The Incredible Shrinking Employee Life Cycle

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Small“I just think that the half-life of talent in an organization is just getting smaller and smaller, and that’s a fact, and we have to learn from that,” says Amar Dhaliwal, chief evangelist at HR-tech company Saba.  “I think that we have to find a way to be able to deal with this compressed life cycle of talent in an organization.”

Dhaliwal — with whom I’ve spoken in the past — is talking about the high turnover rates of millennial workers: 70 percent of millennials  leave their first jobs within two years, and the average millennial is expected to have 15-20 jobs over the course of their life.

Generation Y’s tendency to hop from job to job differs dramatically from previous generations, who by and large looked for stable, long-term employment. Dhaliwal offers a personal anecdote to illustrate the divide: “When my father entered the workforce, he was expected to stay with that organization — if he was fortunate — through to retirement and collect his pension with the same organization. My daughter has just entered the workforce, and she is very deliberately looking at her career and thinking, ‘A year and a half or two years is as long as I want to spend in my first few jobs. Quite frankly, I’m still learning about myself, still trying to figure out what it is that I want to do. The best way to do that is to expose myself to a set of varied work experiences.'”

Dhaliwal’s daughter’s mindset — one shared by many of her generational peers — is not simply the result of inborn laziness or indecision. Indeed, from a sociocultural standpoint, calling an entire generation “lazy” or “indecisive” is pretty stupid. Huge swaths of the population don’t just happen to suddenly change and become “worse” than their forebears.  Rather, as Dhaliwal points out, millennials are chronic job-hoppers because of changes in society and culture at large. “Culturally, societally … that’s okay,” Dhaliwal says of the millennial’s experiential wanderlust. “We’ve agreed as a society that it’s okay.”

We could spend time trying to figure out how millennials ended up like this. Perhaps chic parenting philosophies did it? Maybe coming of age at a time of terrible economic crisis inured them to instability? Maybe they saw the career trajectories and lifestyles of their parents and grandparents and decided to abandon them in search of something more fulfilling?

Whatever the case, Dhaliwal isn’t here the play sociologist or anthropologist. Like a reporter, he’s describing what he’s seen in the field. “I think that [millennials have] a fundamentally different set of expectations, driven by a different way to learn about yourself and a different way to establish what you want to do,” he says.

For generation Y, “it’s a very lucky few — or maybe it’s an unlucky few — who leave school knowing exactly what they want to spend their life doing,” Dhaliwal says.

Why Fight the Tide?

The millennial workforce is changing the career paradigm before our eyes, which has led to a lot of fretting about how to keep millennials from leaving your organization as quickly as they lead others.

This, Dhaliwal says, is foolish. What makes you think your company is going to convince millennials workers to give up their deeply held beliefs? “I think that it is a fact — irrespective of how amazing an organization is — I think it’s a fact that organizations are not going to keep these people very long,” he says. “Irrespective of how well we look after them and how well we treat them, I still think that people are going to move around in a way that’s never happened before.”

According to Dhaliwal, the challenge is not to reverse the trend of millennial job-hopping, but to accept it as fact and adjust business practices accordingly. “Let’s say that we’re fortunate enough to have somebody really smart for two years. Our challenge is, how do we capitalize on having somebody for two years?” he explains. “We need to think about the life cycle of talent in a very different way than we did in the past.”

When most workers chased after longterm positions, businesses had the luxury of taking their time when it came to investing in and developing their employees. The life cycle of today’s employee is much shorter, and organizations have to find new ways to maximize value. “We may have somebody really good for only two years,” Dhaliwal says. “In those two years, how do we get them the skills that they need? How do we get them up and running faster? How do we get them productive faster? How do we keep them engaged for the period of time that we have, and then how do we let them leave the organization in a good way?” These, he believes, are the kinds of questions that businesses need to be asking themselves.

“I think that we may be pushing against the tide if we’re saying that the problem we want to solve is, ‘How do we keep people here for a long time?'” Dhaliwal adds. “I think that we should be ready to accept that maybe we can’t keep them here for a long time, and therefore, how do we take maximum advantage of the talent that we have?”

Maximizing Employee Value in a World of Job-Hoppers

According to Dhaliwal, a major component of making the most of employees’ shorter life cycles is awareness — that is, awareness of what young workers need to thrive. “I think that companies need to recognize that this generation has a different set of expectations … in terms of how they want to be managed,” he says. “They value openness. They value transparency. They value investment. They value change. They value learning.”

Trying to manage these new workers in the old, top-down, hierarchical way of the traditional office will only make them want to leave faster (as we’ve seen, they have no qualms about moving on). The new generation abhors what Dhaliwal calls “top-down, policy-driven nonsense.” Instead, what these young workers crave is a culture that values them, that lets them take part in the big-picture conversations.

“I think that people understand that effective systems and effective organizations are actually now built bottom-up by engaged people who are collaborating to create something that is valuable,” Dhaliwal says. 

Such “bottom-up” systems will allow organizations to maximize employee value in the short time that they have, but building such systems is no easy task. It requires that businesses resist the urge to control employees in the old centralized, hierarchical manner and instead create a more connected and democratic workplace. “I understand this is all utopian, but we need to think about it this way,” Dhaliwal says.

Among the things millennial workers want, says Dhaliwal, are:

  • challenging work;
  • an open culture that allows them to thrive;
  • access to effective and efficient new technologies (e.g., social, mobile);
  • and, perhaps most importantly, work that helps them grow.

“If they’re not growing, if they’re not learning, if they’re not being challenged — that is going to be a problem,” Dhaliwal says. “We need to appreciate that their relationship with authority is different, that their relationship with technology is different, and that their career aspirations are different. That awareness is a very important thing.”

Don’t Forget Everyone Else

This article has focused on how organizations can best manage young workers and get maximum value from employees with ever-shrinking life cycles, but we need to keep in mind that millennials are not the only people in the workplace. Dhaliwal notes that some of Saba’s customers have four or five generations of employees in their workforces. Organizations cannot simply toss them aside in the quest to give millennials what they need to thrive.

“There is absolutely no one-size-fits-all model that an organization can use, so you have to be very thoughtful about the person that you’re talking to, or the group of people that you’re talking to,” Dhaliwal says. “It’s about awareness and a recognition that we have multiple generations. Each one of these generations are motivated by different things, inspired by different things, have different expectations in terms of their engagement with their managers and with their teams, and they have very different expectations for technology.”

New, young employees may require some fine-tuning of the organization’s management and cultural practices, but older, longterm employees are just as valuable as their millennial counterparts. As long as they are with a company, that company has a duty to make sure they are thriving as well.



By Matthew Kosinski