The Millennials, pt 3: Do They Have an Attitude or What?

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Welcome back for our third plunge into the topic of Millennials, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s that management consultants and business book authors cannot not seem to get enough of. In this series, I have already pointed out the problems with studying generations and scrutinized some common statements about this group’s work-related values. Today, we are moving on to work attitudes: Ways of functioning when in the actual workplace. Just like last time, I have listed some often-heard statements about this generation and then looked to research to see how well they hold up. I also use some findings from my own research.

”Millennials are more entitled and demanding than previous generations.” There is some support for this almost classical rant. The Millennials rate their self-confidence and general self-esteem as higher than previous generations (Lyons & Kuron, 2014). They also to a higher extent expect to hold a high-status job in the future, and rate their skill level as higher than previous generations (Twenge & Campbell, 2012). According to some sources, there has also been an increase in narcissism scores for successive generations, the Millennials scoring the highest so far (Stewart & Bernhardt, 2010; Twenge & Campbell, 2008) – at least among Americans. In other words, there might be some truth to the claim that Millennials are more confident and demanding in the workplace. However, it is important to note that no studies seem to have looked at actual behavior at work; they are all based on self-report measures. In other words, we do not know exactly how these self-perceptions translate into action.

”Millennials are less committed and loyal to the organization”. Researchers disagree on whether there are reliable differences in commitment, i.e., the felt bond to one’s employer, between Millennials and previous generations. A number of studies have shown declining commitment over generations (e.g. Brunetto, Farr-Wharton, & Shacklock, 2012; Lub et al., 2012). However, these studies have all been cross-sectional, i.e., just surveying all age groups at one point in time. Costanza et al. (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of 20 studies, and found that generational belonging had little explanatory power for commitment differences. Instead, they argued that the differences that they saw were due to the age effect: Older and more tenured workers tend to be more committed to their jobs (Mathieu and Zajac, 1990). When it comes to loyalty, the tendency seems to be somewhat clearer: Intention to quit is rising with consecutive generations (Lyons & Kuron, 2014). More research is clearly needed in this area, though, since it is difficult to know if this development is due to an attitude change among Millennials or structural changes in the job market.

”Millennials are individualists and not interested in teamwork”. Even though there is definitely truth to the claim about rising levels of individualism in a broad sense, there is very little evidence supporting the idea that Millennials should be less cooperative than previous cohorts. Researchers do not seem to have found any reliable differences in the importance that different generations place on teamwork (Lyons & Kuron, 2014). Studies have found, however, that disinterest in teamwork is a common stereotype held about Millennials among older generations (Lester et al., 2012).

In sum, we again find that some claims about the Millennials hold up better than others in the face of research. There is some support for the notion that Millennials demand more of their employer, and the readiness to quit one’s job seems to be on the rise. However, we do not know if this really is an effect of changed attitudes among Millennials, or rather an effect of changing job markets and work environments. The fact that there is little clear evidence for changes in organizational commitment may tell us that Millennials are not necessarily less attached to their organizations than previous generations.

So, we have now covered both Millennials’ work values and attitudes in the workplace. After this, I think we can consider ourselves covered on the main strokes of existing research – so in our next and final part of the series I will turn to the neat task of drawing out some practical implications for management and HR from this rather complex picture.

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/42931449@N07/

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