Millennials Replace Corporate Ladder With Catapult, Study Finds

May 12, 2010 - News Release

The millennial generation expects to bypass the rungs on the corporate ladder and jump right to the top, according to new University of Guelph research.

Prof. Sean Lyons has found a majority of Canadian undergraduate students about to enter the workforce presume they will be promoted within the first 18 months of starting a job and be handed a 63-per-cent increase in their salary within the first five years.

“The traditional idea of getting a job at the bottom rung, paying your dues and working your way up doesn’t exist anymore,” says the business professor. “This is a generation that has high self-esteem and a sense of entitlement, and that can lead to unrealistic expectations.”

With the impending retirement of the baby boomers, organizations are scrambling to recruit and retain a new generation of workers with significantly different career expectations and values compared with their parents, says Lyons, who worked on the study with Linda Schweitzer of Carleton University and Ed Ng of California State Polytechnic University.

“We wanted to look at the career expectations and priorities of the millennials because it will help employers create job offerings and work environments that are appealing to this generation.”

Published recently in the Journal of Business and Psychology, the study surveyed some 24,000 undergraduate university students between 18 and 27. Participants were asked about their expectations related to career, advancement and pay, as well as their desired work attributes.

Results show this generation anticipates their starting salaries to hover around $43,000, which is fairly realistic, says Lyons. But once they get their foot in the door, millennials expect their salaries to skyrocket to close to $70,000 within the first five years.

The assumption they will be handed hefty raises is likely because 70 per cent of the respondents expect to be promoted within the first year and a half of working, he says. And 35 per cent anticipate making a move upwards in under a year.

“Rapid career advancement was rated as this generation’s top priority, but it would be miraculous if these lofty expectations were met. There is a direct correlation between their unrealistic expectations and the fact they have never been told they can’t achieve whatever they want.”

The study also shows these high expectations aren’t based on grade performance. Even those with lower grades had the same assumptions about salary increases and promotions, says Lyons.

“This finding corroborates the stereotype of millennials feeling entitled.”

Despite their high expectations when it comes to advancement and pay, 71 per cent of participants reported they would accept a less-than-ideal job as a career starter. Lyons says the millennials don’t view their first job as the launch of their career.

“The idea is that they will get their first job and work until they have saved enough money to travel. Their first job is just to pay the bills and have enough cash so they can have fun for a while.”

This generation also has no sense of job loyalty. Half of the respondents surveyed did not want, or were not sure if they wanted, to find an organization where they could stay long term.

The study also showed millennials rate good people to work with and report to as the leading workplace attributes they look for when choosing an ideal organization. They also value training and development opportunities.

Based on these results, there are strategies employers can use to entice and retain this generation. Lyons suggests promoting the learning and advancement opportunities within the organization.

“The secret to managing the millennials may lie in using the same strategies their parents used to raise them. Provide them with lots of support and coddling, and give them a sense of belonging. Given their need for frequent praise and attention, employers might also pay them small increases a few times a year rather than give them a larger raise at the end of the year.”

But more importantly, organizations need to be up front about the potential for promotions and salary increases and fight the temptation to make promises for advancement that they can’t keep, he says.

“If an employer is disingenuous or silent about the potential for promotions and leaves it up to the employees’ imagination, this can lead to unrealistic expectations not being met. Unmet expectations can kill employee motivation and are the big reason why people leave.”

Prof. Sean Lyons
Department of Business

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