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Why Saying “Millennials Love Learning” Sells L&D Short

Written by John Marshall

Lately, I’ve noticed a common refrain among L&D publications around the web: “Millennials love learning.”

This generalization is a backhanded compliment in a sea of outright negative think pieces, many of them focused on the scourge of “Millennials in the workplace.” A-list management publications, from Harvard Business Review and CLO to Forbes and Inc., have piled on the bandwagon, each with their own take on the matter.

The narrative usually goes something like this: idealistic and dedicated to self-improvement, Millennials hop from one gig to the next throughout their careers, with the average tenure being only three or four years. If they’re not being developed, they’ll get bored and move on.

Such rhetoric doesn’t add much: it deals mostly in generational stereotypes, and it ignores economic motivations behind both higher employee turnover and the rise of the L&D function. It’s time that we get smarter in how we talk about this trend.

Wrestling with Assumptions About Millennials, Learning, and Work

This post is not meant as a take-down of generational stereotyping per sé (though I’m happy to point you to a sample Grovo lesson with thoughts on the subject). Instead, it’s a call for a more realistic conversation about the nature of career paths in an economy that’s transforming right in front of us.

Over the past two decades, technology, automation, and globalization have challenged the expectation that anyone can ride out their career at a single organization. Jobs change too quickly. This lesson is especially clear to those affected by the 2008 Financial Crisis: even as the economy rebounded, many (mostly older) unemployed workers found that they lacked the skills needed for new opportunities. They had simply aged out of them.

The statement that Millennials love learning ignores this collective memory and the necessity that modern employees redefine their skills to match the moment. Instead, it degrades the conversation with generalizations about Millennial entitlement and idealism.

The internet abounds with commentary on participation trophies, social media narcissism, and helicopter parenting as the root causes of my generation’s blights. Rather than have a nuanced conversation about labor trends, many publications are content to stoke generational anxieties as more Millennials enter the workplace (though it must be noted that the oldest “Millennials” are now in their mid-30s).

Loyalty to Employers Is Different Today

If there’s one thing today’s younger workers do have in common, it’s an understanding of how quickly technology evolves and how vast the implications of automation and digital transformation are on our ability to secure employment.

According to Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey, 69 percent of Millennials believe that “Industry 4.0” – a shorthand for advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things – will impact their career, and over half of Millennials actually view these changes positively. According to the same study, 43 percent of Millennials also said they expected to leave their current organization within the next two years, while only 28 percent said they expect to stay for more than five.

These two statistics evoke a simultaneous optimism and cynicism that’s reminiscent of this broader economic moment.

Optimism about the nature of work: With automation increasingly taking over the more mundane daily tasks, many Millennials are recognizing that their skills in the areas of interpersonal relationships, management, creativity & innovation, and business strategy will be increasingly important to their careers as technologies continue to evolve.

Pessimism about the nature of employment: In the same study, the majority of Millennials also cite a growing distrust of their employers’ interests and motivations. Over half of Millennials view their workplace as prioritizing profit-maximization over all other factors, including the creation of jobs and the enhancement of workers’ lives. This feeling that businesses exist to serve executives and shareholders (reminding me of a recent New York Times infographic showing the radically unequal distribution of economic growth) validates the Millennial distrust of the C-suite and helps contextualize the erosion of employer loyalty among workers.

Given these two fundamental facts – both of them reactions to established economic trends – it’s difficult to argue that the Millennial “love of learning” is a quirk of their collective character.

Rather, Millennials recognize that employers are not the career-long safety nets they once were. They also recognize that their readiness for the digital future has direct consequences on their long-term financial well-being.

L&D Is More Than an Employee Benefit

The Millennial demand for learning is often portrayed as being one-sided, as though L&D only benefits the employee and not the organization as a whole. This sells L&D fundamentally short and ignores the ways in which employer incentives align with those of the employee.

Millennials’ “love” for learning should be seen as a blessing for businesses, which stand to benefit from their employees’ development. Yet according to Deloitte, “just 36 percent of Millennials and 42 percent of Gen Z respondents reported that their employers were helping them understand and prepare for the changes associated with Industry 4.0.”

According to Deloitte, individuals who feel their employers are helping them prepare for the digital future are more likely to plan to stay at their jobs for at least five more years. It’s well-known that external hires cost the company more on average than internal promotions, and that they’re also fired at much higher numbers. Investing in employees’ skills is a logical way to strengthen performance and minimize costs.

L&D Leaders Can Own This Economic Moment

Millennials – and all workers, for that matter – are prioritizing learning due to a set of direct and observable changes that are now playing out in today’s economy. By characterizing the Millennial focus on learning as the preference of a privileged generation and not as a rational economic reaction, we implicitly demote L&D to the world of “benefits.” This is a problematic mischaracterization, and it threatens both workers and organizations with a lack of readiness for a future that is approaching fast.

As the glue between employee development and organizational success, L&D leaders have a runway for proving their value in today’s changing world of work. My hope is we can look past the headlines and see the true opportunity that awaits.

To further take charge of L&D’s moment, learn about how to launch online training to target desired behaviors that benefits everyone in the organization from Millennials to Gen X to Babyboomers.