nonprofits are benefitting most from this generation for two big reasons: first, they have been involved in philanthropy, understand it and have a sincere desire to make a difference; and second, they believe their career should be more than a paycheck but an extension of their passion and an enjoyable pursuit, making a significantly greater number from this generation look for a career in nonprofit. Just as important, however, is the fact that this generation is talented, well educated, technologically savvy, AND INNOVATIVE. Something I believe to be crucial to the future impact of philanthropy.

However, the generational gap (particularly as it pertains to work) has created conflicting sensibilities of mature bosses who rose slowly through the ranks and their young employees who expect to move up the career ladder much more quickly. Not only do they want to move up quickly AND earn more money, but they want to do so while working less and maintaining a work-life balance that includes substantial time with family and friends. In other words, they don't seem to want to pay their dues as their managers had to do before them. This is because of their need to balance their personal life with work. Work simply isn’t as important to millennials as it was to previous generations at the same point in their careers. This can be frustrating for managers, making them feel that the generational gap in work attitude is too large to conquer. And many managers give up, saying they just won't hire Millennials anymore. But this idea is as unrealistic as it is stubborn.

The aging Boomer population has made the work environment desperate for new help. The average age for a nurse today is 47, creating an immediate need. Half of all certified school teachers plan to retire within five years, and sixty percent of all Federal workers are Baby Boomers about ready for retirement. The U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that in less than a decade, Millennials will comprise about half of the working-age population in the U.S. There’s no way around it – we need our Millennial workers. But I believe it is their innovativeness, not simply their demand, that will make them an outstanding generation.

Understanding the development of this generation, however, will help to plan how the work environment will need to evolve to get the most from this new and growing workforce. A great article called Managing Millennials by Claire Raines (the full article of which can be found at http://www.generationsatwork.com/articles/millenials.htm) speaks specifically on the development of Millennials. Raines explained that life experiences created the filters through which they see the world—especially the world of work. She believed that the following eight key trends of the 90s and 00s had a profound effect on their generational personality (and what I believe to be a "workforce personality" that will greatly benefit the future and innovation of the nonprofit sector, IF we know how bring out the best in them). The trends include:

Focus on children and family. In the decades right before and after the turn of the Millennium, Americans moved the spotlight back onto kids and their families. That spotlight has swung like a pendulum over the last sixty years. During the post-WWII era, children were all the rage. It was a popular time to be having kids and to be a kid. Then, when the Gen-Xers were growing up, the spotlight had shifted. Latchkey kids, children of divorce, and kids with two working parents found themselves growing up with the understanding work took time and priority, especially if you wanted to move up the ladder and become a leader or manager. The early 90s saw the spotlight swinging back. Las Vegas and Club Med went family. Parents and grandparents took the kids along on trips across the country and to destinations all over the globe. Eating out—once an adult thing—became a family matter. Ninety percent of fathers attended the birth of their children. The Federal Forum on Family Statistics reported that national attention to children was at an all-time high (The earlier peak was in the 1960s when the Boomers were kids.).

Scheduled, structured lives. The Millennials were the busiest generation of children we’ve ever seen in the U.S, growing up facing time pressures traditionally reserved for adults. Parents and teachers micromanaged their schedules, planning things out for them, leaving very little unstructured free time. They were signed up for soccer camp, karate club, and ballet lessons—and their parents were called into service, shuttling them from one activity to the next. Some started carrying Daytimers when they were in elementary school. 

Multiculturalism. Kids grew up in the 90s and 00s with more daily interaction with other ethnicities and cultures than ever before. The most recent data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute shows that interracial interaction among college freshmen has reached a record high. 

Terrorism. During their most formative years, Millennials witnessed the bombing and devastation of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. They watched in horror as two Columbine High School students killed and wounded their classmates, and as school shootings became a three-year trend. And their catalyzing generational event—the one that binds them as a generation, the catastrophic moment they all witnessed during their first, most formative years—is, of course, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. 

Heroism. Emerging out of those acts of violence, Millennials watched the re-emergence of the American hero. Policemen, firemen, firefighters, and mayors were pictured on the front page of the newspaper, featured on TV specials, and portrayed in art and memorabilia. In the 10 months following 9/11, the word hero was heard more than it had been in the entire 10 years before. 

Patriotism. During the post-Vietnam and Watergate era, patriotism was at an all-time low. Displaying the American flag, always and forever the right thing to do for members of the WWII Generation, had become less and less common—particularly among disillusioned Boomers and skeptical Xers. September 11 changed all that. It seemed that national pride had been tested, and the overwhelming verdict was that patriotism was alive and well. The UCLA freshmen survey reported signs of renewed political interest. The percentage of students who reported discussing politics represented the “largest one-year increase since the 1992 presidential election year.”

Parent advocacy. The Millennials were raised, by and large, by active, involved parents who often interceded on their behalf. Protective Boomer and Xer parents tried to ensure their children would grow up safely and be treated well. Parents challenged poor grades, negotiated with the soccer coach, visited college campuses with their charges, and even went along to Army recruiting centers. Then, too, Millennials actually like their parents. In the Generation 2001 survey, conducted by Lou Harris on behalf of Northwest Mutual Life Insurance, Mom and Dad were most often named when young people were asked whom they admired.

Globalism. With penpals in Singapore and Senegal, Millennials grew up seeing things as global, connected, and open for business 24/7.

All of this translates into a generation of employees with a different work ethic than any other, certainly different from their Gen X colleagues. Here are the main components of their work ethic:

Confident. Raised by parents believing in the importance of self-esteem, they characteristically consider themselves ready to overcome challenges and leap tall buildings. Managers who believe in “paying your dues” and coworkers who don’t think opinions are worth listening to unless they come from someone with a prerequisite number of years on the resume find this can-do attitude unsettling. But their ideas are innovative, and worth consideration.

Hopeful and Expectant of a lot from employers. They’re described as optimistic yet practical. They believe in the future and their role in it. They’ve read about businesses with basketball courts, stockrooms stocked with beer for employers, and companies that pay your way through school. They expect a workplace that is challenging, collaborative, creative, fun, and financially rewarding. They also expect managers to respect their ideas, give them a great deal of time and attention, and work hard to make their job enjoyable.

Goal- and achievement-oriented. Just a day after she won a totally unexpected Olympic gold medal, skater Sara Hughes was talking about her next goal—scoring a perfect 1600 on her SATs. Many Millennials arrive at their first day of work with personal goals on paper.

Inclusive, Open to Diversity and Team Oriented. Millennials are used to being organized in teams—and to making certain no one is left behind. They expect to earn a living in a workplace that is fair to all, where diversity is the norm—and they’ll use their collective power if they feel someone is treated unfairly. 

Civic-minded & Highly Philanthropic. They were taught to think in terms of the greater good. They have a high rate of volunteerism. They expect companies to contribute to their communities—and to operate in ways that create a sustainable environment.

SO, the development and work ethic of this generation may be very different, but can be very beneficial to managers and organizations that know how to leverage their strengths. For the nonprofit sector, we benefit even more by their willingness – and insistence – on operating for the greater good.

My next blog will follow-up on this topic, and discuss specifically how to leverage the strengths of this generation through innovative management and flexible policies and procedures.

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