Thought Leadership: Millennials in the Workplace – Busting the Myths

By Carolyn Baird, IBM Global Research Leader

Companies in the midst of their own digital transformation are eager for millennials—the first wave of digital natives—to join their ranks. This pressure is causing employers to wonder what changes they need to make to appeal to millennials. Do they have the brand, the workplace, the corporate culture, the policies and programs, and tools and technologies needed to attract and retain the best and the brightest? A recent millennial study from IBM’s Institute for Business Value sheds light on what millennials want in their work environment and what motivates them.

This multi-generational, multi-industry study surveyed 1,784 professionals from companies around the world. When IBM compared preferences of millennials (aged 21-34) with Gen X (aged 35–49) and baby boomers (aged 50–60), they discovered millennials’ career aspirations and attitudes about decision making, recognition and leadership were not so different from their older colleagues as the hype would suggest. In fact, the findings show that millennials want many of the same things Gen X and baby boomers wish for too, but by sheer numbers alone, it’s the millennials who have become a catalyst for change.

This myth buster report highlights five key myths about millennials in the workplace.

Myth #1: Millennials’ career goals and expectations are different from those of older generations.
Fact: Millennials long-term career goals look very much like those of Gen X and baby boomers. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Millennials place much the same weight on many of the same career goals as older employees do

Myth #2: Millennials want constant acclaim and think everyone on the team should get a trophy.
Fact: Fifty-five percent of millennials agreed with this statement: “If a team is successful, everyone should be rewarded.” But nearly two thirds of Gen Xers – 64 percent – agreed as well. Wanting recognition is not a unique millennial trait.

Myth #3: Millennials are digital addicts who want to do everything online.
Fact: When asked how they prefer to learn new skills at work, the top three methods millennials prioritized involve face-to-face interaction. Millennials desire a mix of experiences, and organizations shouldn’t assume they want to engage virtually all the time.

Myth #4: Millennials, unlike their older colleagues, can’t make a decision without first inviting everyone to weigh in.
Fact: True, more than half of millennials believe they make better decisions when they tap a variety of sources. But even more Gen Xers are likely to solicit opinions at work. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Gen X favors getting lots of input, even more than Millennials do

Myth #5: Millennials are more likely to jump ship if a job doesn’t fulfill their passions.
Fact: All three generations overwhelmingly selected “More money and the chance to work in a more innovative environment” over other options, including “doing work I am passionate about.”

The lesson from these debunked myths is clear. To maintain a workplace that’s attractive to millennials, it’s important to look beyond generational clichés. With workforce analytics, business leaders can gain the insights they need to execute talent strategies that recognize each employee as an individual. Fostering a collaborative, innovative corporate culture, with the tools and technologies that enable employees to do their best, will not only appeal to millennials, but Gen X and baby boomers as well.

Carolyn Heller Baird is a global research leader with the IBM Institute for Business Value and the director of the millennial study and other studies on social business and marketing. Her experience spans nearly 20 years in customer experience design, with a focus on communications, marketing and content strategy for IBM clients. Ms. Baird has also served as the North America Communications and Workforce Enablement Strategy Leader for IBM Global Business Services. She holds a BA in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon University.

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