Millennial Myths Debunked

Younger workers want many of the same things older employees do, IBM study finds

By Dana Wilkie Feb 19, 2015
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Fact or fiction?

Millennials are more likely than older generations to jump ship if a job doesn’t fulfill their passions.

Millennials’ career goals and expectations are different from those of older generations.

Millennials want constant acclaim and think everyone on the team should get a trophy.

Mostly, those assertions are fiction, according to the IBM Institute for Business value, which just released a report that dispels commonly held beliefs about 21-to-34-year-olds in the global workforce.

The Jan. 19, 2015, report, titled Myths, Exaggerations and Uncomfortable Truths, found that the fundamental distinction between Millennials and older employees is their digital proficiency. But when it comes to career goals, employee engagement, preferred leadership styles and recognition, Millennials share many of the same attitudes as Generation X and Baby Boomer employees.

“We discovered that Millennials want many of the same things their older colleagues do,” wrote the report authors, who conducted a summer 2014 survey of nearly 1,800 employees of various generations from organizations of all sizes across 12 countries, then compared the preferences and behaviors of Millennials with those of Generation X (ages 35–49) and Baby Boomers (ages 50–60). “While there are some distinctions among the generations, Millennials’ attitudes are not poles apart from other employees.”

The study challenges five common myths about Millennials. IBM undertook the study, the authors said, because in the next five years, Millennials will wield increasing influence over organizations—moving into leadership roles and influencing major business decisions. By 2020, Millennials will make up approximately 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, and by 2030, 75 percent of the global workforce, according to an Oct. 5, 2012, Forbes article. "Our clients are interested in what they need to do to attract and retain Millennials, and since there was so much buzz about what Millennials want or don't want in the workplace, we decided it was time to do our own primary research and get fact-based insights about this," said Carolyn Baird, the IBM Institute's global research leader.

The five myths that the report challenges are:

Myth 1: Millennials’ career goals and expectations are different from those of older generations.

“Millennials have similar career aspirations to those of other generations. And their goals are as varied—in nearly the same proportions —as those of their older colleagues,” the authors wrote. “Millennials desire financial security and seniority just as much as Gen X and Baby Boomers, while Gen X and Baby Boomers are just as interested as Millennials in working with a diverse group of people.”

Myth 2: Millennials want constant acclaim and think everyone on the team should get a trophy.

“Above all, Millennials want a manager who’s ethical and fair and also values transparency and dependability,” the authors wrote. “They think it’s less important to have a boss who recognizes their accomplishments and asks for their input. In fact, Gen X employees are almost as likely to want a boss who provides pats on the back, and Baby Boomers are more likely to want a boss who solicits their views.”

Myth 3: Millennials are digital addicts who want to do—and share—everything online, without regard for personal or professional boundaries.

“Millennials are adept at interacting online, but this doesn’t mean they want to do everything virtually,” the authors wrote. “When it comes to acquiring new work-related knowledge and skills, for example, they prefer face-to-face contact.” While Millennials are slightly more comfortable with virtual learning than their older colleagues, Millennials’ top three learning preferences involve personal interaction. “Millennials are also quite capable of distinguishing between the personal and professional realms and exercising discretion when they use social media.”

Myth 4: Millennials, unlike their older colleagues, can’t make a decision without first inviting everyone to weigh in.

“Millennials are no more likely than many of their older colleagues to solicit advice at work,” the authors wrote. “True, more than half of all Millennials say they make better business decisions when a variety of people provide input. But nearly two-thirds of Gen X employees say the same.”

Myth 5: Millennials are more likely to jump ship if a job doesn’t fulfill their passions.

“Another fiction,” the authors wrote. “When Millennials change jobs, they do so for much the same reasons as Gen X and Baby Boomers … to enter the fast lane, shoot for the top, follow one’s heart or save the world. It seems that aspirations—more than age—determine why people move on, and Millennials care as much as older workers about getting ahead.” The authors wrote that there is some evidence that Millennials are more itinerant than other generations: 27 percent have already worked for five or six different employers. “However,” they wrote, “this is likely a reflection of today’s economic conditions.” said

Goal expert Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks, which provides companies with goal-setting software, said people tend to believe that Millennials are “a brand new class of people with unique needs.”

“What's different about them is that they are prepared to ask for what they want,” Duggan said. “But their needs and wants are no different than every other class of worker. They are just prepared to ask for it unlike previous generations.”

Among the report’s recommendations for better understanding employees as individuals to make the most of their skills:

Focus on the individual. See people as individuals, not generational stereotypes.

Foster a collaborative culture. “The best and brightest employees—those with the potential to become tomorrow’s leaders—are likely to prefer working in a collaborative organization where they are encouraged to contribute new ideas and take a consensual approach to making decisions,” the authors wrote. They suggested making a senior leader the “Collaboration Czar” to build a team of employees from all parts of the business who will develop strategies for improved collaboration.

Look within. Many leaders may be overestimating how well they’re connecting with their staff, the authors wrote. Leaders must honestly assess their communication weaknesses and ask themselves these hard questions: Do they inspire confidence? Do they show interest in employees’ professional development? Do they communicate with clarity and transparency? The authors suggested reviewing how much time in the past six months a leader spent celebrating team successes, recognizing employee accomplishments, meeting with employees for roundtable discussions about the business, and talking with those they mentor.

Get everyone on board. Leaders need to ensure that all employees know how they fit into a business’ strategy and business model. “If everyone is on board, the business will have a more engaged workforce—and a more engaged workforce delivers a better customer experience,” the authors wrote. They suggested conducting an anonymous survey that tests employees’ understanding of the business’s fundamentals, then creating a task force of workers who can address any misunderstandings or knowledge gaps.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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