Are the millennials really so different? Or is the difference exaggerated?

Gen Y or the millennials is probably the most studied generation both by consulting firms as well as academia. Several studies have been done on their work preferences; highlighting the significant difference from its previous generation, the Gen X. Most common findings from these studies highlight that millennials:

  1. Don’t work for paycheck instead, they work for a purpose
  2. Give high importance to work-life balance
  3. Aren’t just happy with a job, but are more focused on development
  4. Don’t just want annual performance discussion, but want continuous performance feedback
  5. Don’t want bosses, but look for coaches; they don’t like command and control, but want bosses who can develop them

Couple of questions bother me about these findings:

  • Are the studies over generalizing a large section of population? Can all the Gen Y’s be put in the same cluster?
  • Is the generation so significantly  different from Gen X?

I don’t have a study to back what I say, but my experience and sheer observation makes me believe otherwise.

Need for purpose over paycheck. If we look around in a country like India, there are thousands of young folks (millennials) working extremely long hours in repetitive work environment like retail, hospitality, manufacturing, logistics for precisely the reason that studies show otherwise – a paycheck. They might see a purpose in their jobs, but it’s the paycheck that matters more at the last mile. A mere hike of Rs. 1000 gets these employees to switch jobs. On the other hand, there are several well paid senior employees, the Gen X, who work more for purpose and desire to make a difference and not for the hefty pay check they take home. Thus, it’s the economic and social context that defines the balance between ‘purpose’ and ‘paycheck’ and probably not so much of generational difference. 

Need for ‘work-life balance’, as highlighted by studies is driving organizations to create flexible work arrangements, specifically to adapt to Gen Y needs. I would like to ask my Gen X readers, wouldn’t you want to have a flexible work arrangement? I would for sure love to go to work when I want to and work from where I want to. Just that many of the Gen X employees, in their formative years of work, never had opportunities like this. Not because they did not want it, but because the nature of work and the brick and mortar work environment made it unfeasible. So, they got used to working in a fixed regime. But, now that flexi work is possible, Gen X would love to have flexible work and a good work-life balance, as much as the Gen Ys. In fact, a recent employee engagement study data that I came across clearly indicated that flexible work is a common need across generations.

Need for development, not just a job. I would request my Gen X readers to reflect on the best job or role that they ever held. What was the distinguishing feature? I am confident that among other things, development will play an important role. I know of colleagues, who gave up high paying jobs, and took up roles at lower salary just because it gave them good learning opportunities. Agreed, some stuck to their jobs despite lack of development – that again might have been because of the overall economic circumstances or individual preferences. Today, we see so many job losses in start-ups and e-commerce – will the Gen Ys who recently got a pink slip not take up a job, even if there is lower development?  

Need for constant performance feedback, a boss who does not command and control, but is a coach. Again, I would request my Gen X readers to think of the best boss that they ever worked with. And their experience of working with a boss (hopefully not too many) who they hated to work with! Needless to say, we hate working with a boss who adopts a command and control approach and gives negative feedback end of the year when you can do nothing about your performance. No one – be it a Gen X or a Gen Y – would like to work with a boss who just bosses around!  

Thus, the so-called distinct preferences of Gen Y are probably not  dependent on generations, but are more likely to be based on the:

  1. Context in which they were brought up and educated
  2. Economic and social circumstances
  3. Individual preferences

What does it mean to organizations? Two things:

  • Instead of highlighting the differences between Gen X and Gen Y, trying to train and enable the Gen X managers to manage the Gen Y employees better, focus on helping the two generations understand each other better and see the commonalities.
  • Avoid over generalizing and treating all the millennials as same – I have personally worked with millennials who cared a darn for work-life balance, as long as they got to learn and grow. Whereas there were some who refused to take calls after 6 pm. We have all seen colleagues of both kinds, in both generations, it had more to do with their individual preferences and not their generation!

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