Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
26 Nov 2014

Where have all the adults gone?

26 Nov 2014 • by Changeboard Team

How do millennials differ?

There’s a growing interest in tomorrow’s future leaders, the Millennial or Gen Y bunch. The ageing population is redefining the workplace and forcing us to better understand and cater for the next cohort of employees that will be stepping into the shoes of their Baby Boomer and Generation X bosses.

The more I read though, the more I ask myself, how are the working lives of Millennials any different from the generations that came before and likely those that will come after? Sure the work environment has changed. Indeed each generation has had to deal with revolutionary work practices – from typewriters to the first computers to social media. And yes approaches to work have evolved over time. However, have the motivations of the millennial generation also evolved and are they any different from previous generations?

To me, it seems that the differences may not be as great as they’re being made out. Here are two reasons why: 

1. Engagement insights rarely show differences

At EdelmanENGAGE, we’ve recently completed a study into global employee engagement practices. We asked senior HR and IC professionals how varied were the engagement priorities across their people – whether we need to focus on different areas for different segments or whether we can apply a one size fits all approach. Do actions and initiatives need to be differentiated across employees in order to enhance engagement and driver performance?

One quarter of the respondents did not look at the variance in engagement priorities across generations. Instead, there was a stronger leaning towards viewing engagement priorities through a regional or hierarchical lens.

Interestingly though, of those firms that do look at engagement across age groupings, only 26% indicated that their employee engagement drivers vary significantly across generations. This compares to 34% of firms identifying significantly different priorities across levels of seniority.

These proportions are low in of themselves. For three quarters of firms there is no real difference between Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers in terms of what drives their engagement at work. But the gap here between seniority and age also highlights how the two don’t neatly map across to each other.  

These findings aren’t unique to the EdelmanENGAGE study. Across industries and geographies, we see time and time again the same conclusions from employee surveys - there is no substantial evidence that engagement differs across age groups. 

2. Research: no confirmed differences

Erickson (2008) described Millennials/Generation Y as more diverse, technologically reliant and individualistic than any previous generation. Indeed, how the workplace is changing to adapt to the work values of Millennials is a constant theme in the business press. Despite this wealth of anecdotal evidence, research that has compared people of the same age at different points in time shows only small to moderate generational differences.

For example, in their time-lag study, Twenge and her colleagues (2010) found evidence of a generational shift where Millennials value work-life balance more compared to Gen X and Baby Boomers. There were however no significant generational difference in altruistic values (e.g. CSR, volunteering, giving back to the community) and all three generations valued intrinsically motivating work. Twenge closes with a couple of very apt statements that sums up how we should be looking at different generations in the workplace: 1) “generational differences exist, but the differences are not overwhelming”, and w) “this research should not be interpreted as descriptive of every worker from a given generation.”

Should we simply ignore Millennials?

In short, no. Much of what is written at the moment is on how best to manage Millennials and this is helpful when thinking about the needs of different employees at different life stages. However, such a broad brush approach ignores the ways in which Millennials themselves differ. Millennials aren’t as different as people assume they are.

More intelligent employee segmentation that factors in motivations, attitudes and lifestyle and demographic variables including age will result in a richer understanding of all employees. It’s only then will we better know if there are truly any differentiating engagement factors across generations.

In a nutshell

Don’t be driven by broad assumptions thrown around about Millennials – use your own data to see how segmented they really are and what truly differentiates them in your own firm.