Over the past few years, many people have asked me what I though about ““how do you manage millennials in the workforce?” This is the kind of question that throws me into a fit of sadness about the modern state of work.

The problem is the question itself. A better question would be to start with trying to understand if Millennials are really all that different and if so, what that means for how we think about the modern workplace.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of what we really know about generations and here are the three things I’ve found:

  1. Most “Millennials Are Different” Storylines Are Myths (but there are some differences)
  2. The work context has changed, everyone’s expectations have shifted (Millennials want purpose, but so doesn’t every other generation)
  3. Principles of motivation & building culture remain the same (people still ignore what works just more brazenly)

Theme #1: Most Millennial Headlines Are Myths, But What Is Different?

Invariably ask anyone above the age of 50 will tell you that young people just don’t understand how the world works.

These ungrateful bastards are ruining work, expecting everything and have no idea how to behave.

The problem many people make is that they are not comparing current millennials to previous generations at the same age. When you do so you find things like:

“young people are actually less professionally itinerant than previous generations.”

and while google will try to convince you that millennials are different:

Millennial Myths

…the research finds that Millennial’s have similar consumption habits to previous generations.

The differences are not as much how they behave at work, but broader economic and demographics trends. Millennials are more “racially diverse, more educated, and more likely to have deferred marriage” while having lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth than previous generations. Finally, since most of the people in journalism now have college degrees and work in cities, you rarely ever hear about how millennials without college degrees are unable to find solid jobs and don’t end up moving to cities.

Theme #2: Millennials Want Purpose, But So Doesn’t Everyone

Those ungrateful millennials also want to be inspired at work…how selfish of them!

Unfortunately, this is bunk too.

A meta-review of all of the generational research had a damning finding:

The findings suggest that meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist on the work-related variables we examined and that the differences that appear to exist are likely attributable to factors other than generational membership. Given these results, targeted organizational interventions addressing generational differences may not be effective.

We want to believe that generational differences exist, so when we hear surveys that “30% of millennials are purpose oriented” we assume that they are asking for too damn much.

But when LinkedIn looked at all the generations, they found that the boomers were the greedy bastards:

48% of them want their work to be purpose-oriented. Haven’t they gotten enough already?!

Theme #3: So How Do You “Manage Millennials”?

The framing of managing different types of people and generations forces most of the working world to waste enormous amount of energy ignoring the basic research on human motivation that has existed for decades.

managing millennials google search result

While research can have its flaws, basing your actions at work on things like “self-determination theory” is going to be a lot more effective than running your organization by myths and google search advice.

self-determination theory - motivation at work

This theory is based on three simple concepts and your motivation increases when these things align:

  • Competence: We want to work on things slightly beyond, but not too far, out of our current level of competence. We want to grow
  • Relatedness: We want to work on things that connect us to other people and relate to the values we care about most
  • Autonomy: We want to feel that we have some level of control over the decisions and actions we make in our life and work.

While it is not easy to get this right in an organizational context, HR and business leaders might arrive at a better starting point if they started with better questions. “How do you motivate someone at work?” or “How do people learn?” seems like a better way to start than “how do you manage a millennial?”

Deck Diving Into This Deeper



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