We keep hearing about how different Millennials are from other age groups. But, as it turns out, Millennials aren’t all that different from previous generations after all. It’s just that, apparently, the pundits forgot what it was like to be young.
That’s the contention of KPMG’s Bruce Pfau in Harvard Business Review. “Conventional wisdom holds that Millennials are entitled, easily distracted, impatient, self-absorbed, lazy, and unlikely to stay in any job for long,” he begins. “On the positive side, they’re also looking for purpose, feedback, and personal life balance in their work.”
But that’s a crock, Pfau continues. “A growing body of evidence suggests that employees of all ages are much more alike than different in their attitudes and values at work,” he writes. “To the extent that any gaps do exist, they amount to small differences that have always existed between younger and older workers throughout history and have little to do with the Millennial generation per se.”
Increasingly, this finding is supported by research. For example, a study by IBM Institute for Business Value found that it wasn’t just Millennials who want to make the world a better place. About the same percentage of Millennials (25 percent) want to make a positive impact on their organizations as GenXers with 21 percent and Baby Boomers with 23 percent.
“Millennials want many of the same things their older colleagues do,” according to the report. “While there are some distinctions among the generations, Millennials’ attitudes are not poles apart from other employees’.”
A 2015 national study commissioned by CNBC found similar results. “Looking at the importance of six traits in a potential employer — ethics, environmental practices, work-life balance, profitability, diversity and reputation for hiring the best and the brightest — millennial preferences are just about the same as the broader population on all six,” writes Steve Liesman. “For example, 18 percent of millennials say work-life balance is the most important trait in a company, compared with 19 percent of the population.”
In fact, in some ways, Millennials are happier with their jobs than are older people. “87 percent are satisfied with the training and skills development they receive at work, compared with 76 percent of the rest of the population; 76 percent say they are satisfied with their opportunities for promotion and advancement, 10 points higher than the rest of the population,” Liesman writes.
Findings like these are actually gratifying to us GenXers and Baby Boomers, who were starting to wonder if we truly were the cynical but focused head-down people we were being portrayed as.
Indeed, according to a recent Gallup study, Baby Boomers are more likely than Millennials to say that creativity and fun are important factors for them in considering a new job. (The most important factor for Millennials? The opportunity to learn and grow.)
It’s not that the original viewpoints were wrong, but that they were wrong in the context of Millennials being different from all the previous generations. It’s just that, apparently, researchers had forgotten what it was like to be young themselves. Or, as Elspeth Reeve puts it in The Wire: “it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older,” she writes. “It’s like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences.”
Take that belief that Millennials are more likely to leave their jobs. “While voluntary turnover is higher among our Millennial population, that’s nothing new,” Pfau writes. “Our employees under age 35 are more likely to move on to new opportunities than their older coworkers generally, but that has been true for at least the past two decades. In fact, our current employees [at KPMG] under the age of 35 are actually less likely to leave the firm than their same age counterparts in years past.”
Indeed, if anything, Millennials are behaving rationally in a job market that no longer rewards loyalty, writes Aisha Gani in The Guardian. Going to college just after the financial crisis showed people of that generation that loyalty didn’t always pay off because they saw that people who had worked for a company for decades got laid off, she writes.
So how did we get our viewpoints about Millennials so wrong? It was a combination of several factors, Pfau writes, such as:
- A lack of comparative research across generations
- Research coming from consultants who wanted to sell information on how to manage Millennials
- More provocative conclusions getting more attention
- Rationalizing management challenges by making it sound like the newest generation was qualitatively different
The upshot? Millennials don’t really want anything special. Or, put another way, you know the part about Millennials wanting more responsibility, more motivation, and feeling like there’s a higher purpose to their job? Turns out everyone would like that.
“It’s likely that companies pursuing Millennial-specific employee engagement strategies are wasting time, focus, and money,” Pfau writes. “They would be far better served to focus on factors that lead all employees to join, stay, and perform at their best.”
People, whether Millennials or not, ask themselves four questions before deciding whether to join a company, Pfau writes:
- Is this a winning organization I can be proud of?
- Can I maximize my performance on the job?
- Are people treated well economically and interpersonally?
- Is the work itself fulfilling and enjoyable?
So the good news is, you don’t have to treat Millennials different from everyone else. Instead, treat everyone else like you were supposed to treat Millennials.
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