Millennials at work: Are they young and misunderstood?
There are many myths about millennials at work that should be debunked. A study identifies the traits of today’s young adults in the workplace.
If you are an employee, manager, or business owner, you will inevitably come face-to-face with a millennial, or a whole group of them. Millennials at work can be your co-worker or boss as more and more of them are becoming managers. There’s no avoiding them since they’re the ones who are taking over workplaces around the world. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 80 million young adults are now in or entering the workforce.
So it’s very interesting, though not surprising, how much time and energy are being spent, by employers, researchers, and pundits in trying to figure out millennials. One study, a report from the USC Kenan-Flagler Business School, identifies the following traits for today’s young adults in the workplace. These traits have been pointed out in other articles and by other analysts:
Millennials at work are tech-savvy, multi-taskers who prefer collaboration.
This supposedly runs counter to previous generations who were trained to work on and solve tasks individually. While an older manager might tend to assign a project to one person, millennials would tend to “crave” collaboration, and work better on a project as a team.
Since their generation came of age after Windows was invented (1985) and the internet went mainstream (the early 1990s), they’re the most tech-savvy generation. They’re also used to dealing with “an unstructured flow of information on all levels.”
Rather than devote most of their time focusing on one task, they prefer to work on several at once—so it’s not unusual to find them working with multiple tabs open on their laptops or tablets, while also posting on social media.
They see their personal and work lives as a circular, interlocking network—not a linear progression.
The Kenan-Flagler report uses an interesting metaphor to describe millennials’ way of life: “For them, life is more like London’s Eye—the city’s giant Ferris wheel—there are multiple opportunities to stop along the way, with great views they can instantly snap with their camera phones, post to Facebook, and add a status update, all before the next stop.”there are multiple opportunities to stop along the way, with great views they can instantly snap with their camera phones, post to Facebook, and add a status update, all before the next stop.”
For employers and managers who expect young employees to put down roots in the company and stay out of a sense of loyalty, this view of life might prove disruptive. They might even interpret young workers as lacking dedication and loyalty.
They see managers as coaches and mentors—not superiors.
Gone are the days when a manager can simply say the word and expect to be followed without question. For the present generation, a manager is more like a coach or teacher than a boss. A teacher who is there to help the rest of the team accomplish their group project, providing not just guidance but inspiration and encouragement.
As the Kenan-Flagler report puts it: “They don’t view managers as content experts (like their predecessors) because they know where to find multiple versions of the information.”
Millennials also appreciate managers who provide them real-time feedback and communicates with them regularly–however, some old school managers might find this as too much “hand-holding”.
Myth versus fact?
The Kenan-Flagler report, however, is hardly the definitive perspective on millennials. While other studies, analyses, and pundits share many of its findings, there are also those who debunk the same. Nick Haslam, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, challenges what he essentially says, are unfair and unsubstantiated stereotypes imposed on millennials.
He cites a massive study that brought together annual surveys conducted on American 18-year-olds since 1976, totaling 100,000 respondents. The surveys asked respondents about work values, and their preferences for workplaces (characteristics and settings). The study was conducted by psychologists Stacy Campbell, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell.
From the study, Haslam mentions some traits that apparently tend to be true for those born more recently: they appear to be narcissistic and anxious but with higher self-esteem. They also appear to be less trusting, less empathetic and would tend to feel that they have less control over important life events.
On feeling less in control, some have speculated that this may be due to millennials’ having grown up in the shadow, and continuing effects, of the 9/11 attacks: the reality that terrorism can strike anywhere makes them feel less safe, less certain of the future.
More the same than different
Haslam says the earlier mentioned traits—narcissism, anxiety, etc.—do not necessarily mean that young employees are fragile and entitled, or want more pay, faster promotions, and constant praise or doing less work.
For Haslam, those very same traits could indicate something more admirable: “…(are millennials) instead of more entrepreneurial and socially conscious than their predecessors, shying away from corporate conformity and striving for personal meaning or social contribution?”
Haslam points out, the statistical analysis of the study by Campbell, Twenge, and Campbell shows no real significant differences between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials when it comes to workplace values and preferences. He says that “when the results of the study are looked into soberly, all three generations want the same things in their workplaces—with real yet minor differences.”
In a nutshell, Haslam says the failings usually ascribed to the younger generation—being highly ambitious, yet lazy and hedonistic—does not necessarily indicate a problem with millennials. All that could simply be the usual complaints that an older generation heaps upon the younger ones.
It doesn’t mean that millennials are problematic—they’re just younger.
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