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WINTER 2016 •


It’s already a well-worn trope: millennials are entitled, lazy and difficult

to manage. They show up late and leave early. They abhor hard work.

They are always on their phones—most likely snapchatting the day

away. They expect to be promoted immediately.

But is this unflattering stereotype even close to the truth? Or is it a

convenient way for the non-millennial set to pigeon-hole a new class of

worker—and society—that is increasingly unwilling to accept the

status quo?

In April of this year, a Harvard Business Review article by Bruce N.

Pfau posited that millennials want the same things the rest of us do at

work: fulfillment, recognition and a sense of purpose. Pfau said that

though pat descriptions of millennials are convenient and seem to ring

true, there is little empirical evidence to back up these claims. Every

generation brings with it a fresh approach and, of course, inevitable

backlash. Beatniks, Boomers, Gen X-ers … it’s almost a given that the

older generation will take some issue with the younger generation,

despite evidence to the contrary.

In fact, a study by George Washington University and the Department

of Defense that analyzed more than 20 studies about generational

differences concluded that “meaningful differences among

generations probably do not exist in the workplace.” So what is the real

issue? Is any changing of the guard inherently destabilizing? In his

article, Pfau cites a study by IBM’s Institute for Business Value that

found that 25% of millennials surveyed want to make a positive impact

on their organizations. The same could have been said of Gen Xers

(21%) and Baby Boomers (23%) during their emergence onto the

scene. There may be nothing new at all about millennials except that

their behavior is as normal and predicable as any generational or

business cycle.

Others recent studies also actively contradict the accepted millennial

stereotype. A 2016 report concluded that millennials may actually be

the true workaholics. The study, by Project: Time Off and GfK, found

that millennials are more likely to define themselves as proud “work

martyrs.” Work martyrs work more hours and use less vacation time

than their peers. About 43% of millennials surveyed fell into this

category as compared to 29% of overall respondents. The “always-on”

culture may, in fact, be having a bigger impact on millennials than

anyone else—and not in a necessarily positive way.

So if millennials aren’t really slackers for whom work is secondary, how

do we explain the pervasive perception? Some might argue the

millennial stereotype really says more about those promoting it than the

reality. Maybe we are all chaffing against inflexible schedules and too

many work hours that leaves time for little else. Perhaps all the articles

and case studies about “how to make work attractive to millennials” is

really about making work attractive to everyone. We all want

purposeful work. We all want to feel appreciated and valued. And, of

course, we all want ample time to spend with our families and friends.

It’s just human nature.

In other words, the complaints millennials have about restrictive work

places have less to do with their age than with the world at large. We

are all living in a tech-savvy world that can easily support greater work

flexibility. It doesn’t make sense for the old rules to apply. Age 25 or 60,

we have the tools to redesign the way we work … but job design in

many sectors has not yet caught up with the potential freedoms

technology promises.

Maybe, as Pfau briefly suggests, we use “generational” differences to

absolve ourselves of control. After all, it’s far easier to attribute

workplace dissatisfaction to something outside our control than it is to

spend time and resources learning how we can better serve

employees and, then, implement potentially radical change. Are we

taking the easy way out? At what cost? If we are to believe the

research, it seems the best way to work with millennials (and ensure

they are working for you) may be to:


Help employees

understand how and why they are a part of something bigger than

themselves. Humans are social. We want to contribute. We feel better

when we have a mission and when our work is focused on improving

something in our society. Define what your business does for others.

Share it often. Engage employees in this mission of service.


Most humans have an innate need

to learn and grow, whether or not that is explicitly expressed.

Investing in employee growth can take many forms. Research

suggests efforts should be more about long-term career

development than one-off training to reap real rewards.


while keeping in

mind that millennials are no different than any other young employee

group. Employees under age 35 are naturally more inclined to move

on to new work experiences more quickly. However, the figures so far

indicate, if anything, that millennials are even slightly under the

average turnover as compared to prior generations.


Leadership sets the tone: good, bad or

indifferent. The latest versions of the annual Millennial Study by

Deloitte found that respondents place less value on visible, well-

networked and technically skilled leaders in favor of strategic

thinkers, inspirational, personable and visionary leaders.




1. a person reaching young adulthood around the year 2000

2. individual born between 1982 and 2004