How eLearning Retains Millennials, Part 1: Understanding Millennials

By Sherman Morrison September 29, 2017

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eLearning and millennials, complexity and opportunity

How eLearning retains millennials is a topic that requires two main components. The first is understanding millennials as a generation. The second component then builds on that understanding to examine how eLearning can be shaped in a way that will help engage and retain millennials in the workplace. Part 1 of this two-part series focuses on the first component: Understanding millennials in a deeper, more thorough way that goes beyond the glib generalizations too often seen in the media and elsewhere.

Setting the Stage for Understanding Millennials

Millennials have become one of the hottest topics not only in eLearning but across all aspects of the corporate and social landscapes, and with good reason. After all, it was in 2016 when the Pew Research Center reported that Millennials had outstripped Baby Boomers to become the largest living generation (source). In addition to that, they are considered the first generation to be largely made up of “digital natives” for whom the Internet and mobile devices are second nature. How to define this generation, however, has not been an easy task. Most now agree that Millennials are those who were born after 1980 and on into the early 2000s. Even what to call this generation wasn’t clear at first. Because they followed on the heels of Generation X (roughly covering those born in the 1960s up through the early 1980s), there were those who first called them Generation Y. But authors William Strauss and Neil Howe had been using the title of Millennials back in the 1980s, and it eventually became the preferred name.

In 2016 there were 79.8 million millennials, whereas the Baby Boomers numbered only 74.9 million, and because Boomers are getting older, their numbers will begin to decline. Millennials, on the other hand, could continue to grow depending on how many younger immigrants are able to come to the US. In Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, Straus and Howe saw this new generation becoming one that is increasingly civic-minded, with a growing sense of local and global community. Others have been less charitable, such as author Jean Twenge who wrote in her 2006 book Generation Me that she saw Millennials becoming increasingly self-centered and narcissistic. But enough research has been completed by respected organizations to take a deeper dive into understanding Millennials.

Understanding Millennials by the Numbers

The group that has done the most detailed studies and trend-tracking is the Pew Research Center with a dozen years of articles on its Millennials page. In one the more substantial reports, Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends, the generation is described as “…relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future.” The following statistics give a number of valuable insights into this generation that will help in understanding Millennials:

Politics: Although 50% of Millennials call themselves political independents, their actual voting records are strongly Democratic. Among their progressive views of social issues are supporting an activist approach to government, same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, and legalization of marijuana.

Marriage: Millennials have been slow to get married. As of a few years ago, only 26% of those aged 18-32 were married, which is far behind previous generations when they were the same age (36% for GenXers, 48% for Baby Boomers, and 65% for the Silent Generation). Among the unmarried Millennials, 69% are interested but don’t feel economically secure enough to tie the knot.

Religion: This generation doesn’t have much to do with organized religion, with nearly a full third of them saying they have no religious affiliation at all.

Digital Technologies: Millennials are highly networked with friends, colleagues and various groups through social media platforms to a degree not seen in previous generations. On Facebook, the median number of friends for Millennials is 250, as opposed to 200 for GenXers and only 98 for Boomers. When it comes to the digital era of the 21st century, Millennials are the first truly tech-savvy generation because they grew up with it, and 80% of them keep their mobile phones next to their beds while sleeping. All the digital connectedness seems to be rewiring the brains of Millennials, allowing them to increase the speed at which information can be processed.

Diversity: Millennials are the most racially diverse generation ever for the US, with 43% being non-white – a result of Hispanic and Asian immigration. This diversity may help explain their more liberal political views.

Employment: Millennials are keen on becoming entrepreneurs. They witnessed the fall of Enron, the meltdown among financial firms, and many have seen their parents downsized out of positions after many years of service. Two-thirds of Millennials are interested in starting their own business, and 27% are already self-employed. In 2011 alone, Millennials launched nearly 160,000 startups per month.

Millennials, mobile learning, elearning, elearninginsideWorkplace: The greater social consciousness of Millennials carries over into the workplace. Research from The Millennial Impact indicates that more than half of them were influenced to accept a job based on that company’s involvement with causes (source), 44% had volunteered their skills through their company to benefit a cause, and 94% of them enjoyed the experience of individualized, skills-based volunteering. According to Time Magazine, Millennials also bring a different vibe to the workplace. “They’re hyper-connected, tech savvy, entrepreneurial, and collaborative. They also favor fast-paced work environments, want quick promotions, and aren’t fans of traditional office rules and hierarchies.” They desire the same level of connectedness in the workplace they enjoy through social media with their friends. They have a strong desire for continuous feedback from managers and mentors. But they also want to be themselves and dress more casually at work than previous generations. They want a more flexible approach to hours and scheduling. If Millennials think they know a better way to do things from their bosses, they’re more likely to speak up. They had more intimate and frank conversations with their parents growing up and want that kind of transparency and forthrightness in the workplace. They don’t have much time for traditional hierarchies and all the rules and policies that tend to come with them.

Trust: When answering the question, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people – only 19% say most people can be trusted, as opposed to 31% of GenXers and 40% of Boomers who feel that way. This too may be a reflection of their diversity because any group that feels disadvantaged has a harder time trusting others.

Economics: Millennials have higher rates of poverty and unemployment, reduced income, less wealth and more debt (especially student loans) than the previous two generations when they were the same age. 51% of Millennials believe there will be no money at all in the Social Security system when they retire. Many Millennials were trying to enter the workforce just as the Great Recession reared its ugly head, forcing many to quickly “boomerang” back to living with their parents to make ends meet. 20 years ago, only half of recent graduates had college-related debt, and for those who did the average owed was $15,000. Now two-thirds of recent graduates have student loan debt averaging a total of $27,000 per person.

Outlook: In spite of all this, Millennials are surprisingly upbeat regarding the country’s future, with 49% saying they are optimistic, while only 42% of GenXers and 44% of Boomers feel the same way.

These are eye-opening statistics through which to view this new generation as it rises further into adulthood. Understanding Millennials is absolutely essential for eLearning professionals as they become an increasingly large percentage of the workforce as the Baby Boomers retire. The second article of this two-part series examines how these characteristics can be translated into eLearning that helps engage and retain Millennials.

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