Inclusion. Anti-discrimination. Diversity. Prejudice. What do all these societal- and workplace-relevant topics have to do with millennials? Everything.

For years, articles have been written about the characteristics of millennials in our society and workforce. I think all the hullaballoo is hurting the goals of inclusion by building walls between generations. In addition, organizations have been encouraged to take actions regarding engagement according to “differences by generation” that are usually small or nonexistent.

Of course, groups of people can have some similar characteristics based on where and when they lived that are a result of shared culture, experiences, or milestones. Yet the research does not support the argument that we can know what a cohort of millions of people want in the workplace based on the years they were born.

Marketers love “millennials”

G.I. Generation. Silent Generation. Baby Boomers. Generation X. Millennials. Generation Z. All of these generations have been discussed in the popular press, which often makes assertions about their characteristics based on their age. But even the date ranges for the years bounding a generational cohort are inconsistent, and may differ by country.

In particular, millions of millennials are defined, maligned, or catered to in the workplace because of the range of years in which they were born. There are incessant articles to grab your attention as a manager or leader in an organization about what you must do to ensure this group is engaged and retained because they are narcissistic, require more recognition, and are harder to retain, among other things.

In essence, the term “Millennial” is positioned perfectly as a marketing tool. But, as you will see, acting on these purported differences by adopting practices in the workplace may not be as successful as the hype would have you believe. If, as a leader in an organization, you design a policy or a program to “fix” an engagement or performance issue specifically for millennials—you may be disappointed.

There are, of course, shared experiences—profound ones such as living through a war; or mundane ones such as growing up with the same TV show—that impact the way people perceive the world. A terrorist act, a war, revolutionary technology, or a disruption in an industry could certainly impact people living through them, no matter the year they were born. Some of these events differ by country, while others are global. And yes, some of these events and culture movements affect specific demographic groups more than others.

Generational research debunks the hype

Despite the impact of shared experiences, sound generational research simply does not support the sweeping assertions made about generational differences at work. 

A meta-analysis of 20 studies found small differences, and no consistency in differences, between any generations (1). Other studies found that generation accounts for negligible differences in what’s important at work. (2,3). Further, the US Department of Labor released findings in 2017 that millennials, “ages 18–35, are just as likely to stick with their employers as their older counterparts in Generation X when they were young adults,” (4) thus debunking the myth that millennials are job hoppers.

Narcissistic? You might be surprised to know that the millennial characteristic of greater narcissism in college students between 1982 and 2006, was concluded from research that found an increase of only 2.23 points on a 40-point narcissism scale (from 15.06 to 17.29) (5). This finding was a driving force in the uproar around millennial differences. That’s not a very meaningful difference, and the scores were not even mid-range on that scale!

One “millennial” I spoke with resents being put in a generational box, as many others do. She wisely asserted there is fluidity of characteristics across age groups; that it’s a continuum, not a category (6). And she’s right. We know from many decades of psychological research that individual differences account for far greater variance in people’s behavior than group differences. 

Needs and desires at work may be driven by life stage (for example, early/mid/late career, having young vs. grown vs. no children, having elder care responsibilities or not) or by career motivation (such as a high need for achievement, a desire for executive roles or not, happy “in place” or not), or by personality, or by many other factors.

Knowing any single group to which people belong does not conclusively lead you to understand their perceptions of working in an organization or what they desire in a job! It’s a game of pure chance to align individuals or groups to a narrow set of characteristics. And now that Gen Z is on the scene, though the definition of when that cohort starts is nebulous, there are sure to be many articles claiming to know what they want at work!

Create engagement plans based on people—not generations

So, what is most effective for increasing the engagement and performance of your workforce? If you are a leader in an organization, focus on your teams and the individuals in your teams, rather than starting with their generational pigeonhole. Ask your direct report employees what they want, need, and desire from the job and the company and how you can help. Use resources, such as employee pulses and action planning guidance to facilitate discussions with your team and decide what needs improvement.

If you are a leader responsible for large organizations, use employee surveys or pulse responses and other people-input data to gain insights about groups of employees by a variety of attributes and demographics. Find the groups of employees where there may be issues (e.g., female engineers in Denver, sales people in Singapore, all employees at the Bangalore site) and take appropriate action to improve their experience so their productivity and commitment increases.

In addition, as individuals in an organization, we each have responsibilities to communicate what we want, need, and desire from our job and company to our managers and take responsibility to influence what we as employees can do to be happier, more engaged, productive, and inspired at work.

But let’s not continue to perpetuate the misguided assumptions that a millennial wants a job that’s related to technology or that they are all narcissistic. And please don’t assume that a Baby Boomer isn’t great with technology or isn’t narcissistic! We all have our strengths and areas for growth. Don’t assume anything.

Use an evidence-based, people-centric approach to guide your conclusions and the actions to take regarding groups and individuals in your own organization that will help you to attain your business goals.

Let’s end the generational hullaballoo!