Workforce pressures: It's not about just millennials

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

There's been a lot written and said lately about managing the youngest wave of workers — and rightfully so. This 18-35-year-old crowd is going to be HALF of long-term care's workforce within five years, experts predict. That's right, half.

But to take your eye off the ball with your Generation Xers (remember the fretting over them just a few years ago?) or baby boomers would be a huge mistake. That was the common-sense, yet eye-opening message at a packed session at the LeadingAge annual meeting Monday in Indianapolis.

Attendees filled the chairs, sat on the floor and stood in the back throughout as Linda Shell, MA, RN, and Wayne Olson, a senior VP at Volunteers of America National Services, detailed their fascinating work researching millennials, and how they impact others.

The multi-layered appeal for attendees was palpable. Sure, the overriding implication was people were listening for how this stuff could affect their hiring and staffing. But the wheels also were silently turning upstairs for the mostly non-millennial crowd: How might generational workplace needs and attitudes affect my own career? Can I be a successful manager of these millennials? Some pondered added dimensions: How might my spouse or coming-of-age grown children need different handling due to their own set of values and work styles?

If you were there, in other words, you had skin in the game.

Shell and Olson reiterated several times: 50% of the long-term care workforce will be millennials by about 2021. There is no escaping them, so accommodations, if not necessarily downright capitulation, must take place to remain viable (my translation).

It's not all bad, I say somewhat tongue-in-cheek to fellow non-millennials. It seems if you work to understand this demographic iceberg, it will pay off.

Boomers and the much smaller Gen Xers generation share more workplace values than millennials do with anyone around them. That's why the experts compared millennials vs. “the others.”

For example, “past” values of older workers vs. the “future” values of millenials bring these before/after juxtapositions, as gleaned from 2016 Gallup poll results:

If the past was more about “my paycheck,” the future will be about “my purpose.”

“My satisfaction” turns to “my development.” My boss trends to “my coach.”

“My annual review” becomes not just “more feedback” but ONGOING conversations (... about “my development,” of course). My “weakness” turns to “my strengths.”

And “my job,” which Shell and Olson say has led to baby boomer burnout, is turning into “my life” (... and how my job can fit into it -- not vice versa).

Middle-aged workers might worry that there's a lot of neediness displayed in the “new” values. But wise managers also will realize the silver linings.

Shell emphasized, for example, that millennials do have a work ethic. It often involves enhanced uses and benefits of technology. (Don't fear what you yourself don't understand, non-millennial manager!)

Millennials are seeking work-life balance, singed perhaps by their parents' own frustration with their lack of it. So they'll want flexibility (... cue the "technology" plug again).

I have to admit a bit of surprise at this assertion from the experts: Millennials will show commitment to an organization. But their desire for immediate, ongoing  feedback must be fed. They also want to advance quickly.

Mixed in there, Shell and Olson repeated several times, is millennials' yearning for coaching and mentoring from their managers. First-paying jobs are coming later in life for many of the millennials, so their LTC managers must realize this and teach accordingly. The payoff in fresh youngsters can be great, with proper investment and attention.

Shell and Olson conducted focus groups with Volunteers of America millennials. That has led VOA to enhance training and adapt nurse orientation, retool company online presence, create the in-house Leadership University, expand recognition of employees in the field, and vastly expand intrastaff communication efforts. These include including intraweb messaging and an employee-only Facebook page with lots of images.

Best of all perhaps, VOA has had an outside trainer conduct workshops. Employees of all vintage defined traits common to five generations of workers. They then identified why clashes might occur between generations and discussed tactics for overcoming such conflict.

The result? Generational clashes have been cut by about 95%, Olson said. That's a sleeping dinosaur many organizations are trying to ignore. VOA took it head on.

So while it comes down to planning and accommodating for this bulging millennial workforce, a key is realizing that the rest of your workers (yourself included!) also have legitimate -- different -- work style preferences and motivational triggers.

Here's the experts' advice on “what to do” for the three main generations on your payroll:

Baby boomers (currently 52-71 years old, approximately) — Offer them flexibility, authority and respect. Challenge them to grow independently. Look to have them volunteer after retirement, if they're so inclined.

Generation Xers (36-51 years old) — Caught between seeing boomer burnout and millennials, whom they feel, need too much hand-holding. Xers like fast feedback and credit for results (more so than other groups). Help them advance their jobs/careers. Offer them project work, which is where they often thrive.

Millennials (18-35 years old) — Don't sweat dress codes and punctuality as much. They crave fair, direct managers who are highly engaged in their personal development. Learn about their personal capabilities and then push their limits. Develop their ability to focus and customize work. Have them pivot their attention at work quickly.

Shell and Olson emphasized that each organization must customize its workplace culture and training to fit its needs appropriately. Company size, geographic location and mission statement all will affect this.

The bottom line: Millennials will be a challenge, but they also can be heartening … if attended to properly. They are motivated by finding work with a meaning or a purpose. This group also WILL act like professionals if their managers treat them like professionals in the first place, Shell and Olson promised.

“They are looking for strong leadership,” Shell reminded. “They are not looking for [just] managers. They want somebody to lead them.”

Will it be you, and will you remember the others too?

Follow James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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