Millennials Aren’t So Different After All

Plato was said to have complained that young people “disrespect their elders” and “ignore the law”. Peter the Hermit griped that they “think of nothing but themselves” and are “impatient of all restraint”. Child-rearing expert Haim Ginott scolds parents who talk about the younger generation as if they didn’t have anything to do with it.

Millennial Generation
Millennials Aren’t Do Different After All

For centuries older generations have been reprimanding young workers about their lack of loyalty and work ethic.

Let’s start with the hypocrisy of loyalty – managers and executives seem to like to call the kettle black. They forget how mergers and acquisitions led to wholesale job terminations, how outsourcing and offshoring decimated production floors and call centers, how pension plans were raided and guaranteed benefits erased, and how greed stifled wages and benefits for the past 30 to 40 years.  Generation X and Millennials are the by-product of companies and even government terminating their parents’ job and disrupting career paths. Is it any wonder they don’t trust management? Who could blame them for taking back as much control over their careers as possible?  Loyalty is a two-way street and much like our infrastructure, the side that corporate America controls has crumbled.

What was good for the goose became good for the gander and workers responded accordingly.  It happened in the 1990s when Generation X entered the labor market and Baby Boomers complained about the Gen X free agent attitude. And then a decade or so later, Millennials came along.  And guess who was doing the loudest griping this time -Gen X.  Yep, history repeated itself – just as the Matures and Veterans complained about Baby Boomers and our great-great-grandparents dwelled on the attitudes of their kids, Gen X bellyached about the flighty-no-loyalty-lousy-work-ethic Millennials.

Are you getting the picture? Today, managers, older workers, and the media tend to paint the Millennials as a privileged, narcissistic, entitled bunch of spoiled job hopping Trophy Kids. As every new generation enters the work force, it’s amazing how quickly they’re mislabeled with attributes that are common to young people. These labels tend to stick, and they become increasingly inaccurate as the generation ages (assuming they were at all accurate to begin with).To paraphrase Jennifer Deal (Center for Creative Leadership) and Alec Levenson (University of Southern California), most generalizations about millennials as employees are “inconsistent at best and destructive at worst.”

Truth be told most Millennials get a bum rap as the current older generations abuse the privilege of age as much as anyone ever did.

The numbers don’t lie. When economists compare people who started their careers in the 1980s with people who started their careers in the early 2000s, they find that the two generations (Gen X v. Millennials) are more or less identical in terms of how often people change jobs – about 50 percent change jobs each year. That turns out to be 6.3 jobs for Millennials between the ages of 18 and 25 and 6.2 jobs for Gen X when they were the same age. And how about those loyal company “men” – the Baby Boomers?  Well, they too worked an average of 5.5 jobs by the time they reached age 25. In other words, when young people change jobs and look for new opportunities to learn and grow, it does not represent a lack of loyalty; it’s simply the time in their lives when they are seeking these experiences.

The commonality between generations just doesn’t stop at job change either. Studies from CEB and Center for Creative Leadership reveal how much workers of different generations have in common. Every generation has their share of introverts and extroverts, capitalists and socialists, superstars and lost souls, givers and takers. But as a group they want roughly the same things regardless of when they were born: to be given interesting work to do, to be rewarded on the basis of their contributions and to be given the chance to work hard. And like Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, the top three motivating factors for changing jobs are to enter the fast lane (by far the most popular for all generations), shoot for the top, and follow one’s heart.

The truth is that although millennials may be the “selfie” generation, they also care about the world around them. They want jobs that affect social change, and they give what they can.  Contrary to popular belief millennials rate “contribute to society,” “correct inequalities” and “be a leader in the community” higher than baby boomers did when they were younger.

The first wave of Millennials is rising up the ranks at work and shaping — or making — key business decisions. It’s important to understand the impact they’re having on today’s changing workplace – from jobs they will hold to parental leave and same sex benefits. So, what’s really going on? Commonality between generations is not time for complacency or finger pointing. It’s time to dispel the myths and respond to the truths.  And the truth is that our society and our workplaces will never return to the good old days. Companies and workers can either fall victim to the change or become agents to shape the good new days. Technology, automation, and globalization have no innate bias. They target all people, regardless of age and without discrimination. Whether you belong to the oldest generations or the youngest Gen Z, adaptation is necessary. And to accomplish that, collaboration and communication between generations is essential.

(Published in Business2Business Magazine, September 2015)


Ira S Wolfe