Ready or not, they’re coming. Generation Y. Millennials. Whatever you want to call them, 20-somethings are moving into the workforce in a big way. Like every generation, they bring with them certain tendencies that often mystify older colleagues—from sharing seemingly every detail of their lives on Facebook to their sometimes urgent need for feedback.
At the same time, they’re bringing something else the insurance industry needs: fresh legs. And just in time.
The insurance workforce is aging fast. In 2008, 18% of brokerage employees were 55 or older, according to consulting firm McKinsey. Another 29% were between 45 and 55. The recession and slow recovery have kept some of those people in the workforce longer, but there’s still a lot of experience moving toward the exits.
Glenn Spencer knows it. He’s chief operating officer at Lockton, where one fifth of the 2,700 U.S. employees are due to retire in the next 15 years. Replacing that generation of talent, he says, is “one of the two or three critical challenges” Lockton faces over the next decade.
“We have to,” Spencer says. “If we can’t bring younger people into our company and get them up to speed and effective, we’re not going to be able to serve our clients.”
In other words, Millennials are the future. But if that’s the case, well, who exactly are they?
Two Sides of a Coin
To hear the stereotypes, today’s 20-somethings are disloyal, needy, and—having been reared by parents who tended to emphasize self-esteem—overly impressed with themselves. Oh, and they’re, like, totally hooked on social media, whiling away the workday scrolling through Facebook and tweeting about their awesome vegan lunch.
Do these sound like the kind of people you’d trust with your business? Of course not.
But reality, as usual, is far more complicated, says Bruce Tulgan, a management consultant and author of the book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y (Jossey-Bass, 2009). According to Tulgan, employers who want to get the most from their younger workers should understand their view of the world.
Think about the concept of loyalty, he says. While sticking with one company might have made sense to baby boomers, a 25-year-old today launched his or her career in the toughest economy since the 1930s. While the economy is slowly improving, their friends have faced record-high unemployment, with a jobless rate for young adults north of 15% for much of the last three years. And if they’ve been lucky enough to keep a job, they’ve probably seen colleagues their parents’ age get the boot after decades of loyal service.
“The idea that the system takes care of you? No one believes that anymore,” Tulgan says. “They’re not disloyal. But it just doesn’t make sense, if you’re of that generation, to look at work as a long-term, hierarchical relationship.”
So they switch jobs—frequently—as they seek better opportunities. Yet they also seem to expect a lot from employers—training, a chance to advance, decent work-life balance and, of course, plenty of feedback. It can come off as a lot of neediness.
It’s worth remembering, Tulgan says, that this is a generation raised to “think like consumers.” He believes employers should use those traits to their advantage. Make clear that this is the real world and that employees have a job to do. But also make clear that you have something to offer—wisdom and insight and the chance to build a career.
“You have to give them the gift of contact,” he says. “Remind them: ‘It’s our game. We’re going to show you how to play it.’”
Likewise, this is the best-educated generation in American history—nearly one third of people ages 25 to 29 have a bachelor’s degree. Its members are often the product of smaller families and more parental attention (thus all those trophies to which Tulgan’s book title refers). They’re high achievers who want to achieve at work. And right away.
“They really want to put themselves out there,” says Peggy McCurley, a human capital consultant with California-based HR outsourcing firm TriNet. “They’re not interested in paying dues. Some other generations might have started at the bottom and worked their way up. These folks come in saying ‘I’m valuable’ right off the bat, whether they’re experienced or not.”
Mostly though, McCurley says, young people are like everyone else. They want a job they find meaningful. They want a chance to succeed. More and more, brokerage firms are giving them that chance.
Finding Their Own Path
Lockton, for example, where about 20% of the workforce is in their early 30s or younger, has invested more in training. Most new employees—regardless of age—are assigned a mentor who helps them understand Lockton’s culture. The company has developed more seminars and distance-learning programs. And managers sit down with each employee every couple of years to engage in career mapping and planning.
“It’s ‘what do you want to do in your career’ and ‘how do we help you get there,’” says Spencer. “We map out continuing ed, mentoring, that sort of thing.”
It’s a program that younger workers find particularly rewarding, he says. And it helps them to see a future for themselves at Lockton.
At Hub International, many young producers start out with a detailed training program, says Deb Deters, senior vice president of human resources, with the corporate office splitting costs with regional offices. New workers learn the basics of the business and start off in a sales center, cold-calling prospects.
“It helps get people over that biggest hurdle,” she says. “Cold calls are often a difficult thing for people entering sales.”
When it’s time to close the deal, they’re often paired with a more experienced producer who can show them the ropes. That teamwork is important, say Tulgan and McCurley. This is a generation raised on group projects, so it’s used to looking to elders for guidance.
Pairing up newcomers and veterans can help the firm as well, says Anita Verheul, an executive vice president in the employee benefits group at William Gallagher Associates in Boston. Her firm’s sales force is generally a little older, but they do have some 20-somethings who start with cold calls. They’re enthusiastic and ambitious, but when they land a prospect, she says, Gallagher has found it’s more effective to send along an older colleague.
“Clients want to see someone with a little gray hair,” she says. “We tried for a while to have that (younger) person be the lead. But mostly clients are saying, ‘No, we need to feel like you know what you’re talking about.’”
Finding a Balance on Flexibility
There are other challenges, of course. Perhaps the most common one revolves around work flexibility and the use of technology. Nine hours in a cubicle isn’t exactly how many 20-somethings view their ideal workday. The constant connection provided by smartphones and iPads means it doesn’t have to be. Working from home, working at night, working over the weekend—it’s all more feasible than ever. And if it means you can dip out of the office for a couple of hours to hit the gym or run errands, so much the better.
“They don’t view their jobs as 9 to 5. They view their jobs as getting the job done, and they’d rather be held accountable for accomplishing the objective than being told how to do it,” Spencer says. “They like flexibility.”
But flexibility has its limits. Let’s face it, customers in the insurance industry generally work during business hours. They want their service providers to be available on their schedule.
And while communicating with clients by email can be more efficient, it’s easy to miss the critical cues that come only through conversation. That understanding might have come naturally to older generations raised before instant electronic communication, says Mike Mitchell, vice chairman of The Graham Co. in Philadelphia. But it’s worth reminding younger workers to actually go and talk with customers.
“It can be a little foreign to them,” he says. “We’re a big proponent of technology. We also are a big advocate of picking up the phone and having a conversation. Sometimes a client needs to hear the emotion in your voice. Sometimes you can’t negotiate through email.”
Another challenge: How do you retain good employees in a generation that views job-hopping as the norm?
New hires at Graham spend six months in the classroom, learning the business and the culture and working through case studies. Then they spend three years shadowing a more senior colleague. It’s a big investment. The last thing the company wants is good people taking all that training to the competition. The key to keeping good employees, no matter their age, Mitchell says, is to push them to do well and reward them when they do.
“When you hire smart, hard-working people who are ambitious, and you put them to work with world-class clients, they like the challenge,” he says. “The more demanding the better.”
Verheul sees that, too. Younger workers, she says, are “pushing the envelope” more than perhaps older colleagues did at the same age. They’re looking to climb the ladder faster and take on challenges that—at least on paper—they might not seem ready for.
“They’re definitely willing to take risks and move on a project,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t know everything yet, but I’ll figure it out.’ Otherwise they get bored and move on.”
The flip side of that ambition is an eagerness to learn, and employers who give them the chance to do so will benefit, Tulgan says. The trick is to take a structured approach to their development.
“You want to create step-by-step instruction. Coach them. Teach them to get really good,” he says. “The more you stay connected and keep track of them and keep setting them up for success, the more success you’ll have.”
All of this comes back to culture and relationships. So what happens when the culture changes? In an industry where acquisitions happen every week, buying a firm with lots of young workers—or even just a different approach to managing them—poses the potential for a bumpy road.
Yet in many ways it’s no different from any other acquisition, says Deters, whose firm, Hub International, does its share of deals. Fit matters, regardless of age.
“We try to do acquisitions of like-minded cultures,” she says. “We tend to bring people in who take the same approach that we do.”
And that trickles down to the ranks of younger workers, who, after all, are in a key position to grow the newly merged business. Older colleagues already have a book of clients that they’re bringing on board. But people who are just starting their careers will make their mark by adding new ones.
“We need that younger generation who wants to go selling, to go out and find new clients,” Deters says. “This is a long-term play.”
And maybe that’s as it should be. After all, the march of the generations is not exactly a new phenomenon. Every generation has been flummoxed by the ones that follow it, notes Aram Lulla, general manager of the human resource practice group at Lucas Group, an Atlanta-based executive search firm. And every industry has adapted to changes in work style, career priorities and technology. The important thing, Lulla says, is to look for people who share your company’s values and work ethic. The rest is just a distraction.
“This is the future of your workforce. You’re going to have to embrace them,” he says. “No matter what generation, ask about their value system. Focus on that and you’ll find the talent you need.”