The Millennials, pt 2: Do They Really Want Other Things?


So, we are back to the subject of the Millennials – the now almost mythical generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, who are said to have completely different attitudes and preferences in work life than previous cohorts. Last time, we concluded that researching generations is a really tricky business. Nevertheless, studies are now amassing on how what distinguishes the Millennials. This research, I quickly noted, presents a far more nuanced and complex picture of this generation than that portrayed in the media. In fact, there were so many interesting aspects to this research that I decided to split the review into two blog posts. In today’s chapter, we will start out by looking at work values, i.e., what people see as important in a job and an employer. We will simply go through some commonly held assumptions about the Millennials, to see how they hold up to scientific scrutiny. I also added some reflections based on findings from my own studies of young talents towards the end.

”Millennials value challenge and stimulation above salary and advancement”. This very common claim only receives mixed support in research – it is even partly contradicted. Parry and Urwin (2011) in their review of the literature found that there is quite little solid evidence for generational differences in these values. Some trends can be spotted, however. If we start by looking at the so-called extrinsic values, i.e. salary, rewards, recognition, and advancement, Lyons and Kuron’s (2014) review showed that these values gained in importance up until the mid-90s, and then dropped off. This indicates that the Millennials are somewhat less focused on extrinsic values than was Generation X (born approximately 1961-1980), but still value them more than did the Baby Boomers (born approximately 1945-1960). Hanssen and Leuty (2012), however, found that compensation had gained in importance among Millennials, while advancement was seen as less important. Some studies have also found that salary becomes more important to Millennials as they go from being students to entering the workforce (Kuron et al., 2015). As for the so-called intrinsic values, such as challenge, stimulation, and interesting tasks, they have remained stable over the years (Wray-Lake et al., 2011). There is little evidence to suggest that they would be more important to Millennials than to prior generations.

”Millennials value work-life balance more than previous generations”. Here research is more supportive. In the midst of all the uncertain findings about work values’ evolvement over time, one trend stands out as clear: People value their leisure time more and more, while the centrality of work in our lives decreases. According to Lyons and Kuron (2014), all the large studies available indicate that the Millennials is the generation that values work-life balance the most so far. For instance, they are not prepared to work as long hours as previous generations (e.g. Cogin, 2012). However, the increase in leisure values is a long-term, ongoing trend, not a radical shift arriving with the Millennials.

”Millennials are more concerned with their work being meaningful.” This rather fuzzy statement is often heard in the media. Its accuracy depends, of course, on what you put in the word ”meaningful”. As mentioned above, the evidence does not support the idea that Millennials would be more intrinsically driven than prior generations. However, there are some indications that Millennials are more concerned with work aligning with their personal values (Weeks et al., 2016), although this evidence is not conclusive. If we are talking about meaningfulness as helping others through one’s work, this value has remained stable over the generations (Lyons & Kuron, 2014). In an interesting study, however, Kuron et al. (2015) showed that meaningfulness as in socially responsible organization and a non-hierarchical work environment seemed to be more important in the recruitment phase than during employment. In other words, it might be that ”meaningfulness” has become central to Millennials when choosing an employer, but once they are hired, they are rather driven by other things. Another possible explanation for the meaningfulness hype, according to Schullery (2013), could be that the above-mentioned increase in leisure values spills over to working life: Millennials want work, just like spare time, to be fun. Having to work with less exciting tasks will then seem disengaging and thus meaningless.

To summarize, research only partly supports the claim that Millennials have substantially different work values compared to their older colleagues. For certain, the simple extrinsic-intrinsic scale does not get us far if we want to understand what is happening. Pay, benefits and a comfortable life still matter a lot to the Millennials, and intrinsic drivers are as important as ever. What seems to be the major development, rather, is the increase in leisure values – apparent both in the form of demands for work-life balance and a stronger urge for ”having fun” also at work.

Regarding the concept of meaningfulness, I do believe there is something there, although it has not really been pinned down by research yet. Over the last two years, me and my colleagues have conducted a comprehensive interview study with a large number of young professionals selected as talents in their companies. One thing that comes across as central when we ask them about their work values is to get to work with ”the whole picture”: They are allergic to the idea of being a cog in the weel and want to understand exactly how their work fits into the larger scheme of things. They want to know the purpose of what they are doing (maybe Generation Y as in ”why” is not such a bad term after all!). That purpose does not have to be to save the world – but it has to be clear and make sense. When defined in this way, it is possible that we may talk about meaningfulness as a defining work value of this young generation.

So, that was the somewhat more complex picture of what Millennials seem to want out of work. But what happens once they actually enter into the workplace? That is what we will try to find out in the next blog post, where we take a look at generational differences in attitudes at work.

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