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Think You Understand Millennials?


Think again. This generation of workers spans too many years to be painted with a broad brush

Four men in suits using digital devices, grey wall background

To meme-makers and comics alike, millennial workers are a source of endless material. Glued to their smartphones, blinded by overconfidence, ambitious to a fault, hopping jobs as if they’re hot potatoes — millennials seem to be weighed down by unflattering characterizations more than any other age group. There is no doubt that millennials have revolutionized the workplace. But is it fair or even useful to label an entire generation? 

Eddy Ng thinks not. The Smith Professor of Equity and Inclusion in Business studied how their work values and work-life balance attitudes affect recruitment and retention strategies. From this research, he found that differences within the millennial cohort itself make sweeping generalizations a fool’s errand — particularly in talent management. 

“You have to find out the actual employment attributes that appeal to segments of a generation,” says Ng, “and one broad brush across that generation is problematic.” 

What shapes millennials 

Ng says three elements help define a generational cohort: the age effect, in which people move through the same life cycles together; the period effect, when world events shape their perspectives; and the cohort effect, where people share common social and cultural processes. These elements, in turn, shape their attitudes, beliefs and work values. 

“As a cohort, we share a social location in time, events, in space and experiences so that we can derive meanings out of it,” says Ng. “That’s what a generation should be all about. However, if you have 15 or even 20 years, it is simply too broad to characterize a generation.”

As Ng discovered, this has implications for attracting and retaining workers in such a broad age bracket as millennials — those born between 1980 and 1996. He conducted a series of studies with Swiss researchers Arthur Posch, Thomas Köllen and Norbert Thom. The team surveyed a group of Swiss and Russian millennials to determine if one-size-fits-all employment policies are effective for all young workers. 

Their studies demonstrate how critical differences in age, gender, relationship status and social location largely shape millennials’ outlooks and, in turn, their divergent attitudes toward work values, work-life balance and employer preferences. 

Men and women born in the same social location, for example, have different values because of their varying outlooks. They found that 72 per cent of female participants in their studies placed a higher value on the supervisor relationship than did male participants. “Women place more emphasis on relationships with peers, co-workers, subordinates and with their managers,” says Ng. “That’s a different managerial skill that is increasingly important. Women tend to emphasize the quality of relationships.” 

Work-life balance attitudes 

When the researchers studied work-life balance, they discovered how the age effect influenced the millennials’ attitudes toward remote work. Many older millennials in their early 40s, for example, do not have young children at home and often hold senior positions, so they prefer remote work because they feel it improves their productivity. The opposite is true for millennials under 40. 

“Younger workers under 40 wanted to return in person because there was more disruption from home, and they felt that there was professional isolation,” says Ng. “They’re still progressing in their careers, so they felt that they were less likely to be plugged into social networks and be mentored.” 

Millennials have often been criticized for their unrealistic expectations for advancement and lack of loyalty toward their employers. Here again, the prevailing wisdom does not hold water. Yes, there is some truth to the notion that millennials tend to have an “everyone-gets-a-medal” attitude. But Ng says the 2007 global financial crisis was a critical turning point in their expectations of rapid career advancement and high salaries. 

“When you have economic events, a structural shift to a platform economy and a pandemic, your outlook will change,” says Ng. “They did adjust in terms of some of the expectations and attitudes towards work.”

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He recalls a period after the global financial crisis when a wave of organizational efficiency measures took place across many industries, with older workers being laid off. Younger workers in their early 30s stepped up and successfully took on managerial duties. 

“When it comes to over-emphasis on extrinsic rewards and placing more value on leisure over work centrality, all those things certainly didn’t materialize to the degree we had anticipated,” says Ng. 

Reframing talent management 

Since multi-generational cohorts work side-by-side and are divided into further groups with different needs, employers must be creative in how they attract and retain staff. This will particularly affect millennials since they are currently on track to dominate the workforce. 

“One of the approaches is to offer cafeteria-style policies and be more flexible in the sort of buckets of jobs, tasks and duties,” says Ng. “Who is best placed to complete which tasks? And how can those tasks or duties be accomplished?” 

The ideal is to have the right people doing tasks that best speak to their talent, and to combine generational cohorts to complement each other’s skill sets instead of being set in the traditional job description mould. “We want wisdom and temperament offered by older workers, and with younger workers, we want creativity.”  

The same is true for benefits offered to employees, since relationship status, gender and age group all shape how people view a healthy work-life balance. Older millennials place a higher value on work centrality and flexible work. “Younger workers have a higher tendency to engage in quiet quitting, and they want to take back their lives, so I’ve seen employers now offering sabbaticals,” says Ng.

Ultimately, being a happy and satisfied employee is all a matter of perspective, Ng says. “Providing some of the benefits that actually match what people want is helpful. That’s one way to attract millennials, and to retain them.”