What Millennials Want

Work-life balance is supposedly what the kids want these days. Everything points to that, but what is it and how can it be a career goal?

Somehow, work-life balance has become the battle cry of a generation. As a Gen Xer, I understood that you have to put in hours, face time, blood, sweat and tears to climb the corporate ladder, and that’s what I have been doing. Is the joke on me? Is it possible to have it all at work and life? I would never ask in an interview about the company’s work-life balance, as a candidate asked me recently. Still, everyone from entry-level employees to the CEO is talking about it, and it doesn’t seem to be just a fad.

As president of employer branding company Universum’s Americas business, I am particularly interested in what drives people to join organizations. Universum conducts a global survey of students and young professionals each year, asking half a million students about their career goals, job preferences and ideal companies. In the U.S. alone last year, we surveyed 65,679 undergraduates at top academic institutions. Consistently during the past three years, the one thing students want out of their career, more than anything else, is work-life balance (Figure 1). Not leadership opportunities, security or prestige, but balance.

What is the driving force behind the emerging workforce’s desire for balance, and what does it mean for companies? Should we expect employees to spend less time in the office and give more flexibility? Will this result in lower productivity at a time when companies need to do more with less? Or have we misunderstood the meaning of work-life balance? The answers to these questions could mean we have misjudged this generation as lazy, and could indicate that our efforts to appeal to its preferences have been misguided.

The data doesn’t lie. Universum’s 25 years of research about student career preferences confirms work-life balance as a top priority. The actual experience of work today is different from before, due in part to rapid advancements in technology and communication. Today, thanks to virtual technology, most people have the ability to work and communicate from anywhere.

Even when they leave work, employees are expected to keep working. Gone are the days when people leave the office and don’t need to do anything else until they return the next morning. Millennials have spent their entire lives being “plugged in” — at home, at school and now at work. The emerging workforce is unique in that it has never really experienced a world in which life and work were separate.

Just as technological advancements have affected the way we work, job expectations for millennials are different from those of previous generations. The overwhelming majority — 85 percent — of students surveyed globally indicated that work is more than a way of making money; it’s a part of who they are. In this sense, students’ call for work-life balance isn’t an indication of laziness — it’s the need for their jobs to be representative of who they want to be.

Millennials expect companies to paint a picture of what life would be like working for their organization — the compensation and benefits packages are much less important than they were in the past. For example, I once worked for a company where the average age of employees was under 30, and yet the first thing the new head of HR did when she came onboard was to introduce a new retirement benefit. Had that been a data-based decision, we would have had summer Fridays.

A competitive salary and benefits package is still necessary, but it is what is called a threshold offering — the bare minimum millennials expect a company to offer. A company needs to have it, but it doesn’t need to talk about it unless it is one of the few companies that choose this as the distinctive piece of their employee value proposition.

Universum’s research indicates that soft attributes, like job characteristics related to a company’s people and culture, have been consistently important to students in recent years, while remuneration, advancement opportunities and an employer’s reputation have become less important (Figure 2).

Companies that are able to communicate a message that conveys what it would really be like to work there day-to-day are the ones that will stand out and attract the best talent. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do. In fact, more than half of companies surveyed in Universum’s Talent Attraction Barometer listed “differentiation” as their top employer branding challenge.

Why is this challenging? Differentiation is difficult because companies do not take enough time to understand the intersection between what they have to offer and what their ideal employee wants. Marketing executives spend the majority of their time and money in this area. For example, countless surveys and focus groups are conducted to understand what is going to make a mom buy premium diapers vs. the store brand. Every decision is made thoughtfully and with data.

However, companies do not make that investment when it comes to defining the type of people they need to hire and what messaging is necessary to convert them from considering to applying. Instead, they have been fooled by the vast amount of big data about what motivates the millennial generation. The problem with this approach is that all companies are reading the same information.

There is no shortage of information. A Google search for “what do millennials want in a job?” yields 1.7 million results. Reading a few of these articles reveals a consistent theme: The millennial generation wants it all. So companies try to appeal to it all, often by making sweeping generalizations about the demands of the emerging workforce and molding their employer brands to fit.

Since every employer is reading the same articles, every employer has begun to look and sound the same. Students can’t tell them apart, nor do they have a good understanding of what it would be like to work at one organization vs. another. There has been an influx of branding messages and buzzwords — innovation, work-life balance, diversity and collaboration — that every employer has tried to incorporate into its messaging.

Students’ indecision when it comes to choosing an employer is evidence of this phenomenon. They are considering an average of 20 companies when thinking about their future careers — double the amount from 10 years ago. Simply put, students can’t tell the difference between companies and are struggling to identify where they’d actually be a good match. Rather than truly understanding what an employer has to offer, students are casting a wide net and hoping for a catch. While this may seem advantageous for popular companies that have no problem attracting students, it leads to problems with engagement, productivity and retention down the line.

The fact is that often companies do have very different employee value propositions, but in an attempt to say what they think students want to hear, they wind up communicating the same thing. Innovation at a large company likely means something very different from innovation at a small startup. At the big company you may be afforded access to the latest technologies, while at startups they are talking about innovation of thought and resourcefulness.

The day-to-day experiences at each of these places are probably at opposite ends of the spectrum, but those subtleties are lost when both communicate the same message. Likewise, “work-life balance,” another popular attribute that companies think will resonate with students, could have vastly different meanings in practice, from working fewer hours to enjoy personal time to simply having control over one’s own time, regardless of how much time is spent at work.

By communicating only surface-level attributes and buzzwords, companies risk serious retention problems. Because attributes like innovation and work-life balance mean different things at different places, when students and employers make assumptions about what they mean, expectations won’t be aligned. Even if companies are looking for candidates with similar academic backgrounds, the right-fit candidate is probably different for a large corporation and a small startup. When communication about the value proposition doesn’t align with the actual experience, both students and companies will be disappointed.

Companies need data to make decisions. Not just any data, but the right data. For every article that states that millennials want and need work-life balance, there is a sophomore who genuinely wants to be the next CEO and truly understands that sacrifices will need to be made to achieve that goal. For every study that proves that millennials are tech geniuses, there is a 23-year-old grad student who simply cannot figure out Evernote. That is why it is necessary to define the target group and understand how they are different from the general population. Without that, companies will likely miss the mark.

Data will reveal trends and ideas, new information and even unexpected surprises, but big data on what the millennial generation wants cannot be the only data used when creating the employer branding strategy. Companies also need to look inside to understand who they are as an organization, and find the intersection between the two.

Companies need to understand what their target group wants, define the attributes that make their organization unique and craft their messages in a way that makes what they are offering differentiated and genuine.

Rather than communicating a message of having it all, companies should focus on a few attributes that truly resonate and communicate those well. Buzzwords can be imitated, but an organization’s culture cannot.

In aligning the preferences of their target students with the true experiences of their organization, companies will have a strong message that resonates — perhaps not one of having it all, but having all that matters to the right people.

Melissa Murray Bailey is president of the Americas at consulting firm Universum. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com