The Millennial generation will soon be the dominant one in the workplace. How will that affect business productivity and how workers collaborate? Jean M. Twenge, a San Diego State University professor who has studied what she calls “Generation Me,” talks about what her research has revealed about Millennials.
Who is “Generation Me?”
Generation Me, also known as Millennials, is the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s. Although they share many of the same challenges of navigating young adulthood that previous generations did, their upbringing did not prepare them as well for these challenges. GenMe is the first generation raised to believe that everyone should have high self-esteem, and get a trophy just for showing up.
What do business executives need to understand about GenMe? Are they really that different from generations before them?
Yes. The entire culture has shifted, with an increase in individualism (focus on the self) and a decrease in collectivism (focus on social rules and the needs of others). This delivers advantages, such as individual freedom and equality based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. The downsides appear when self-focus is taken too far.
This cultural shift appears in many places. First, cultural products such as books and song lyrics use more individualistic language (such as “unique” and “personalize,” and more first person singular pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “mine.”) People’s traits, attitudes, and behaviors have also changed, and these appear as generational differences. These have included increases in positive self-views, unrealistically high expectations, more tolerant attitudes, higher narcissism, and less religious belief.
What kinds of attitudes do GenMe employees bring to the workplace?
We find significant generational differences, especially in work-life balance and desire for money and status, based on data collected from previous generations at the same age. There are generational similarities, such wanting jobs helpful to others or that make a contribution to society. There are also noticeable generational differences. For example, 17 percent of Baby Boomers said it was very important to have a job with lots of vacation time, versus 31 percent of Millennials. For Boomers, 74 percent said they expected work to be a central part of their lives, but only 63 percent of Millennials feel that way.
It’s more important than ever for companies to get their employees to collaborate. Are millennials likely to make that easier or harder, and why?
Millennials have a reputation as collaborators online in social networks. But it’s unclear whether they bring more or less focus on teamwork to the work environment. I searched the research literature and could not find any over-time studies examining generational differences in teamwork. The personality profile of Millennials, with higher self-focus and individualism, suggests that collaboration may be difficult, especially for those high in narcissism. But there’s very little data on this question.
There is a lot of talk about how millennials are reshaping how companies operate. Are we really witnessing a major cultural shift at work?
In our study of work attitudes, by far the largest generational difference was in work-life balance. Millennials (and, to a lesser extent, GenX) were more likely than Boomers to say they didn’t want to work overtime, that they wanted a lot of vacation, and even that they didn’t want to work that hard. There’s clearly a demand for more flexibility in work schedules and work locations, including working at home.
How can companies best turn the generational differences in their workforces to their advantage?
Millennials’ self-focus can be turned into an advantage by helping them see how they can have a personal impact. If they understand why they’re doing something, and see how it helps the company, they can be very motivated. Many will work long hours if they are given the flexibility they seek. Others may only want to work part-time but will do a very efficient job when they are there. Millennials can be impatient, but that can pay off in productivity. They don’t want to do things the old, inefficient way — they would rather find a new way to do things faster. That can be a definite advantage. Their high expectations can also be an advantage if they are harnessed in the right way. One suggestion: Instead of giving raises and promotions every two years, give one-fourth of the pay raise and additional responsibilities every six months.
What are some specific changes that companies can expect to see over the next decade or two as the me generation becomes the dominant one in the workplace?
They should expect to see more and more employees demand flexible schedules, part-time work, longer vacations, and working from home. They will also see more employees dissatisfied with the usual slow career paths and limited opportunities for personal impact. Companies that can provide flexibility, more frequent promotions, and opportunities for personal impact will be more successful at recruiting and retaining this generation – and more successful overall.
Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, is the author of GenerationMe, which features a new chapter on generational differences in the workplace in the newly released revised and updated edition. See www.generationme.org.