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Generation Work

Managing global millennials: put your stereotypes aside

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

(iStockphoto)

(iStockphoto)

The millennial generation grew up in a global village, connected across borders by the internet and social media. Those links have helped produce a cohort with many shared experiences, values and attitudes. But just how much alike are millennials around the world, particularly when it comes to career and workplace issues?

That’s a question I have been exploring since I researched and wrote my book The Trophy Kids Grow Up, a look at the generation born between 1980 and 2001 as this age group entered the workforce. After making presentations about millennials to corporate recruiters and managers in such countries as Italy, Sweden, Scotland, Canada and Argentina, I came away convinced that the world’s young people are more alike than different  — from their social media habits, to their hovering helicopter parents, to their confidence and great expectations.

When I led a roundtable discussion with human-resource managers in Italy, for example, I was struck by how much their observations matched those of employers in the United States.

“They haven’t even arrived at their new job and already they want to know where they’ll go next,” one manager complained. Another manager said the firm had to provide “special training in problem solving because parents have always been the problem solvers”.

Still, employers shouldn’t assume that all commonly observed millennial traits are universal. In recruiting and managing this generation, managers need to be aware of possible geographic variations.

Several cross-cultural studies have uncovered noteworthy differences. For example, millennials everywhere may be tethered to their tech gadgets, but a 2010 study by Accenture, the management consulting firm, showed that young people in China spent significantly more time in the virtual world for both work and play, than their counterparts in other nations. The research also found that millennials in India, the US and China were the most likely to consider access to state-of-the-art technology a vital factor in choosing an employer.

“Everybody is getting bucketed together, but when you look country by country, there are some significant differences,” said Melissa Bailey, president of the Americas division at Universum, a consulting firm for employer branding. “Companies have to get down into the details to see the levers they need to pull to attract millennials; they aren’t going to be the same in all countries.”

That has implications for the best approaches to recruiting these young workers. For example, more respondents in the US and Canada cite job security as an important career goal than those in most other countries, according to Universum’s just-completed study of college business students. In India and China, a lower-than-average percentage of respondents consider being “competitively or intellectually challenged” a key goal, while a relatively small proportion of Japanese students say they want to manage people or be entrepreneurial. And for most European students — especially those in France, Spain and Italy — an international career is highly coveted.

There are also cultural differences over the pivotal issue of balancing work and home life, according to Universum’s study and other recent research. Millennials in many countries, particularly America, crave jobs that leave ample time for personal pursuits. But the demand for work-life balance is more pronounced in Western countries in general, a distinction that could give Asians an edge in surviving today’s demanding workplace.

“We find that employees in the East region are less likely to leave than those in other parts of the world if their work-life balance isn’t to their liking,” said Dennis Finn, vice chairman and global human capital leader at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But at the same time, he said, millennials in Asia-Pacific are still “very susceptible to job and career dissatisfaction. They don’t feel good if they aren’t consulted enough about staffing decisions and don’t have input into where they are going in the firm.”

Those were among the findings of a two-year project, conducted with London Business School and the University of Southern California, that included surveys, focus groups, individual interviews, and a social media “jam” to elicit the views of PwC’s millennial employees. PwC is understandably intent on figuring out the generation, given that it will represent nearly 80% of the firm’s global workforce by 2016.

The PwC study found that regardless of nationality, millennials want meaningful jobs, flexible working conditions, a strong connection with their supervisors and teams, and recognition and appreciation. Many millennials also are more interested than other generations in getting an overseas assignment, especially young PwC employees hired in such emerging markets as Brazil, Mexico and India.

Generational friction

Other research has examined millennials’ style of communication, which is often a major source of friction between the generations. Unlike their older colleagues, millennials tend to be extremely casual and communicate online rather than face-to-face. While millennials everywhere rely extensively on texting and social media, some studies have detected regional variations in the way young people communicate.

For example, there is less emphasis on face-to-face communication among Asian millennials than those in North America and Europe, IBM found in a global survey of more than 3,400 undergraduate and graduate students last year.   

What’s more, “Asian students are more likely to be connected through social media with people they don’t have personal contact with in their non-digital lives,” said Anthony Marshall, strategy and transformation leader for the IBM Institute for Business Value. “But in Europe and North America, students more often interact in social media with people from their lives, so they are multichannel interactions, not just online interactions. While 61% of North American respondents interacted with the same people online as offline, only 35% of those in China did.”  

IBM also saw differences when it asked students about the kind of work environment that would most engage them: collaborative ranked first in both North and South America; communicative, in Europe; innovative, in Japan and India; and creative, in China.

Clearly, employers need to consider such nuances as they build their future workforces in different locales around the globe. A one-size-fits-all strategy for recruitment and retention is unlikely to capture the best millennial talent.

“It’s a very superficial” perspective, said Marshall. “Whenever we start to say there are stereotypical millennials who are the same around the world, we’re simply not going to be right.”

A one-size-fits-all strategy for recruitment and retention is unlikely to capture the best millennial talent.