A recent, much-discussed New York Times story on the media firm Mic described young hoverboard-riding workers with “a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination.”
There’s an entire genre of management advice focused on the unique challenges of working with different generations. But what are the actual differences between the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials in the workplace? In a 2012 paper, four researchers from George Washington University, D.P. Costanza, J.M. Badger, R.L. Fraser, and J.B. Severt, along with P.A. Gade, a U.S. Army social science researcher, analyzed the results of 20 studies on the subject.
The authors note that management writers and trainers often identify particular traits with the various generations in the workplace—time-stressed and materialistic Baby Boomers, skeptical and individualistic Generation X, and socially conscious yet cynical and narcissistic Millennials. The 20 studies they looked at addressed workers’ basic attitudes toward their jobs, measuring job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and/or intent to quit. And what they found was, there wasn’t much of a difference between the generations on any of these fronts.
When it came to organizational commitment, there were some small to moderate differences between the generations, but they didn’t break down the way standard stereotypes might predict. For example, members of Generation X were somewhat more committed to their employers than Boomers. Looking at this metric, the authors write, “there was no discernible pattern to the results. Older and younger generations varied in levels of commitment, with older generations sometimes being more and sometimes less committed.”
Older generations did tend to be slightly more satisfied with their jobs than younger ones, and less interested in quitting. But the authors note that this is probably mostly reflects their age rather than stable differences in the attitudes of different generations. In general, older workers and those who’ve spent longer on the job tend to express more job satisfaction. Previous research has found this may be related to changes in personality over time, and also to the fact that more experienced workers often have jobs that offer more autonomy and more interesting work.
The authors conclude that management strategies based on assumptions about the characteristics of particular generations are “premature at best.” They write: “A more effective approach may be to conduct needs assessments that address observed differences among individuals and develop interventions based on characteristics identified through this process.”
In other words, the best way to manage Millennials might be to treat them like people.