For the last decade or so, the Millennials – or Generation Me, or Generation Y – has been a beloved subject in popular Management and HR press. People born roughly between early 1980s and late 1990s, it has been said, are entering working life with values and attitudes completely different from previous cohorts. They are socially conscious, creative, and they demand a sense of higher purpose as well as frequent feedback and flexibility at work.
No doubt, the Millennials concept has been a big commercial success, since it implies that organizations must invest heavily in adapting to these allegedly creative but high-maintenance youngsters. But the question is: How much of what we hear about the Millennials is actually real, in the sense that it it backed up by research? That is the question I will try to address in a series of four posts (when looking into the issue it quickly became clear that this subject would need its space).
Before we dive into concrete research findings in the next blog post, let us take a step back and look at the generation concept – a highly controversial one in psychology. Actually, this is an incredibly tricky phenomenon to study scientifically. Right away, you run into the so-called age-cohort confound: The difficulty in deciding whether a certain effect is due to a group’s current age, or to their generation membership. To illustrate this, let us say we are interested in people’s willingness to take risks in their career. We distribute a survey on the topic among one group of 25-year-olds (Millennials) and one group of 60-year-olds (Baby Boomers). The results show that the 25-year-olds are more willing to take risks than the 60-year-olds. Does this mean that we have established that the Millennial generation is more prone to risk-taking than Baby Boomers? Not really. The difference might just as well be due to the fact that the Baby Boomers simply are older, and older people tend to be more risk averse in general. How do we know that the Baby Boomers were not just as risk-prone at 25? The point is; if you just survey different age groups at a single point in time, you can never really decide between these two explanations.
Unfortunately, most of the generation research has been carried out just like that (i.e., with cross-sectional design). What you need to do if you really want to say something about generational differences is to follow several age groups in parallel over an extended period of time, preferably many years. Up until recently such studies have been relatively scarce, not least due to cost- and practical issues, but now they are fortunately increasing in number.
The difficulties in studying generations have made some researchers claim that the whole concept is useless as a scientific term. Notably, David P. Costanza and colleagues (e.g. 2012; 2015) at George Washington University has argued that most of the characteristics we attribute to the Millennial generation are really age effects. Put simply: The things people say are typical of the Millennials are just due to the fact that they are still young. Most young people, regardless of generation, value flexibility, challenge, and opportunities to be creative. As we grow older, we tend to shift towards a focus on e.g. stability and security. However, far from everyone agrees with this perspective, and there is a growing research base actually finding differences between generations in the workplace.
In sum, ”generation” and ”Millennials” are clearly controversial topics from a scientific perspective. Even if research is now picking up speed, we need to interpret any evidence about the Millennials with caution. That being said, I will anyhow make an attempt in the next few blog posts to summarize the findings to date – and the conclusions that can be drawn.