Entitled or industrious? What millennial workers are really like

Entitled, spoiled, addicted to social media, capable of texting at the speed of light…the list of stereotypes about millennial employees goes on and on. But new research about how they act on the job reveals that many of these stereotypes are not true—and that millennials are not too different from other workers.

“The generations are more alike than different—the values are the same; the engagement drivers are the same. The protocols are maybe a bit different,” says Ruth Wright, director of leadership and human resources research with The Conference Board of Canada, referring to the findings of an upcoming report on generational work preferences that she is co-authoring.

The report, which is expected to be published next month, polled 1,000 people born between 1965 and 1990. It shows that like generation X workers, millennials attach great importance to respect, dignity and recognition, says Wright.

So if millennials are more similar to their older colleagues than previously assumed, how accurate are the other stereotypes about them?

Personal contact doesn’t matter
Sure, they share everything on social media and the online world is a natural habitat for them. Yet, “millennials do not want to work virtually—they really crave experiential opportunities,” Wright says.

“They really want to build a relationship with their managers,” she adds, explaining that they also want to have easy access to senior leaders. And they want these leaders to listen openly.

“They feel that they have great points of view” and that they can contribute to an organization, says Diane Dowsett, associate vice-president of talent management with LoyaltyOne, which collaborated with The Conference Board on the study.

Using social media at work is a birthright

Millennials need to use social media all the time, the stereotype goes. But it turns out that they can discipline themselves. “Things that they use in their personal life—like Facebook—they don’t really have an expectation that this would be replicated in the workplace. They’re [also] happy to use email [vs. instant messaging] and landlines,” Wright explains.

The likely reason why millennials don’t expect to be able to use social media at work is that they have constant access to social media on their smartphones, Dowsett explains.

Feedback needs to be immediate
That assumption isn’t wrong. After all, millennials grew up in a world of instant communication.

“They clearly want feedback on a more regular basis,” rather than during performance reviews only, Wright says. The likely reason is that millennials come through a school system that has trained them to work more collaboratively and in peer groups where they get immediate feedback, she explains. Additionally, Wright notes, at the family level, they’ve also been involved in decision making—which is why having their opinions taken into account matters to them, too.

And there’s another thing to remember about millennials’ feedback preferences. “They prefer positive, constructive feedback, as opposed to corrective feedback,” says Wright. The likely reason, she explains, is that they’ve been exposed to a school system that fosters sensitivity to differences and works hard to ensure that everyone fits in.

Work/life balance doesn’t matter because many don’t have families
“They are willing to work long hours. They’re clearly willing to put in time and effort,” Wright says, but at the same time, they expect to have work/life balance.

That includes flexible schedules, boundaries to prevent work from spilling into personal matters and having additional days off to be able to balance work with their personal life and involvement in the community, says Dowsett.

“As a manager, you need to focus on what’s the expected output, rather than on seeing someone at a desk,” explains Wright. This is why millennials often expect great clarity around performance objectives and tasks.

Money isn’t that important
“Stability and security from a pay point of view is important,” says Dowsett, explaining that many millennials are single, rely solely on their own income and live in urban areas where life tends to be more expensive than other parts of the country.

They don’t face gender biases
With all the great strides that Canada has made towards gender equality, one would expect that millennial women don’t encounter nearly as many challenges as women in previous generations did. But the findings of The Conference Board’s survey contradict this.

“At a high level, gen X and the millennials are more alike than different. In some cases, we saw that gender was more important than age,” Wright says, explaining that millennial females continue to be underrepresented in management and technology fields.

Young women usually come into the workforce with great confidence, but she adds that often evaporates as they encounter traditional gender-related challenges and “unconscious biases.”

One major take-away from the new research is that engaging millennials starts with a shift in perspective—although they’re fundamentally not that different from other age groups.

“You need to learn to lead and manage in a way that maybe you weren’t managed yourself,” Wright says. “We have to learn as managers to let go and appreciate that some things can be done differently.”

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