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What Do Millennials Really Want at Work?

Truth and myths about generational differences in work attitudes

With the economy recovering and more and more Boomers retiring, organizations are hiring more and more younger workers. Many of these workers are Millennials, the popular label for the group of Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s. They’re also known as GenY or, as I often refer to them, Generation Me.

The problem: These young workers are different, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what they’re like and what they want. For example, some have suggested that Millennials are very interested in being social and making friends at work. Sure, but are they any more interested in this than other generations were when they were in their 20s? Any study done at one time can’t really tell – maybe it’s age, maybe it’s generation. It would be better to look at surveys completed by people of the same age, but at different points in time.

My colleagues and I have drawn from several of these surveys, and one – the nationally representative Monitoring the Future study of 12th graders – has asked about work attitudes every year since 1976. Everyone was the same age – 17 or 18 – but filled out the survey during different years. Thus the 1970s respondents were Boomers, the 1980s-1990s Generation X, and the 2000s-2010s Millennials. Here, social work values such as making friends barely changed at all. So that’s not a particularly unique characteristic of Millennials.

Many books and consultants emphasize that Millennials are much more interested in helping others and contributing to society than previous generations were. Many of these rely on one-time polls -- some of them one-time polls that don't even have data from other generations! (How can you conclude there's a generational difference with data from only one generation?) The over-time data show, again, that the generations don’t differ much in wanting jobs directly helpful to others or that contribute to society. Millennials do volunteer more, but likely because high schools have increasingly required community service for graduation. Voluntary charity, such as donating money, is lower among Millennials than among Boomers and GenX’ers at the same age, as is taking action to help the environment (strange, I know, but Gallup polls show the same decline over time).

So does this mean, as yet others have claimed, that there are no generational differences in work attitudes? No. We found considerable differences in the desire for work-life balance, work ethic, and the importance of work. Millennials were more likely to say they wanted a job with lots of vacation, more likely to agree “work is just making a living,” and less likely to say they were willing to work overtime. Most of them still said they were willing to work overtime, but fewer than their Boomer and GenX’er predecessors. We also found a generational difference in extrinsic values, such as desiring status and compensation. Here, GenX’ers were the highest, but Millennials were still more interested in extrinsic values than Boomers were when they were young.

Getting the right data on generational differences is only the first step. If managers are going to recruit and retain this generation of young workers, they and their workplaces are going to have to adapt. Millennials are not willing to waste their precious leisure time on inefficiency and face time. They want to get the work done so they can get back to enjoying life, preferably on their own schedule. They are also not going to wait around to get promoted. In this time of instant information, two years seems like an eternity. One easy fix: Have promotions be more incremental, but occur every six months instead of every two years. I discuss some additional strategies in the new edition of Generation Me, which has a brand new chapter on generational differences at work.

Even more interesting is seeing how these differences actually play out in the workplace. What has worked for you when you've managed or co-worked with Millennials? What suggestions do you have for those who are struggling to understand these new workers? If you’re a Millennial yourself, what do companies really need to know about your generation?

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