Originally published May 4, 2015.

The Millennials. Fear them, love them, hate them or be them, it’s impossible to ignore their presence, particularly as they become a growing demographic in the work force.

So what do millennials really care about? What do employers need to do in order to attract (and keep) millennials and what implications will these adjustments have for companies and organizations? And in particular, how do millennial mindsets differ between the USA and Germany?

In order to answer these questions, The BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt, Hertie Stiftung and Beyond Philanthropy, invited leading researchers Dr. Klaus Hurrelmann, a Senior Professor of Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance and Derrick Feldmann, the Founder and President of Achieve, a leading millennial research institute in the USA, to present their latest research on millennials in the workforce.

The talks were followed by a lively panel discussion with Dr. Meike Niedbal, Head of Sustainability Management and Trend Research “Nachhaltigkeitsmanagement und Zukunftsforschung” at the Deutschen Bahn AG, Philipp von der Wippel, Founder of ProjectTogether, an initiative that assists people to identify and develop their ideas for social change, and Nicole Winchell, Co-Founder of Germany’s leading social impact career platform, tbd*. The panel was moderated by Michael Alberg-Seberich, CEO of Beyond Philanthropy.

Cause Work in the USA

Mr. Feldmann’s research explores how millennials engage with their company and in particular, how they perceive “cause work”. Cause work refers to the programs and initiatives that companies execute, often together with charities or nonprofits, in order to offer philanthropic support or help people and local communities. The Millennial Impact Project surveyed over 1,500[1] employed millennials in the USA. It found that a company’s involvement in causes ranked 3rd most important when applying for job - what specifically the company does, sells or produces was ranked as most important, followed by the company’s work culture. In fact, the report found that more than 50% of millennials were influenced to accept a job based on a company’s involvement with causes. (The 2014 Millennial Impact Report)

Germany's Changing Workforce 

So how does that compare in Germany? Dr. Hurrelmann suggested that cause work is much less established in Germany and that for-profit companies rarely engage in such programs outside of their classic CSR programs. Due to the fact that Germany has a long-standing social state, and the Wohlfahrtsverbände have largely been perceived as being responsible for the work surrounding social causes, the culture of employee engagement has developed differently. But this is changing. As millennials demand increasing purpose and meaningfulness in their careers, it’s becoming increasingly important that companies adopt a forward-thinking mindset that incorporates a mix of corporate social responsibility, employee engagement, volunteer and skilled pro bono work. For example, in recent years SAP has been building up its pro bono programs - the intention being that it offers greater added value to the beneficiary but also results in higher work satisfaction amongst employees.

Millennials at Work

Millennials are a tricky bunch. There is not one cause, or perhaps even one identity, that unites millennials, as country by country (or even state-by-state in the USA) the issues and social problems they care about differ.

However they are consistently putting emphasis on pursuing work that has meaning. They want flexibility and freedom to try new things – they perceive assets such as time, money and network as having equal value; hence a fat pay-check isn’t enough to keep them happy.

Dr. Niedbal noted that at Deutsche Bahn the management needed to adjust its internal structure and policies in order to adapt to the needs and work styles of millennials. Trends like flat hierarchy and greater flexibility and freedom are reflective of the working styles of millennials. In order for companies to attract and retain millennials talent, management must also adapt accordingly.

Social Entrepreneurship and the Fear of “Failure

Another major discussion point was the entrepreneurship and the notion of failure. Are Germans more risk adverse and afraid of failure? And if so, why? One possible factor is the availability of funds and support in Germany versus the USA. In the latter, seed capital is generally more readily available. Another factor considered was the cultural mindset and the fear of failure. Mr. Feldmann noted that entrepreneurs in America rarely speak of “failure”, but rather, “we tried that out and now we’re doing this differently.” Dr. Niedbal suggested that in Germany there’s a growing trend of “part-time” entrepreneurs, individuals who keep their stable position in a company or organization and then start a “passion business” or project on the side. In true millennial style, the idea here is to have multiple options and test an idea’s viability before fully committing.

Millennials – Here to Stay?

But one nagging question kept popping up – is it just a phase? Millennials aren’t the first generation that have been perceived as revolutionary. Baby boomers, Gen X; they were both considered to be more committed to social causes than their predecessors. Ten years down the road, will Generation Y still feel the same? The challenge is to capitalize on this moment and transform it into long-lasting change and commitment. Platforms like tbd* aim to address this growing demand for purposeful careers and help foster a growing culture of social entrepreneurship. Non-profits and NGO’s must become active in recruiting top talent and also ensuring that they retain this talent, as it will help them maximize their social impact. For-profit companies must development sustainable programs that reflect the needs of their growing workforce, not just through external pro bono work, but also through social intrapreneurship that addresses and transforms core business values. If we achieve this, generations to come will thank us.

Curious to learn more about millennials at work? Here you can watch both expert talks and hear the complete panel discussion.

[1] According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of April 2014 there were approximately 14 million 20- to 24-year-olds and almost 32 million 25- to 34-year-olds employed in the United States. With a sample of 45 million employed individuals, this Study’s representative sample of 1,514 employed Millennials has a 99% confidence interval with a 3.3% error rate.