This is the year the millennial generation—ages 18 to 34—will surpass the baby-boom generation in size. It has already done so in cultural and social significance. We boomers grew accustomed to the notion, forged over decades, that we drove the zeitgeist of our times. No more. Millennials rule.
That’s certainly true in the workplace (see our coverage of the 100 Best Companies to Work For). Any discussion of talent quickly devolves into a dissection of the millennial mind. Managers struggle with preconceptions. Must millennials change jobs every two years? Do they require constant reinforcement, after a childhood of “everybody’s a winner”? Do they need a “chill” workplace? Free food? Foosball?
Many of the popular notions are pure myth. Some busted ones:
Millennials want to change jobs frequently.
Wrong. A study by my former colleagues at the Pew Research Center shows that millennials actually value job security more highly than boomers do. But they won’t stay at a job they don’t like. Some 50% of millennials say having a “job you enjoy” is “extremely important” to them, compared with just 38% of boomers.
Money doesn’t matter.
Maybe. The Pew study found that millennials put “a high-paying job” near the bottom of their list of work priorities—but so do other generations, in roughly equal numbers. Count me a skeptic on all counts. What people say when surveyed over the phone and how they act when an offer is on the table are different things.
Every Millennial wants to be an entrepreneur.
They may all want to be Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s not happening. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data shows the share of people under age 30 who own private businesses has hit a 24-year low—just 3.6%, down from 10.6% in 1989.
Still, there is no doubt that this generation is different. It is the most diverse in American history—43% nonwhite—and more confident about the nation’s future than older generations. That’s a reverse from the 1970s, when young boomers were considerably less optimistic than their elders. Millennials also are slower to get married than earlier generations and less likely to belong to a political party—which may make their employer, by default, the most important institutional affiliation in their lives.
The biggest difference is not who they are, but how they live. They are the ones most comfortable with the new human appendage—the smartphone—that lets them stay connected to a vast network of friends and provides instant access to information, both good and bad. They are quickest to adapt to the ways in which the mobile Internet is changing the fundamental logistics of their lives, and the first to demand the workplace do the same.
So pay attention. The millennials aren’t spoiled products of a coddled past. They are harbingers of our connected future.
We had some fun developing cover look for this issue. The full-size versions are in the magazine. Let us know what you think.
This story is from the March 15, 2015 issue of Fortune.