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 / Spring 2012 / Issue 66(originally published by Booz & Company)


Five Millennial Myths

Forget what you think you know about your Gen Y employees.

If you believe the conventional wisdom, everyone under the age of 30 is needy and narcissistic. They want the corner office and a company car, but they aren’t truly committed to their organization. They don’t take kindly to criticism, but can be easily won over with the next hot gadget.

Such stereotypes of millennials abound, and some may have a degree of truth. But as this massive cohort enters the workforce in increasing numbers, can companies afford to put their trust in these types of characterizations?

I’ve seen many corporate leaders and human resources departments twist themselves in knots trying to accommodate what media and marketers have told them are the preferences of this new generation of employees. They spend enormous sums on strategies to engage millennials — strategies such as corporate social responsibility initiatives, iPad giveaways, and workshops to help older managers better communicate with younger staff. Yet many organizations find that such efforts don’t improve retention.

For the past 12 years, I have studied the so-called generation gap through empirical research, and have found that stereotypes of millennials in the workplace are inconsistent at best and destructive at worst. As part of two initiatives at the Center for Creative Leadership, we have collected data using online surveys from more than 13,000 participants in for-profit, nonprofit, and government organizations. On the basis of those findings, I have identified five key myths that companies tend to subscribe to when it comes to their younger employees.

Myth #1: Millennials don’t want to be told what to do. Because they spent their childhood being told by their parents that everything they did was wonderful, millennials are difficult to manage.

The reality: The idea that millennials are not willing to comply with authority is flat-out wrong. Our research shows (unexpectedly, I must admit) that millennials currently in the workforce are more willing to defer to authority than either baby boomers or Gen Xers. Specifically, in a sample of more than 5,000 respondents, millennials were more likely than boomers and Gen Xers to agree with statements such as “Employees should do what their manager tells them, even when they can’t see the reason for it.” One possible explanation for this behavior has to do with the coaching millennials received from their parents and teachers growing up: They learned at a young age that doing what an authority figure tells them is more likely to result in success (“what do I need to do to get an A?”), and therefore believe that doing what their managers tell them will have the same effect.

This presents a great opportunity for organizations to shape millennial employees’ behavior. Managers can improve millennials’ career trajectory (and make their own lives easier) by ensuring that they understand the organization’s culture and know what the expectations are. Millennials are more likely to thrive if they know the ingredients for success in the workplace, starting with the basics. For example, although it may seem obvious to an older manager, millennials may appreciate being told what time they are expected to arrive at the office, and precisely how quickly they should turn around a project (beyond just “ASAP”).

Myth #2: Millennials lack organizational loyalty. They aren’t committed to their company, and will change jobs when offered a small increase in salary.

The reality: Our research shows that millennial employees have about the same level of organizational commitment as boomers and Gen Xers. Interestingly, people of all generations in our sample indicate that they are moderately committed to their organization. So why is this myth so prevalent? One reason is that young people of every generation change jobs more frequently than older people. Boomers changed jobs when they were in their 20s more frequently than they did when they were in their 30s and 40s (or 50s and 60s), and we saw the same pattern with Gen Xers. And there is no evidence to show that the pattern is changing with millennials.

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