5 myths about millennials in the workplace

Millennials at work at Rally Software Development.
BOULDER, CO - MAY 6: 27-year-old Alex Riegelman, a user experience designer, is part of the workforce at Rally Software Development in Boulder, which reflects the growth of jobs for the Millennial generation in Colorado on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. (Denver Post Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon)
Photograph by Cyrus McCrimmon — Denver Post via Getty Images

Millennials have been unfairly saddled with the dubious reputation for being self-centered, disloyal employees. The fact is their goals and passions and needs in the workplace aren’t all that different from the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations that precede them.

And that’s welcome news for skeptics about the drive and dedication of millennials, since — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — they will, in about five years, make up roughly 50% of the U.S. workforce. As digital natives, millennials can bring considerable value to work environments in the midst of a digital revolution. So employers need to understand what motivates millennials and what type of work environment will enable them to flourish.

That may not be quite the Herculean task once assumed.

According to a recent study by the IBM Institute for Business Value, the differences among Millennial, Gen X and Baby Boomer employees have been grossly exaggerated. The study surveyed 1,784 employees from organizations across 12 countries and 6 industries and compared the preferences and behavioral patterns of millennials with those of the Gen X generation (aged 35–49) and Baby Boomers (aged 50–60). The findings show that the three generations have very similar career aspirations, needs and attitudes. What’s more, the attitudes and characteristics of millennials in the workplace are often mischaracterized.

Here are five common myths about millennials in the workplace – some of which reveal interesting and rarely – acknowledged insights about older workers, too.

Myth #1: Millennials’ career goals and expectations are different from those of older generations.

Millennials have numerous and varied goals. They desire financial security, seniority, inspirational leadership, clearly articulated business strategies and performance-based recognition and promotions — just as much as Gen X and Baby Boomers do. Similarly, the other generations are just as interested as millennials in working with a diverse group of people.

This indicates that many changes being made to “millennialize” the workplace will – most likely – be welcomed by multiple generations, too.

Myth #2: Millennials want constant acclaim and think everyone on the team should get a trophy.

That may have been true on their childhood rec soccer leagues, but millennials have grown up – and want to be treated that way. When asked what makes a “perfect boss,” millennials said they want a manager who’s ethical and fair and also values transparency and dependability. Lower on the list of importance is a boss who recognizes their accomplishments and asks for their input.

Actually, Gen X employees, more than millennials, think everyone on a successful team should be rewarded. And millennials are no hungrier for pats on the back than their Gen X colleagues.

Myth #3: Millennials are digital addicts who want to do — and share — everything online, without regard for personal or professional boundaries.

This notion isn’t supported by the data. For example, when it comes to learning new skills at work, Millennials prioritize face-to-face contact over digital options. As for respecting professional boundaries in social media, it’s the younger generation – not Gen X or Boomers – who are most likely to draw a firm line separating their personal and professional lives.

Myth #4: Millennials, unlike their older colleagues, can’t make a decision without first inviting everyone to weigh in.

Actually, millennials are no more likely than many of their older colleagues to solicit advice at work. Both Millennial and Gen X workers have a desire to tap a variety of sources to inform their decisions – much more so than independent-minded Baby Boomers.

As the business landscape becomes more interconnected and complex, businesses would be well served to leverage and promote the technological and human resources that enable strong collaboration and interactions in decision-making.

Myth #5: Millennials are more likely to jump ship if a job doesn’t fulfill their passions.

The survey data reveals that all three generations change jobs for similar reasons. Millennials, Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers all cited the same top four motivating factors for changing jobs: to enter the fast lane (by far the most popular for all generations), shoot for the top, follow one’s heart, or save the world.

Like their elders, millennials care about getting ahead and making a difference. And while nearly one-thid of them have already had five or six jobs, that seems to be less about wanderlust and more a reality of the post-Recession economic malaise that the nation endured until recently.

These debunked myths and other evidence suggest that the secret to attracting millennials and creating a workplace where employees of all ages can thrive is to not rely on generational clichés. Rather, the trick is to treat everyone like an individual.

A useful guide in making the right decisions for modifying existing policies, improving technologies, and instilling a more collaborative culture can often be found in workforce data analytics.

Using data analytics, human resource executives can predict which employees – of all generations — are most likely to leave. Big Data can also help determine effective financial rewards for high-value employees, and can help recruiters pinpoint which candidates would be most successful in various open positions.

As business leaders consider data-generated insights for clues on how to change their organization to appeal to millennials, they must also be mindful of the impact any shifts will have on older workers. But in many respects, as the survey spotlighted, what’s good for millennials will be good for the other generations, too.

Carolyn Heller Baird is a Global Research Leader in the IBM Institute for Business Value.

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