Are millennials actually different to any of the other generation?
There is certainly a lot of hype about millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 - the latest generation to dominate the workforce. Believe all of it and it’s like Armageddon’s about to hit. Believe none of it and you might not attract and retain the talent your business needs.
The trick is to filter out from all the noise what is actually different about millennial workers and then decide what actions your organisation does (and doesn’t) need to take. Efficient evolution based on evidence, not pre-emptive guesses based on stereotypes.
Luckily the issue of how much millennials are actually different to any other generation is one of the biggest preoccupations for researchers.1 What’s actually new about this latest group and what is just the same cycle repeating itself (i.e. older generation managing the incoming younger generation)?
From researching the topic I think it’s fair to say there are a lot of perceptions, behaviours and attributes of millennials that can be explained by age and lack of experience/responsibility. So for example, the perceptions of millennials as ‘entitled, lazy, irresponsible, and not wanting to be told what to do’ are all things older generations have been saying about younger generations for years. In time, millennials will be similarly stereotyping the next generation. So, no action needed on this one.
That said, it would be remiss to overlook the impact of ‘millennial’ characteristics altogether. For each generation there are historical and socio-cultural events, experiences - ‘shared memories’ if you like - that people of that age bracket have been exposed to growing up. These formative experiences will have been different to those of the previous generations and so will have inevitably produced some shared commonalities that are to some degree unique.
For millennials evidence suggests that key formative events have been the economic recession and technological advances.2, 3 Specifically, the economic recession has most likely caused the characteristic millennial ‘job hopping’ or ‘lack of loyalty’, as this generation has grown up observing first-hand and on massive scale, loyal, long-serving employees being let go by organisations as businesses weather the economic storm. In this context its unsurprising millennials expect a shorter stay with employers and are always open to other opportunities.
Furthermore, survey findings suggest 72% of millennials had to make some sort of compromise to get into work during the recession, so this apparent ‘lack of loyalty’ may actually just be an outcome of the economy improving, as more opportunities arise elsewhere and the initial compromise is no longer needed.
Alongside the recession, technological advances have also significantly shaped the attitudes and behaviour of this latest generation to hit the workforce.4 During their lifetime mobiles have transformed from exclusive bricks owned by the city's elite to smartphones owned by everyone. Then there’s the internet. This millennial era invention has shaped the way we share knowledge and network across the globe, a funny cat is no longer just a village hero but can trend globally in minutes. Crowdfunding has even changed the way entrepreneurs can start a business or rally support for a cause or innovative idea.
In terms of what this means for managing the millennials in your workforce research suggests the biggest shifts will be in communication and collaborative working. Millennials value tech-based forms of communication (i.e. instant messaging, emails, discussion forums, networking sites) more than previous generations and expect a quick two-way flow of authentic communication to company leaders. Furthermore, with so many contacts and so much knowledge available on the web, millennials are more inherently tuned to collaborative ways of working, they are used to being able to access a vast pools of information, finding specialist contacts and sharing big ideas.
So in sum, there are a range of ‘new’ generational characteristics that are not ‘new’ at all. They are the same generational stereotypes each generation plasters on the next. But, amongst all this age-related noise there are some core millennial traits that organisations should capitalise on, including (but not limited to): communication and collaborative working.
For more information on Millennials and their impact on organisational culture you can view our latest webinar recording here.
1. Lyons, S., & Kuron, L. (2014). Generational differences in the workplace: A review of the evidence and directions for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35, S139-S157.
2. Lester, S. W., Standifer, R. L., Schultz, N. J., & Windsor, J. M. (2012). Actual versus perceived generational differences at work an empirical examination. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19, 341-354.
3. PWC. (2011). Millennials at Work: Reshaping the workplace. PricewaterhouseCoopers: Research Report.
4. Suh, J. K., & DArch, J. H. (2016). An Interdisciplinary Approach to Develop Key Spatial Characteristics that Satisfy the Millennial Generation in Learning and Work Environment. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, 8(3).