If you read business magazines and blogs, you’ve probably noticed a steady stream of recent content about how companies can attract millennials. As a member of this highly-coveted generation, I don’t see what the big deal is. By the year 2020, we will make up 50% of the global workforce. Even if we factor in current trends toward entrepreneurialism, millennials will by no means be a scarce commodity in the years ahead.
The challenge for employers, then, is less about attracting young talent than it is about adapting to cultural change. While ascribing a set of traits to an entire generation may be overly simplistic, few would deny that evolving technology, globalization, and a host of other societal trends are creating a culture gap that’s causing friction in conventional workplaces. Public relations firms are no exception.
In truth, because the public relations (PR) industry is still invested in what many see as outdated business practices, the millennial shift may be particularly difficult for PR firms. Here are five millennial characteristics that are shaping these workplaces now.
It’s common sense that a 24-year-old will probably have an easier time managing a twitter account than a professional in her mid fifties (though there are big exceptions to this rule, and they are becoming more frequent). The fact is, those who didn’t grow up using computers and cellphones face a much steeper learning curve when it comes to leveraging new technologies.
Public relations in particular will benefit from an influx of young people who are comfortable using digital platforms and tools. As Drew Benvie (founder of Battenhall Communications) notes, PR agencies have tended not to foster innovation, as “it clashes with their billable hours model”. But industry attitudes are changing. Leaders are starting to see the value of going digital.
From content-creation platforms to big data analytics, digital technologies are allowing PR practitioners to better understand and reach potential audiences than ever before. Increasingly-sophisticated automation is reducing the time and resources required to carry out necessary tasks, such as monitoring online media. More often than not, millennials are more more enthusiastic about the introduction of these technologies than their older counterparts. Managers can build on this enthusiasm while capitalizing on hard-earned wisdom by fostering collaboration between practitioners of different generations.
Multitasking has fallen out of favour of late. Once considered crucial for those in public relations and other fast-paced professions, the ability to do several things at once is now viewed by many scientists as a neurological impossibility. Research suggests that what multitaskers are actually engaging in is task switching, a practice that, as Forbes contributor Travis Bradberry puts it, “kills your performance and may even damage your brain”.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of constant distractions – whether our brains are equipped to deal with them or not. Consider this: in 2010, information overload – the mental burnout that occurs when a person is bombarded by too much information – cost the American economy one trillion dollars. Since then, digital distractions have only increased.
In some sectors, continuous social media, mobile and internet use is a productivity killer. In public relations, it’s part of the job. Blocking lines of communication with the outside world is simply impossible. Many members of a generation raised with information overload will be more adept at dealing with distracting (but essential) digital communications and sudden priority shifts than the generations that came before.
“Fickle” is one way of describing it. “Disloyal” is another. But for many millennials, job hopping is viewed as just plain smart. Having come of age during a time of economic instability and increased global outsourcing, the new generation of workers does not, for the most part, subscribe to the concept of company loyalty.
A recent FastCompany article explores this increasingly-popular pattern of employment. Author Vivian Giang argues that companies benefit from employees who are “constantly placed outside of their comfort zones”, as these professionals learn quickly and stay engaged for the entire term of their employment.
Public relations firms have notoriously high turnover, and thanks to the job-hopping tendencies of young professionals, turnover is only increasing. That said, not everyone is convinced that low employee retention rates can be explained by a broader generational trend. According to Laurent L. Lawrence, Associate Director of Public Relations for the PRSA in New York, industry-specific factors such as increased external recruitment, sluggish salary increases, and lousy agency onboarding all play a significant role in the loss of young talent.
Is it the culture in PR firms that’s the problem, or a a set of generational trends? And is frequent job switching actually a threat to companies, or will it (as Giang asserts) ultimately benefit both workers and employers? The jury’s still out, but one thing is certain. Firms are going to have to start planning better in order to get the most out of short-term employees.
According to a Globe and Mail article, as of 2013 (the year of the article’s publication), 68.9 per cent of Canadians were “mobile workers”. The same article forecasted that in 2016, that number would climb to 73 per cent.
A mobile worker is anyone who performs at least part of their job outside of the office. In the past, mobility was seen as a sign of instability. In contrast, many millennials appreciate the freedom a more mobile lifestyle provides. This attitude shift is partly attributable to the higher rates of post-secondary education among this generation of workers. Millennials entering the workforce are more likely to have enjoyed the flexibility associated with student life.
This is one trend the public relations industry has adapted to quickly. Many PR professionals work remotely some or all of the time. In many cases, management is very accommodating (for a firsthand account of what it’s like to do PR from home, check out this blog post from Pete Larmey at tech PR firm SpeakerBox Communications).
As this trend continues, technologies that enable remote collaboration between team members will begin to play a crucial role in agency success. Project and database management software will be used increasingly to keep employees in sync. Media-monitoring platforms that allow for easy document sharing and report creation will ensure everybody understands the mindshare occupied by clients. Managers who are seeing an increase in mobile workers on their teams would do well to start looking at relevant collaborative tools.
Millennials are often said to be ambitious (though some see this as a positive way of framing another frequently-cited trait: entitlement).
It makes sense to be skeptical of any analysis that makes sweeping generalizations about the prevalence of personality traits. But there’s no denying that trends in parenting styles can foster certain attitudes in children, which can have an impact on a society’s culture down the road. As an example, a recent pwc study found that “female millennials are the most confident and ambitious of any female generation”. This finding could have significant positive implications for public relations, a field that attracts a higher-than-average percentage of female professionals.
A study from the Plank Centre for Leadership in Public Relations found that, when it comes to entering new positions in the field, “[m]illennials are ambitious and desire quick promotion”. Whether you choose to view this attitude as ambitious or self-centred, it has the potential to benefit employers. Practitioners who are eager to impress are more likely to make significant contributions early in their careers. The conclusions of relevant studies are pretty unanimous: provide promising millennials with opportunities, and they will almost certainly shine
Bridging the Culture Gap
The influx of millennials into the workforce is having a significant impact on practically every existing industry. That said, due to the antiquated attitudes that persist in many firms, public relations is being disproportionately affected by this shift.
Disruption presents many challenges, but it also offers opportunities. In the years, ahead, employers and employees will be forced to comprise in order to find common ground.
Feature courtesy of Elizabeth Hahn