I was driving to work after celebrating a birthday milestone, reflecting on my life and career. Both are filled with many accomplishments and also some failures, which I fondly refer to as my “learning opportunities.”

It was a beautiful spring morning. I remember the day vividly, with the sun shining and flowers blooming, something we do not see much of in northeast Ohio for most of the year. As I pulled my car into the parking lot and turned off the ignition, I paused, took a sip of my Starbuck’s coffee and asked myself: Who will replace us when we are gone?  A pretty deep question for a Monday morning, but an inevitable part of life, both personally and professionally.

Across the Generational Divide
When it comes right down to it, we are all caretakers of our teams and companies, hoping someday to retire from our work and leave it a better place than when we came. I answered my own question about who will replace us when one word entered my mind…Millennials.

Also known as Generation Y, Millennials are the next wave of American workers. Born after 1980, they are entering our workforce in greater numbers and replacing the Baby Boomers who are beginning to retire. There are over 80 million Millennials, an incredible number, and they will dramatically shape the future of our claims organizations. To paint some background of how Millennials are different from other generations, we must first look at the makeup of today’s workforce and the world events that helped shape each generation’s beliefs and values. We have four distinct generations in our current workforce:

The first is the “Silent Generation,” born somewhere between 1922 and 1945. They are characterized as stable, loyal and having a strong work ethic. They grew up experiencing events such as the Great Depression and World War II. My father is a product of this generation. He is 82 years old, in great health, and still works part-time at a small grocery store he started from scratch more than 50 years ago. He enjoys telling me every holiday how he walked 10 miles to and from school each day as a kid…uphill both ways!  This is the same man who thought being drafted was a cakewalk compared to working at his father’s farm, because in the military, he had Sundays off and did not have to get up every day before dawn to milk the cows, but that’s a whole other story. The next generation is the Baby Boomers, born 1946 to 1964.  They are viewed as team players, dedicated and service-oriented. They experienced the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, and watched the landing of the first man on the moon on a black & white television. (Yes, Millennials, many televisions were still in black and white.)

Generation X is the workforce born 1965 to 1980. Their characteristics include being independent, creative, and willing to challenge the status quo. This generation experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall, the AIDS epidemic, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Being a product of this generation, I can recall the exact moment when I heard about the Challenger disaster.  I watched it on the news, glued to a wooden chair in my university’s student union.  It was a day I will always remember.  (Yes Millennials, the television was in color, but did not have a remote control.)

Now this brings us to the newest generation entering our claims organizations, the Millennials. Born from 1981 to 2000, they are described as optimistic, tech savvy and socially responsible. Technology has heavily influenced this generation, many growing up with a television in every room and buds in their ears.  Events that have shaped this generation include September 11, the Enron corporate scandal, Hurricane Katrina, and the advent of Facebook. 

As Millennials enter our claims organizations, it is important to understand their values and belief systems that will shape our workplace.  Each generation brings something uniquely valuable to the table.  I believe there is no right or wrong here, just differences based on our upbringing and experiences.  So keep in mind, if you are going to criticize a Millennial, you’re likely a generation that was responsible for helping to raise them.

Many of us will be responsible for managing, coaching, and mentoring Millennials. To be an effective coach, it is important that we understand what makes our employees tick, both individually and as a generation.  When I view the Millennial generation, there are five characteristics that make them unique from other generations. 

The first is work/life balance. Millennials want a well-balanced life. This means flexible work arrangements, including flexible hours and the ability to work from home. They are also looking for a casual, but professional work environment. What does this mean to claims organizations? For us to effectively attract Millennials to our industry, we need to create flexible environments that address demands for resident adjusters positions, business casual attire and the occasional jeans day.

The second characteristic is a need for recognition.  More than any other generation before them, the Millennials crave recognition for their efforts. They grew up in an environment where everyone receives a gold star for showing up to class or a medal for being on the soccer team, win or lose. What does this mean for claims management?  For anyone coaching Millennials, it means providing more frequent feedback, especially praise on a regular basis.  It also means providing more robust performance management, development plans and mentoring programs.

The third trait is a desire to have the latest technology. To understand the strong connection this generation has to technology, consider this: According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of all Millennials have a profile on a social networking site and 83% sleep with their cell phone. The insurance industry, which largely depends on legacy systems, is challenged to invest in the latest and greatest technology.  I believe it will be important for our industry to improve our claims technology if we want to attract and retain the best talent this generation has to offer.  We need to adopt more advanced claims management systems, integrated estimating software programs, web conferencing capabilities and mature claims processes that optimize both customer and employee satisfaction. 

Fourth is the concept that “paying one’s dues and having tenure is old-fashioned.”  Millennials dislike rigid timetables that limit their advancement.  This generation is not intimidated by senior management. They want to be viewed as equals by their peers, and they value having their voices heard. They expect a clear understanding of career paths and the opportunity to advance as quickly as their achievements merit. This can be a challenge in our current economy, when position openings are scarce. But I believe that employers with a culture of meritocracy will win at attracting and retaining Millennials. 

As the job market improves and employees have more options, it will be more important than ever that we provide clear and rewarding career paths if we want to retain our best people. 

Finally, Millennials have a strong desire to be part of a community of co-workers. They are exceptional networkers, work well on teams, and want the opportunity for group socializing. (No, Baby Boomers, this does not mean wasting time around the water cooler.) This is about collaborating and sharing knowledge. I believe the companies that adopt social media capabilities, such as Facebook and Twitter, will have an advantage in this arena. In addition to being part of a group, Millennials are attracted to companies that align with their desire for community service. This means sponsoring charitable works in the communities where we live and do business.  Millennials want a sense that their company supports a higher purpose than just making widgets for the sake of the all mighty dollar. 

Like individuals, each generation has unique traits and characteristics. As we prepare our organizations for the future, let’s start by understanding the Millennial generation rather than trying to convince them that our own generational beliefs are somehow better. After all, Millennials will someday be leading our organizations and corporate America.

As you develop the next generation of claims talent for your organization, remember that one of the most rewarding things we can do in life is to teach or coach another person to take our place. Years from now, when we are hopefully enjoying our golden years in retirement, we won’t remember the combined ratio in 1996 or our loss adjustment expense ratio in 2003.  What we will remember is how many people we helped on their way to a better career because of our interest and commitment to their development.