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Millennials at work: what does research really say?

Published 19th July 2017 by Investors in People
Millennials in the workplace

Look everywhere and you’ll see claims being made about what millennials are like.

Some claims are negative: they’re lacking in work ethic (Marston, 2009) or overly self-confident and self-absorbed (Pew Research Center, 2007). Some commentators go further, labelling millennials the ‘Look at Me’ generation.

Other claims are positive: they are more accepting of diversity, more comfortable working in teams, better communicators and better with technology (Myers & Sadaghiani 2010).

Who’s right and who’s wrong? That’s what we’ll look at it in this article.

But firstly, let’s just establish why all this is important: as organisations look to improve the employee experience to drive wellbeing and productivity, these types of claims will likely influence the process, particularly as the concentration of millennials in the workplace rises.

We tend to say similar things about the generations before us

Millennials have been called difficult to interact with, absorbed and service-focused (Hira 2007), yet boomers were described in very similar terms (Seligman, 1969)

Meanwhile, they’ve been called entitled and self-absorbed, yet in 1976 Tom Wolfe said exactly the same thing about the baby boomer generation who were the same age as many millennials are now.

In short, as Deal, Altman & Rogelberg (2010) point out, beliefs about the next generation entering the workforce have remained 'remarkably stable' for 40 years.

Job-hopping is likely a marker of age rather than generation

Millennial loyalty is often called out and they are said to be more likely to job hop between positions at different organisations. There is some truth [PDF, Deloitte research] in the idea that millennials are likely to move between jobs.

However, it’s not unique to the millennial generation. In fact, figures on job tenure are the same for people in their 20s now as they were in the 1980s.

In other words, it seems a tendency to move jobs in your 20s reflects age-appropriate behaviour, rather than being linked to the generation you were born in. Job-hopping is most likely a strategic move by younger people designed to advance their careers and earn more money.

Working culture and hours is determined by life stage

Working hours typically correlate with seniority (Deal, 2007). So when people say that millennials work less than previous generations, it may simply be that they are less senior and therefore their roles do not demand such long hours.

In fact, the Family and Work Institute in 2005 found no difference between the hours worked by millennials between the ages of 18 and 22 and Generation X between the same ages.

Work may be less important to millennials, but this is societally-driven

Some commentators say that work is less central to millennials’ lives than in previous generations. The Families and Work Institute (2005) does back up the idea that work is becoming less central to people's’ lives, but it seems that this is driven more by economic and social factors rather than being central to the identity of millennials.

For example, Deal et al (2010) point out that it may be a longer-hours culture that is making people resist further encroachment of work, rather than that work is becoming less central. The encroachment of technology on personal space and time may also be driving a similar response.

The same authors, back in 2007, said that desire for work-life balance - i.e. how central work is to your life compared with personal domains - is more likely driven by life-stage factors, such as having a young family at home, rather than generational differences, and right now the millennial generation are marrying and having young families.

Millennials are more comfortable with technology, but this is a trend, not a generational quality

People often say millennials have grown up with technology and so are more comfortable using it, and expect good technology to be present inside organisations.

Proficiency in, and comfort with, something is heavily driven by ‘age of exposure’ (think about learning a musical instrument or a new language) and so it’s no surprise that millennials are more comfortable with technology than previous generations.

However, due to the increasing place of technology in our lives, we can expect this trend to continue, so future generations will be more comfortable with the latest technology than millennials as their age of exposure to it will be lower.

Millennial health is definitely a cause for concern

Deal, Altman & Rogelberg (2010) highlight that if health behaviours do not improve, millennials will be less healthy due to obesity than other cohorts at the same age. This is bad for society as a whole, but also for productivity as the cost of health-related absence is so high.

Of course, with the dominance of the knowledge economy, the cohort following the millennials - Generation Z - will face the same problems.

That’s why it’s important we focus on wellbeing in the workplace to enable better physical and mental health, both for public health and for productivity.

What’s your experience of millennials in the workplace? Do you have any anecdotal evidence that confirms or negates what we’ve discussed above?