Early in my career I was working for a college as a learning technologist. This meant that I would help teachers design learning materials to put on to the learning management system. It was great fun and gave me the opportunity to work closely with the teachers and the students. We were a further education institution, focusing mostly on students aged between 16 and 18. It was fascinating to see the dynamic between them and the teachers on a day to day basis.

Then one year, a ripple of panic went through the college at the start of term. This year was going to be different, this year we got a new type of student, a type that would later become known as the Millennial.

Some teachers, mostly the younger ones, embraced what was to come, but the others were quite literally afraid! As it was explained to us at the time, this was the first generation of students who would have all grown up with a computer in the house from the day they were born. They were technologically far superior to the rest of us and this had a lot of the staff worried.

Fast forward to now and there is still a feeling of confusion or even fear around Millennials, those born between 1980 and 1994. They are often spoken about as if they are a different species to the rest of us born before those years. In the gamification industry, there is a common story that we all tell each other. We have been to a meeting and a senior manager wants gamification. When asked why, they state “We want to engage the millennials and they like games”.

This has led me to look back on my experiences with this particular generation, one that I miss out on by about two years. There is often a lot of attention drawn to the fact that they play a lot of games, or that they need constant feedback or worse, that they expect everything to be handed to them on a plate. Often this is because they are just misunderstood by those who have no idea how to relate to them.

For me they are defined by a few important traits that we should respect not fear! The first, and in my mind the most important, they have been raised to ask questions. When I was at school, we were taught in a very traditional way. You sat quietly and copied what the teacher wrote on the board. You asked questions when you were told to, not before. Speaking at the wrong time could lead to detentions, headmaster offices and random objects being thrown at you. This was not as much the case for millennials, especially those born later into the era. Better teacher education and better teachers have led to classrooms where discussion is openly encouraged.

Whilst it is true that millennials often require more regular feedback, it really isn’t because they play games. It is more because they want to understand where they are and where they are going and have learned that asking questions early on can save problems occurring later. That is why the concept of yearly reviews is beginning to look more and more archaic and some companies are looking at new approaches.

Another trait that I often see is an expectation for autonomy in the workplace. 9 to 5 is an alien concept to a generation that is always on- thanks to the advent of true mobile computing. This is nothing to do with a diminished work ethic, it is to do with a desire to achieve a better work / life balance with the use of new technology. What’s wrong with answering emails on your phone for thirty minutes when you get up, and arriving thirty minutes late to work? Traditional rules to work no longer make sense for them.

A final key observation is that you must earn their attention. There are so many other things they could be doing at any moment, that you must up your game to earn and maintain their attention. This is not to say anything negative about their ability to work, but why would they want to be in a two-hour meeting about setting up a new committee to discuss the idea of discussing work – when they could actually be working?

This is where gamification and engagement strategies become so essential. Not to get them playing games, their expectations of games are likely beyond most enterprise budgets, but to give them the feedback and sense of agency and control that they desire. You can also use gamification to earn their attention by doing something different and interesting.
There is no real mystery about millennials, like each emerging generation they just make us examine the established ways of doing things and hopefully improve them.

Now, as for Gen-Z….