Part II: The Scientific Community’s Stance
Not Truly Generational
Part I of this series dove into the firsthand research we’ve conducted at SMD. Let’s take a look at what the scientific community has published on the topic. From an academic perspective, the issue seems to be that research methods aren’t truly examining generational differences. Research is simply looking at differences in age groups at one point in time.1 Fair enough. In effect, these are age studies, not generational. While the difference between an “age” comparison and a “generational” study is an important point from an academic research perspective, it is not critical in an applied setting. As HR or organizational leaders, we are more concerned with differences between generations right now, as they currently function – not comparing them to each other at the same age (e.g., when they were all 25). Why? Because what we are really getting at when we ask about millennial differences in a practical sense is if we need to treat them differently when we hire, manage, develop, and work to retain them.
Similar Wants & Needs
On the whole, most workers want good management, opportunities for advancement, and to feel a connection to their work. These aren’t new phenomena. The work experiences that drive employee satisfaction (old school “engagement”) have not changed since before the baby boomers.2 Perhaps the differences lie in how they express and achieve these goals.
- Millennials use social media (but so do other generations). In fact, the age group with the largest percentage of LinkedIn users is over 34.3
- Additionally, one study showed that baby boomers spent more hours a week consuming online content than Generation X or millennials.4
- Millennials have smart phones — so does my grandma.
In short, many of the new experiences we see in millennials are not isolated to this younger generation, but rather are cultural changes that may start with the age group most likely to jump in and embrace the change, but these cultural changes are rapidly becoming a part of everyone’s daily lives, regardless of generation.
New Entrants to the Workforce
In all seriousness, the concerns with millennials are not totally invalid. They just need to be considered for what they are; these are concerns or factors that are more associated with young adults entering the workforce, regardless of their generation. We saw almost the exact same conversation around Generation X 10 years ago. They were called slackers, cynics, and job-hoppers, much like we hear about millennials. However, once they got their footing in the working world we found that they were less slacker and more innovator, creating their own career paths and bucking their stereotype. A study published by TIME magazine in 1997 purported that: “… forecasters, salesmen and pundits – many the middle-age parents of perplexing offspring – are acknowledging that their first X-rays of the new generation were distorted. The baby boomers of the media and marketing world were desperate to explain a generation they didn’t understand, so they reduced Xers to a cartoon.”5
The Pattern Continues
We are seeing the same thing happen with millennials. Every time a new generation starts entering the workforce, the more tenured generations have to explain away what they don’t understand. Unfortunately, the first inclination is usually to complain that they are not measuring up and don’t have as much to offer as those who came before them. But, the world for them is different and their views and perspectives may just provide a breath of fresh air – if we just give them a little benefit of the doubt. They’ll figure it out … just in time to start complaining about the next generation to come along.
- Gentile, B., Wegman (Wood), L. A., Twenge, J. M., Hoffman, B. J., & Campbell, W. K. (2015). The problem of generational change. In C. E. Lance & R. J. Vandenburg (Eds.), More Statistical and Methodological Myths and Urban Legends. Routledge, New York.
- Wegman, L. A., Hoffman, B. J., Carter, N., Twenge, J., & Guenole, N. (In press). Placing Work Characteristics in Context: A Cross-temporal Meta-analysis of Changes in Work Characteristics Since 1975. Journal of Management.
- 3. Who Uses LinkedIN? Accessed on August 24, 2016. https://www.marketing-mojo.com/infographic/infographic-guide-demographics-linkedin-users/
- The Generational Content Gap: How Different Generations Consume Content Online [Infographic]. Accessed on November 22, 2016. http://www.socialmediatoday.com/marketing/2015-05-11/generational-content-gap-how-different-generations-consume-content-online
- Hornblower, M. Great Expectations of So-Called Slackers. TIME. June 9th, 1997. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,986481,00.html