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“Millennials Not Interested in Owning Things is a Fairy Tale” was the headline of an article in the online edition of Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper in late summer 2019. It put an end to one or two stereotypes. In essence, the article said the persistent claim that Generation Y doesn’t care about high salaries or big bonuses was wrong. It’s true that work-life balance and issues such as sustainability play a greater role in their careers than they did for people 15 or 30 years ago. But that doesn’t mean those born after 1980 aren’t also interested in earning a lot of money. In contrast, studies and experts agree that Generation Y dreams of a working world much different from that of its predecessors – and increasingly demands that employers implement their own ideas. But what do these ideas look like, apart from the usual stereotypes, and what makes the first generation to grow up digitally tick?

Henrich Kleyboldt, General manager of industrial service provider IFÜREL EMSR-Technik GmbH & Co. KG.


“I’m noticing that young people expect me, as their boss, to be more open with them and, above all, give them more feedback. In fact, they sometimes demand this very directly.”

The Goal: Breaking Down Boundaries

One thing quickly becomes clear – digitalization and the expectations of Generation Y, who have grown up with smartphones, tablets, and a whole host of other devices, are directly related. Intelligent machines, robots, and supercomputers are creating new possibilities, making work more flexible, simplifying processes (such as production processes), and crying out for innovation. In other words, the world of work’s boundaries are increasingly disappearing. So it’s not surprising when Steffi Burkhart, keynote speaker, lecturer, and passionate mediator between her generation and the business world, says: “We Millennials no longer want to squeeze ourselves into traditional organizations, structures, processes, and spaces. If we can find a better working environment somewhere else, if we can grow more effectively, or have a greater impact, we’ll be gone faster than other generations.” The international “Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019” confirms their desire for fewer rules and guidelines when it comes to the question: “What goals should companies have?” Just under a third of respondents called for greater willingness to innovate. And 27% think companies should mainly focus on developing their employees’ skills in a targeted and long-term manner. In addition, 30% believe it’s the employer’s responsibility to prepare employees for Industry 4.0. In comparison, only 28% of those surveyed consider “turning a profit” – the most obvious goal from a business owner’s perspective – to be particularly important.

Now it isn’t news that the days of the traditional assembly line worker who performs the same tasks for decades are long gone. Nevertheless, many companies still have to get used to self-confident and loud demands for lifelong learning, career advancement and advanced training opportunities, and a varied and agile working day with as much creative freedom as possible. While assembly line worker spent most of their days working in silence and meekly receiving orders from above, agile work requires transparency, delayering, and – as a common basis for interacting – a new kind of communication.

Wilfried Thönnißen, Director Business Development at IT service provider Xcelgo and expert on digital twins, also observes changes among his customers: “In my day we learned that what the boss says goes. They called the shots. But that approach isn’t working at all with the younger generation.”

Wilfried Thönnißen, Director of Business Development at IT service provider Xcelgo and expert on digital twins


“The most successful companies on the market today are those that adapt to the new reality and young people’s expectations.”

They Don’t Just Make Demands, They Can Do Things Too

As older skilled professionals leave the workforce, Millennials account for an increasing proportion of company employees – and so the need for more flexible structures is increasing, too. Since transformation processes are usually both time-consuming and cost-intensive, the topic of change raises a number of questions from a company’s perspective. When and how will we benefit from our efforts? What does Generation Y actually offer us, what skills do they possess that we don’t yet have? If you ask Steffi Burkhart, who worked at a major industrial company for several years before going into business for herself, the answer is clear:

“The percentage of digital experts in Generation Y and Z is significantly higher than that of their predecessors. I estimate it to be around 30%. This offers tremendous potential for companies if they focus more on young people.” Real-world results support this statement. “We have a young mechatronics engineer at our company who introduced paperless documentation almost single-handedly. Of course he had some help during the process, but the impetus clearly came from him,” says Henrich Kleyboldt. But the skills possessed by Generation Y extend beyond digital expertise. Millennials are also well positioned to address topics that are essential to any discussion of Industry 4.0, New Work, or smart factories – from networking and innovation potential to disruption.

“I think young people today have far fewer reservations, a higher tolerance for mistakes, and communicate more directly. They aren’t afraid to ask if it shortens the process. When I think of my generation, we would rather drive in circles for three hours than simply stop and ask for directions,” says Henrich Kleyboldt. And Wilfried Thönnißen adds: “My project experience shows that younger people achieve results much faster because they think better in simple contexts and from an extremely practical perspective. People with a lot of experience often overcomplicate the issue and want to do everything right. But the clear trend in the industry is that ‘speed trumps accuracy’.”

Steffi Burkhart, Keynote speaker and self-proclaimed voice of Generation Y

“Companies need digital experts to be competitive on an international level. These are professionals who are really familiar with new technologies, who have mastered them inside and out. Most employees are ‘only’ digital users, meaning they can use the technology but can’t advance or optimize it.”

It’s All about the Mix

This is why a structural, cultural, and generational transformation has long been in full swing at many companies. Many of the necessary underlying conditions were already created years ago. For example, companies have long offered flexible working hours, the ability to work from home, and extensive training opportunities. In other areas, however, companies are still learning by doing in their search for the perfect solution. One of the greatest areas of experimentation is trying to find the right mix of young professionals and experienced colleagues. For as important as Generation Y and its skills are, on the one hand the lack of “digital experts” – commonly known as a shortage of skilled workers – naturally limits changes in the workforce, and on the other hand, change that is too radical is counterproductive. After all, companies need to master the challenge of transferring knowledge from old to young just as much as they need to find new talent. Or as former Vice-Chancellor of Germany Franz Müntefering once put it: “The older generation might not be as fast as the younger generation, but they know the shortcuts.” Henrich Kleyboldt takes a similar view: “The greatest amount of value is created at our company where both experienced and young employees interact as equals.”

It sounds so easy, but at present it doesn’t always work smoothly. “Things can get tricky, especially in the sector we operate in. Some of my master craftspeople have been working on job sites and in production facilities for 30 years. Getting these experienced employees excited about agile, self-organized work is no small feat. As such, it will take time and energy to intensify the collaboration between younger and older colleagues and convince them that there are synergy effects,” says Henrich Kleyboldt. His strategy so far has been a lot of direct and personal communication and gentle coercion in operational planning – after all, close collaboration is the best way to dispel skepticism and doubts about someone’s skills. According to Wilfried Thönnißen, who enters and leaves production facilities and factories on a day-to-day basis, IFÜREL and the entire process manufacturing industry are still more or less just beginning when it comes to leveraging Generation Y and the search for the ideal staffing ratio. “If I specifically consider the field of digital twins, I think a ratio of 30% older and 70% younger employees makes sense in the long term. That way, companies won’t lose their expert knowledge, but at the same time they can react flexibly and quickly to new trends.”

The members of Generation Y themselves hold a similar view. Although there’s certainly still room for improvement when it comes to agility, communication, and hierarchical levels, as well as professional frameworks and intergenerational collaboration, they also know that it’s all about finding the right mix. That’s the conclusion Steffi Burkhart reached. She advocates for greater mutual understanding and better exploitation of synergy effects between Generation Y and companies: “It takes both – the young and the experienced, the network and a calm attitude. As the younger generation, we value these skills very highly – we just don’t like the people who constantly claim that everything used to be so much better.”