Be Aware of Myths about Millennials in the Workplace

As “millennials”, workers born between 1980 and 2000 (sometimes referred to as “Generation Y”), have become the largest group in the US workforce, consultants and pundits have built a cottage industry on providing advice on why and how millennials need to be treated differently in the workplace.  Books, articles and speeches paint a picture of a generation disgusted and disenchanted with the old ways of doing things and the perceived career aspirations and paths of their parents.  An article in The Economist discussing “Myths about Millennials” in the workplace reported that we are being continuously told that because of the way they were educated and their participation in social media, millennials are natural collaborators (“team players”) who reject mindless competition and striving to get ahead.  Other important things that companies are supposed to take as truisms about Generation Y include their antipathy to careerism and “being managed” and their need to sure that the work they are doing is meaningful, interesting, challenging and socially responsible. 

All of this noise has pushed companies to consider new ways of enticing job candidates and treating workers once they have arrived and the upturn in emphasis on and funding for corporate social responsibility initiatives is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, The Economist urged companies to be wary of what the newspaper referred to as “dubious generalizations about younger workers” and described the results of surveys conducted by CEB, a consulting firm that asked questions of 90,000 US workers each quarter, and Deal and Levenson, who studied 25,000 people in 22 countries.  Noting that the data collected by Deal and Levenson led them to argue that generalizations about millennials are “inconsistent at best and destructive at worst”, The Economist article suggested that a more realistic picture of Generation Y might include the following:    

  • Competitive: The responses from millennials themselves indicated that as a group they were more competitive than the baby-boomers (workers born from 1946 to the mid-1960s).  59% of the millennials (as opposed to 50% of the baby boomers) agreed that competition was “what gets them up in the morning” and 58% of them (as opposed to 48% for other generations) compared their performance with their peers.
  • Individualists, not collaborators: A lifetime of continuous communication with other millennials on their smartphones did not prevent millennials from being much more distrustful of their peers’ input at work than other generations.
  • Seeking career opportunities:  Rather than being anti-careerists, millennials outpolled other generations by a margin of 33% to 21% when asked whether “future career opportunity” was among their top five reasons for selecting a particular job.
  • Not that hot on corporate responsibility:  35% of the millennials did indicate that corporate social responsibility (“CSR”) was very important to them; however, the issue resonated more deeply with the baby-boomers (41% of which said that CSR was very important to them).
  • Not really so difficult to manage: 41% of the millennials in a survey of 5,000 workers done by Deal and Levenson agreed that “employees should do what their manager tells them, even when they can’t see the reason for it,” compared with 30% of the respondents from other generations.
  • Preference for face-to-face feedback:  While millennials were adept at and comfortable with conducting many types of communications digitally, more than 90% of those surveyed were clear that they wanted “face time” with their managers when the subject was evaluation of their performance and their career plans.

The article also pointed out that reports that millennials were more eager and willing to change jobs did not necessarily mean that they were different from their parents since younger people have always been more likely to move around more frequently as they learned more about their interests and continued their search for a position that was right for them and their skills.  In addition, the apparent willingness uncovered in the surveys of millennials to take guidance from their managers and the hunger of millennials to get face-to-face feedback might also be an indication that millennials, like most workers who have passed through the same age group in the past, are aware that they still need help from others with more experience on “learning the ropes”.  In fact, The Economist summed it all up as follows: “The most striking thing about the research data compiled by the likes of CEB and the Centre for Creative Leadership is how much workers of different generations have in common. They want roughly the same things regardless of when they were born: to be given interesting work to do, to be rewarded on the basis of their contributions and to be given the chance to work hard and get ahead.”  Organizations and their managers would do well to take notice of hard data before throwing away all of the motivational tools they have used in the past and should sit down with the millennials in their workplace and talk with them to sort out myths, understand their expectations and explain the needs of the organization.

Sources: “Schumpeter: Myths about Millenials—Businesses should beware of dubious generalizations about younger workers”, The Economist (August 1, 2015), 60 (also available online).  Among the commentaries and other sources cited in the article were Tamara Erickson, Plugged In” The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2008), CEB, Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership and Alec Levenson of the University of Southern California.  See also C. Marston, Myths about Millennials: Tips for Managers about Retaining Millennials.


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