4 Things You Thought Were True About Managing Millennials
There seems to be an endless fascination with Millennials at work. There are studies, books, articles, blog posts, and white papers — all about what makes them so different from the generations that came before. And as they continue to enter and occupy the workforce, more and more is written about how they behave (or misbehave) at the office.
But are these cries actually true? Is managing them all that different from managing Gen Xers or Baby Boomers? Let's look at some of the most common claims about Millennials.
They're completely different from "us" at that age. False.
Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at The Wharton School, has studied the research done on Millennials and says it comes up short. "There is no real serious evidence that there's a generational difference," he says.
Sure, older generations look at Millennials and think they're not like them. Those observations are based on cognitive bias, not actual differences. "It's easy to assume young people are different in disposition because they seem different from you. But young people are always different than old people. For example, young people are much more interested in dating than those who are older and settled. And they don't have obligations in the same way that older people do," says Cappelli.
The only way to see if today's 20- and 30-somethings are truly distinct from the 20- and 30-somethings who grew up in the 1960s or 1970s is to compare data. That's what Jean Twenge, a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me, and her fellow researchers did. They used a time-lag research method that compares people of the same age at different points in time. Twenge noticed some shifts between previous generations' and Millennials' attitudes toward work, but most were relatively small. And they're not what you think.
Millennials want more purpose at work. False.
"There are some perceptions that many people have that simply aren't true and this is one of them," says Twenge. Her research comparing data from U.S. high school seniors in 1976, 1991, and 2006 shows that contrary to popular belief, Millennials don't favor "altruistic work values (e.g., helping, societal worth)" more than previous generations. In fact, they place slightly less emphasis on "a job that gives you an opportunity to be directly helpful to others" than Boomers did at the same age.
All those companies offering pay to employees for their volunteer work? They aren't responding to a need presented by Millennials. That's a benefit that seems to have always been valued by U.S. workers; and it may be useful motivation for younger and older workers alike. "The same is true for emphasizing how the company benefits society; GenMe is no more or less likely to be interested in the social good than previous generations were," her report says.
Additional research by Twenge shows that a concern for others is actually lower in this generation than previous ones. "Compared to Boomers, Millennials were less likely to have donated to charities, less likely to want a job worthwhile to society or that would help others, and less likely to agree they would eat differently if it meant more food for the starving. They were less likely to want to work in a social service organization or become a social worker, and were less likely to express empathy for outgroups," she writes.
The perception that Millennials are more concerned with helping society has always been at odds with another perception: they are entitled and narcissistic. The latter turns out to be true if you look at Twenge's research. While the shift is small, Millennials do rank higher when it comes to positive self-esteem. "In general, this generation has very high expectations when it comes to education and the jobs they think they can attain," she says.
But, Cappelli points out what we need to remember. "If on average the age group is slightly different than a previous age group at another time, it doesn't mean that each kid is slightly more entitled. You're looking at a huge population," he says. "And if young people are more narcissistic than old people, so what?"
They want more work-life balance. Somewhat true.
Looking at the data, Twenge did see a slight rise in how much Millennials value work-life balance. "Recent generations were progressively more likely to value leisure at work … GenX and GenMe placed a greater emphasis on leisure time than did their Boomer counterparts," she writes. Almost twice as many young people in 2006 rated having a job with more than two weeks of vacation as "very important" than in 1976, and almost twice as many wanted a job at which they could work slowly. In 2006, nearly half wanted a job "which leaves a lot of time for other things in your life."
But Cappelli points out that those changes are still pretty minor. Plus, he says, many managers overemphasize this difference, in part, because they forget what it was like to be young themselves. When you were 22, "you probably wanted to get out of the office in a hurry — you were interested in what was going on after work," he said in this March 2014 New York Times piece.
Millennials need special treatment at work. False.
Cappelli has a strong opinion here: "That's ridiculous. If you felt you were part of a special generation, did you get managed differently? Young people today will stand on their heads to get a job. Why do we think we have to manage them differently?" To him, managing people based solely on their age is biased. People have lots of qualities that make them distinct: race, gender, background. Don't stereotype. Instead of assuming that the Millennials on your team need special treatment, get to know each person individually. "Keep an awareness in the back of your mind that some things are due to age, which is true for older workers too, but what you're observing might have something to do with other things, like ethnic background," he say.
Of course, it's helpful to know how to manage people at different ages. He notes that this is where the cafeteria approach to benefits originated — the idea that people had different needs at various points in their lives. And in researching for his book, Managing the Older Worker, he learned that teams that incorporate different aged workers perform better. "It's smart to have young people and older people work together. They don't see each other as competition and are more likely to help each other," he says.
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