The Millennial Myth

For years, employers have been hearing that three generations in the workplace is a recipe for disaster. We’ve been told they all have different requirements and approaches to work, particularly Gen Y, otherwise known as Millennials. And woe to those organizations that are unable or unwilling to understand and address those needs.

Our society has become fixated on labels and generalizations, as if ascribing particular attributes to each generation holds the key to harmony and productivity. Millennials have been depicted as more selfish, entitled and disloyal than generations before, as if their whims pose the single greatest threat to business today. And the conversation has fueled the search for magic formulas or grand changes we can make to the work environment that will address the seemingly incompatible competing needs of these generations.  

It’s time to take a step back and consider the bigger picture. The reality is that organizations have been multigenerational since the invention of the wheel; generational shift is not an unprecedented phenomenon. Countless organizations have managed to achieve growth and prosperity with multigenerational workforces. 

With all the hype, you may be surprised to learn that recent studies have concluded that the different generations have far more in common than people have been lead to believe. A study by UNC Executive Development on Managing the Multigenerational Workplace surveyed 5,400 people in North America and concluded that Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials all shared the same top five expectations of their employer. They want: challenging projects, competitive compensation, opportunities for growth and development, fair treatment and work life balance. What’s more, there was further consensus on the qualities that make an ideal leader. Specifically, they all want someone who leads by example, is accessible, helps others understand the value of their role in the organization, acts as a coach and mentor, and challenges others while holding them accountable.

This is not to say there aren’t distinctions to be made regarding the needs, attitudes, and values across the generations. Each generation is different from the one that came before it. Take Millennials, for example. They are the first generation to grow up in the digital age. As a group, they are more comfortable with technology than their predecessors. They also tend to place less value on tradition and conformity than the Baby Boomers. And while some might suggest Millennials are overly attached to their electronic devices and lack a respect for authority, others see these traits as opportunities to challenge the status quo and seek new solutions to old problems.

At the core, the multigenerational discussion is about diversity. Increasingly, employers recognize the power of diverse opinions to fuel innovation and drive results. The popular sentiment is diversity is good and, while we need more of it, diversity can create challenges. Some workforces require more support than others to turn these challenges and into opportunities. But sweeping generalizations do not help foster stronger teams nor do they improve employee engagement. We need to move beyond the labels.

Age based stereotypes can be as problematic as stereotypes associated with gender and ethnicity. The truly effective leader goes beyond the superficial categorizations to get to know the individuals that comprise their team. What are their goals and aspirations? What motivates them? What is their preferred communication style? What is their understanding of your organization’s strategy and their role in achieving it? Get to know the individuals and find the common ground.

Essentially, what employees expect from employers hasn’t really changed all that much over the years, even as the generations in the workforce have. If you’re recognizing your team with competitive compensation, fair treatment and the chance to tackle challenging projects; if you provide opportunities for their individual growth and development, and are sensitive to their needs for work life balance, you are probably further along in addressing the needs of all generations in your workforce than you may have thought.

So, don’t let a preoccupation with labels distract you and your team from what really matters to achieve your goals, and keep that in mind when the experts start telling you how to prepare for the arrival of Gen Z. 

Jeff Forbes
Jeff Forbes
Managing Partner
Jeff Forbes, CMC, is President and Managing Partner of KBRS, with more than 19 years of experience in providing strategic counsel on talent strategies for a wide spectrum of public and private organizations, from start-ups to multi-billion dollar organizations. He has successfully completed hundreds of search assignments in his career, recruiting outstanding executives and senior leaders.