Demystifying Millennials

Stereotyping millennials as possessing certain traits or having a unique set of objectives is a misguided notion—one that’s likely to backfire.

Here are the keys to truly engaging this often-misjudged generation

One of your managers comes to you to ask your advice on handling the millennials on her team. Both of you wonder, is it time for your company to develop millennial-specific policies or initiatives? Over the past decade, countless others have asked themselves the same question. But, before you reach for that popular book on what millennials really want or hire a consultant to help you communicate with your 30-something employees, we encourage you to consider what’s really different with this generation. There’s more nuance to the story than meets the eye.

Reality vs. assumption

There do appear to be small differences between generations in work attitudes. Research has shown that older employees, on average, are slightly more satisfied at work, more committed and, therefore, less inclined to leave their jobs. There's little if any evidence, however, that younger employees are different because they are millennials. It's more likely that any differences stem from other factors, like career stage or societal changes—factors that everyone experiences.

Differences between millennials and other generations are likely overstated, and much of the evidence that purports to show differences is flawed. For example, many studies don't compare millennials to other generations and present findings as though they apply only to millennials. One desire typically attributed to millennials, for instance, is that they want more meaning at work. That could very well be true—and it could also be true that most people have started to look for more meaning in their work.

The fundamental feelings and thoughts that motivate people at work are, in all likelihood, not very different based on age. There are certainly different concerns in life that change through time; younger people can be more drawn to adventure and making money, while older people might be more concerned with family and legacy. But psychological research and theory support the idea that fundamental human needs, and the brain functions that support them, apply to everyone. Our research suggests that fundamental drivers of work engagement, such as meaning, autonomy and competence, don't differ much between millennials and older employees.

The risk of stereotyping

One serious risk of basing action on generational differences has to do with ethics. Stereotyping a group of millions of people as lazy, narcissistic, technology-dependent or, indeed, in an overly broad way, is wrong. Acting on such stereotypes for other groups of people can even be illegal. Why should it be appropriate to do so with millennials? A second risk is that you might damage your employee experience. Your intrinsically motivated, hardworking, innovative, devoted millennials might actually feel insulted if you pander to them based on an ill-advised stereotype.

So, what should a leader do?

Put simply, when it comes to engagement, motivation and well-being at work, it doesn’t make sense to treat millennials as a single homogeneous group. Instead, think about the efforts below, which can improve any employees’ experience. Each can be a major undertaking, but each signifies a true investment in your people and your company.

  • Build genuine one-on-one relationships with personal connection and trust. Managers and employees should understand each other’s unique career goals, interests and preferences.
  • Intentionally build an inclusive culture and an employee experience that embodies your company’s values and mission.
  • Measure—and inform your decisions with—factors that have been shown to relate to work outcomes. Individual differences like personality traits, the particular work conditions of your workforce and universal drivers of engagement have much better chances of positively affecting your millennial workers (along with everyone else) than generation-based efforts.

By Patrick Gallagher, PhD


Costanza, DP, Badger, JM, Fraser, RL, Severt, JB, & Gade, PA (2012). Generational differences in work-related attitudes: A meta-analysisJournal of Business Psychology, 27(4), 375–394.

Costanza, DP & Finkelstein, LM (2015). Generationally based differences in the workplace: Is there a there there? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8(3), 308-323.

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