Branded as poor workers, millennials are misunderstood - though some do need help from employers.

Employers need to find a way to help millennials "toughen up" when they come into the workforce, especially as they will become the dominant working generation by 2020, says a university expert.

Dr Mike Lee, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School, says millennials have too often received "a bad rap" when it comes to their character, often attracting labels like "entitled, narcissistic and lazy".

"I think everyone likes a villain and it is easy to generalise and be flippant about an entire generation," he says. "It's also easy to write a story about a trend or pattern, particularly if you can find some anecdotal cases which seem to support your particular perspective."

Millennials (also called Generation Y, born between the early 1980s and late 1990s) already make up 34 per cent of our workforce and are expected to be in the majority by 2020 – a situation made into an issue because of the popular perception that millennials are not good workers.

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"I have had the privilege of working closely with some really talented millennials who would succeed in any generation," says Lee – acknowledging that some did have potential workplace problems but that it was employers who must show the way forward.

"At the risk of generalising myself, I would divide the millennials I have worked with into three groups. One third are the quality individuals who are always prepared, conscientious and able to adapt, who show initiative and give you more back than the brief required.

"Another third are the ones who have attracted the headlines – they have had a sheltered upbringing, have heavily depended on their parents, have never experienced the true consequences of failure because they were always given second or third chances and have spent more time interacting with screens than people.

"The other third are the ones who need help; they could go either way – into the top or bottom third – and it's here where we, as mentors, can help them cope with an environment to which they are unaccustomed.

"That's the commonsense view but I guess common sense doesn't make for a great headline."

Dr Mike Lee, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School. Photo / supplied.
Dr Mike Lee, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School. Photo / supplied.

Lee says millennials are often accused of being entitled or lazy but says some are merely uncertain: "They have been raised by over-attentive, 'helicopter' parents who shelter their kids more than older generations did; they want to know why their Johnny isn't top of the class when he is obviously so gifted and they have brought him up to think he can do anything.

"It's not entirely a bad thing as those parents give their children every opportunity to discover what they are good at. But they grow up being used to people paying them a lot of attention, assisting them at all times, and praising them to the skies when they do simply give something a go.

"As a parent myself, I think it's important to be proud of our children's' successes but it's even more important to take pride in the way they handle failure."

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Some millennials have never truly failed. Failure isn't a possibility because they get so many tries at a project.

"It's good and bad – at least their spirit isn't destroyed when they get something wrong. But, having been exposed to this safety buffer all the time, they are unprepared when they go into a workplace environment – and that's where they are expected to get it right first time.

"By 'right', I mean industry standards, not their own nor their parents' standards; I don't know a single job where it is okay not to get it objectively right first time."

Lee says some large companies have systems in place so new workers, including millennials, are exposed to mentors and staff members to guide them through the first phases of their journey.

But many companies simply employ the old "sink or swim" philosophy then complain when new employees aren't the same as the old days. Universities try to prepare students as "work-ready" graduates but millennials' culture meant employers had to take extra measures to help toughen some up, he says.

British business consultant and author Simon Sinek made headlines last year when he said millennials were perceived as entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused and lazy – but, like Lee, said it wasn't always their fault because of a forgiving upbringing that left them unprepared for the realities of life.

As examples, he told the story of a US university student whose parents installed a camera in his dorm and would call to wake him up if he was going to be late for a lecture.

He also related how his former assistant had failed to complete a task and, when he rang her over the weekend to check on it, she told him they would have to talk about her salary if he was going to alter her work-life balance – a conversation, he said, that would not have been necessary if she'd done her job in the first place.

Lee says workplace training to coach millennialson what was expected, how to risk failure and learn from it, so they became more diligent and conscientious, was highly desirable.

"I think if more employers did that, that final third would largely promote themselves into that top third where they would be highly desired employees."