Busting the millennial myths

Why everything you thought you knew about millennials is wrong

It was 1993. In the early hours of a perfectly normal day, a lorry containing corned beef attempted a delivery to a British supermarket. Corned beef has a shelf life of seven years. But when the supermarket’s computer tried to check this, instead of subtracting 1993 from 2000 to get seven, it subtracted 93 from 00, to give -93. The load was refused, requiring a manual override from an unknown supermarket hero to prevent the corned beef from certain destruction.

This innocuous event sparked a public fear of ‘the millennium bug’ – that as champagne corks popped in the early hours of January, 1st 2000, planes would plummet from the sky, lifts would lock-in their passengers, banks would stop paying correct interest and society would grind to a halt.

Nothing actually happened.

Today, a new fear has arisen: the rise of the Millennial. According to many popular beliefs, this new wave of younger workers (who have been bestowed with this ambiguous title) are rule-breakers. They herald great change and plenty of conflict. Many are predicting that organizations will never be the same again…

As always, we look to the research. Is this true? Or will we end up with another millennial anti-climax?

Does the new generation have an attitude problem?

To use fewer, better words, the answer would simply be: no. But let’s elaborate. A meta-analysis by Costanza et al. in 2012 looked at 20 studies of attitude differences in job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intent to leave. They found no generational differences.

That’s not all.

Dr Brenda Kowske and her colleagues at Kenexa were interested in how attitudes differ between generations. They looked at over 115,000 employees from across the US, covering five generations of employees. The title of the article they published says everything you need to know:

“Millennials’ (lack of) attitude problem: an empirical examination of generational effects on work attitudes”

If you’re interested in learning more, you can find the abstract of the study, here.

Are Millennials pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior at work?

We start to see some differences when we look at behavior. But even these are jarringly small, compared to the sweeping statements that prosper.

A study by Lester et al. in 2012 looked at 15 potential differences between generations. The only real differences they found included increased preferences for using e-mail and social media, learning continuously, and having fun at work. Participants did have a reduced preference for professionalism, however. It’s probably the effect of growing up with Google as your first port of call.

This finding was echoed by the research of Becton et al. 2014, where they found limited evidence to suggest the new generation may be less compliant. These are not the ground-breaking findings you’d want to bet your annual training budget on.

Have younger adults brought a different set of values with them?

Finally, we find a difference that’s noteworthy. Many recent studies have shown that younger adults do have different expectations of their company and role. They expect varied challenges, a wide selection of learning and development opportunities, a focus on career development and good financial rewards.

In other words, the dream job.

Interestingly, and perhaps less intuitively, younger adults have a greater interest than before in maintaining a healthy work-life balance, working in social teams and working for inspirational leaders. Debate is rife about why this may be – for instance, are Millennials adapting to a new culture in society, driven by technology and learning? Or are they changing the culture themselves? Perhaps you have your own thoughts on what’s behind this.

So should managers do anything differently?

Yes. And no.

Most Millennial myths believe the new generation causes conflict because they don’t work well with older adults. And this working relationship won’t improve through a focus on one group. Instead, it’ll blossom with quality management and an inclusive culture. And these are behaviors that should be applied equally, for all.

But to attract, retain and motivate younger adults, it seems we can appeal to their varied values. Some top tips might be to…

  • Flex: Give them a variety of development options, let them craft their job role and work-life balance
  • Partner: Instill a sense of company values and culture through informal mentor and coaching relationships
  • Listen: Find out what they want from their career and align it to the organization
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