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January 26, 2011 | Volume 5 | Number 1
January 26, 2011
By Jessica S. Waldrop and Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD
The Peter Pan Generation. Generation Me. Echo Boomers. Who are these people? They are the Millennials, that group of fledgling adults who are beginning to inundate the workforce, and we have been hearing about them and the issues they bring to the job for quite some time now. Is what we know an accurate picture of this young cohort?
Millennials are sometimes branded as a group of overachieving, eco-friendly, social networking fans who are intent on a VP position by age 27. Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, this group is portrayed as a faction of underwhelmed, lazy kids who cannot begin to fathom the satisfaction of a job well done. Unfortunately, much of what we “know” about Millennials is based on these or other similar stereotypes.
There is no doubt that Millennials will have a powerful effect on the work world, yet there is scarce empirical research that defines this cohort’s role. To be fair, the lack of research is understandable; the first wave of Millennials hit the workforce not even a decade ago, and the tail end of the Millennial generation is still high-school aged. However, there has been a recent surge in the literature that attempts to analyze this age group in comparisons to previous generations, and thus far, the research reveals some rather surprising data.
What is so interesting is not that the literature further reinforces radical Millennial stereotypes and their outlandish new roles in the workforce, but that it contradicts much of what we thought was true. The evidence suggests that these new kids on the block are more similar than not to their more seasoned coworkers (Deal, Altman, & Rogelberg 2010; Kowske, Rasch, & Wiley, 2010; Real, Mitnick, & Maloney, 2010). The quantitative generational differences, if they exist at all, are much smaller than what we are generally led to believe.
What does that mean for the psychologically healthy workplace? Well, we are not entirely sure yet. Below is a brief look at what the empirical research thus far reveals about the Millennial generation and some possible implications for the future of the psychologically healthy workplace.
There is very little agreement on the topic of Millennials and recognition. Much of the popular literature claims that younger generations have an excessive need for praise and affirmation, in addition to an inability to accept criticism. Thoughts like this are supported by research that suggests Millennials are overly confident, more narcissistic, and employ a more external locus of control (Twenge & Campbell, 2008). Data which demonstrate a steady increase in generational scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory supports such notions.
However, there are two sides to every story. There is evidence that calls into question the meaning of measurements like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores. Such scores are comprised of subscales; therefore, it is possible for individuals to obtain identical overall scores, but have very different scores on subscales such as self-sufficiency, superiority and vanity, which then would suggest that Millennials are not narcissistic, but really something else altogether (Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2008). To further muddy the waters, a report demonstrates that Millennials are actually more satisfied than other generations when it comes to the level of workplace recognition they receive (Kowske et al., 2010).
Before we fully consider the issues of Millennials and work-life balance, we have to ask whether our glass is half empty or half full. Research demonstrates that there are some small intergenerational differences; Millennials are less work-centric than previous generations, and they do seem to place a higher value on leisure time (Families and Work Institute, n.d.). This is one of the more well-known characteristics about Millennials, and when discussed, it is often framed in a negative light; that younger generations are lazy, do not want to work, or do not take pride in their work. There are some other factors that should be considered before such determinations are made:
Whether this change in work centricity is positive, negative or somewhere in between, the implications for work-life balance are great. Work-life balance initiatives will likely become a staple in recruiting and retaining future employees, and its role will become increasingly more important.
Employee Growth and Development
Research suggests that Millennials have extremely high expectations when it comes to growth and development and career advancement. They expect to be nurtured, given opportunities to develop professionally and advance rapidly; the average Millennial expects to be promoted within 15 months of working in a job (Ng, Schweitzer, & Lyons, 2010). However, Millennials also show that they are pretty realistic when it comes to other aspects of the job (i.e., starting salary and job choice) as nearly three quarters of Millennials report that they would be willing to accept a first job that was “less-than-ideal” (Ng et al., 2010).
Do Millennials deserve the reputation for being notorious job hoppers? It is suspected that Millennials have over-inflated work expectations, and if there is a breach in the psychological contract that they have a tendency to quit. But is that really true?
Research suggests that Millennials do exhibit trends in potential job expectations; issues concerning personal career development and job content, such as autonomy remain a high priority for Millennials when considering future relationships with an employer, even despite the current recession (De Hauw & De Vos, 2010). However, the research is divided as to whether or not these expectations will serve as occupational deal breakers. According to Kowske et al. (2010), Millennials exhibit no more intention to leave an organization within the year than do other generations. However, the Families and Work Institute found that 72% of college aged Millennials reported that they were more likely to leave their current employer within the year, compared to 52% of Boomers who responded similarly in 1977.
Health and Safety
Psychological and attitudinal differences between generations are the usual topics of discussion, however it is arguable that the most significant and perceptible difference between the generations is physical in nature, specifically obesity. Despite their youth and wellbeing, the Millennial generation is in no way immune to the obesity epidemic. Millennials are more obese and overweight than previous generations were when they first entered the workforce (Wang, Beydoun, Liang, Caballero, & Kumanyika, 2008), and it is predicted that this trend will continue to worsen. There is mounting research that suggests these health issues will translate into huge problems for both individual employees and organizations.
The effects of obesity on the workplace are well-documented as limiting productivity and increasing healthcare expenditures exponentially, but the effects of obesity on individuals within the workplace is not quite as well-known. Research demonstrates that the earning potential of obese or overweight employees is significantly less than that of employees who maintain a healthy weight. It is estimated that over the lifetime of the Millennial generation, total earning potential for obese and overweight employees will be decreased by $998.5 billion (Barkin, Heerman, Warren, & Rennhoff, 2010). It might not be too extreme to contend that research and initiatives in health and safety will soon become essential to the success of both Millennial employers and employees.
Not much is clear when it comes to Millennials and their role in the workforce, and much of what we thought was true about this group is simply not supported by the data. Instead of discussing generational differences like the dramatic tipping point on the scale, we perhaps should analyze generational similarities as gradual changes and an inevitable progression. Beyond this, the only other thing we can be confident of is that the research and an understanding of the psychologically healthy workplace will become more relevant and necessary as Millennials come of age.
Barkin, S. L., Heerman, W. J., Warren, M. D., & Rennhoff, C. (2010). Millennials and the world of work: The impact of obesity on health and productivity. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 239-245.
Deal, J. J., Altman, D. G., & Rogelberg, S. G. (2010). Millennials at work: What we know and what we need to do (if anything). Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 191-199.
De Hauw, S., & De Vos, A. (2010). Millennials’ career perspective and psychological contract expectations: Does the recession lead to lowered expectations? Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 293-302.
Families and Work Institute (n.d). Generation and gender in the workplace. The American Business Collaboration.
Kowske, B. J., Rasch, R., & Wiley, J. (2010). Millennials’ (lack of) attitude problem: An empirical examination of generational effects on work attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 265-279.
Ng, E. S. W., Schweitzer, L., & Lyons, S. T. (2010). New generation, great expectations: A field study of the millennial generation. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 281-292.
Real, K., Mitnick, A. D., & Maloney, W. F. (2010). More similar than different: Millennials in the U.S. building trades. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 303-313.
Trzeniewski, K. H., Donnellan, M. B., & Robins, R. W. (2008). Is “Generation Me” really more narcissistic than previous generations? Journal of Personality, 74(4), 903-917.
Twenge, J. M. (2010). A review of the empirical evidence on generational differences in work attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 201-210.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, S. M. (2008). Generational differences in psychological traits and their impact on the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(8), 862-877.
Wang, Y., Bedoun, M. A., Liang, L., Caballero, B., & Kumanyika, S. K. (2008). Will all Americans become overweight or obese? Estimating the progression and cost of the U.S. obesity epidemic. Obesity, 16(10), 2323-2330.
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