Let's go over a few of the most common preconceptions about the millennial generation, those currently aged 21 to 34 who have been invading the workplace in recent years. It's often said that their helicopter parents left them unable to accept criticism and in constant need of a trophy. That their immersion in social media means they can't keep their personal and professional lives separate. That they are particularly attracted to jobs where they can help save the world.
The problem: Those stereotypes actually appear to be wrong. Or at least, that's the finding of a recent report by IBM's business consulting arm, which surveyed some 1,784 employees of different age groups in 12 countries and six industries. The survey, released Feb. 19, blew holes in the conventional wisdom about millennials. In particular, it debunked five myths about that much-fretted over generation, widely cast as workplace prima donnas who expect so much and have been spoiled by their ever-hovering parents.
As the IBM report said, millennials are commonly depicted as either "lazy narcissists or energized optimists bent on saving the world." Yet the survey's results call into question whether either one is really true.
The stereotype, said Carolyn Baird, global research leader at IBM's Institute for Business Value, is "that millennials are a separate species of employee, that they're vastly different from everybody else when it comes to things like career aspirations, what they want from a manager, and how they like to make decisions. What we found is these are not unique millennial characteristics."
For instance, millennial respondents were less likely than baby boomers to say their top career goal was to help solve social or environmental problems (22 percent versus 24 percent) and do work they're passionate about (20 percent versus 23 percent).
Millennials were also slightly less likely than Gen Xers to say they would leave a job to "follow my heart," and less likely than boomers to say they'd leave one to "save the world." Across each generation, the top reason for switching jobs was to "enter the fast lane," or make more money and work in an environment that's more creative and innovative.
The survey also didn't find any support for the entitled, everybody-gets-a-trophy millennial mindset. Reports of their doting parents calling bosses to complain about performance reviews may be out there, but, on the whole, IBM's survey shows a different picture. Millennials list performance-based recognition and promotions as a priority at the same rate as baby boomers do, and they cite fairness, transparency and consistency as the top three attributes they want in a boss. Someone who "recognizes my accomplishments," meanwhile, comes in at only sixth place.
Millennials are also much less likely than Gen Xers to say they favor prizes for everyone on a team. Sixty-four percent of Gen Xers said everyone should be rewarded if a team is successful, compared with 55 percent of millennials and 44 percent of Boomers — further undermining the theory that this younger generation feels most entitled to, and in need of, recognition.
The caricature of millennial employees has also long been one of technology addicts, who are careless about what they share online and disregard the line between personal and professional when it comes to social media. Again, IBM's survey found something different. While these "digital natives" may indeed be savvy users of technology, they also appreciate face-to-face learning: Their three most-preferred methods for developing new work skills didn't involve software or online tutorials.
Meanwhile, they don't blur the lines with social media as much as one might think. More millennials than any other generation said they never use their personal social media accounts for business purposes (27 percent, compared with 24 percent of Xers and just 7 percent of boomers) — such as using their personal accounts for communicating with colleagues or marketing their organizations' products.
IBM's Baird thought the most interesting myth the survey debunked is that millennials are unique in their tendency to crowdsource their way to decisions. It turns out Gen Xers are even more likely than millennials to say that they make better decisions with input from other people and that it's important to have group consensus. Both Gen Xers and millennials are "very open to collaboration and working together, and baby boomers are really less so," Baird said. This is important because when people "talk about the tensions they have in the workplace, if you unpack what they're talking about, very often it comes down to different styles of decision making."
If there's any big takeaway about millennials from IBM's study, it's that they want pretty much the same thing most employees want: an ethical and fair boss, inspirational leadership and the opportunity to move ahead in their careers. Where there were differences, they tended to be relatively small.
"So many Gen Xers and baby boomers had a similar 'millennial' mindset," Baird said. Smart managers need to realize that "if you build a work environment that really enables millennial employees, then baby boomers and Gen Xers are going to be very happy about it too."