Generation or Age? What Research Can Tell us about Millennials in the Workplace

“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.”

– Socrates, 470-390 BC

If you thought this quote from Socrates came from someone more contemporary – say, Dr. Phil – you are probably not alone. Generational conflict is nearly as old as generations themselves, and there have been no shortage of reflections on it, ranging from scholarly musings to more lighthearted dates. Yet insight into generational differences remains one of the most requested topics in MRG research, and one of the most common challenges faced among coaches and the leaders they work with. We had the opportunity to partner with the Human Capital Institute (HCI) to present Demystifying Millennials: What Motivation Research Can Tell us about Bridging the Generation Gap, where we sought to illuminate this longstanding debate with a little less conjecture and a little more research.

As the webinar began, presenter Tricia Naddaff polled the audience to find out what generation the attendees belonged to. Millennials made up nearly half of attendees, and I can’t say I was surprised. Why? First, because, as this article rather tartly points out, most adults under 40 falls into this broad category – that means they* make up a substantial segment of the workforce as a whole. (*Full disclosure: born at the tail end of 1980, I myself am a near-millennial, known to some as a Xennial – a “micro-generation” that MRG hasn’t yet studied. But give us time!)

Second – and this is conjecture on my part – they probably wanted to see what hooey was being dished about them today. After all, they are maligned, blamed, stereotyped and generalized rather relentlessly in the media and perhaps even by their colleagues. I’m sure they were eager to hear yet another take on what they’ve disrupted, destroyed, or even killed today.

Not so fast. When we took a quick walk back through some of the media’s most famous generational characterizations, it quickly became apparent that while Millennials may serve as an easy punchline (or even punching bag) now, prior generations were painted in much the same light as they came of age. One could start to theorize, in fact, that this isn’t about generations at all – that it’s simply about age groups. That people in their twenties, for example, exhibit similar characteristics regardless of when they were born. With that, we get to the question that we really want to explore: is it age or is it generation?

Before we answer that, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the generations currently in the workforce. While an unprecedented five generations are currently present, with Silents rapidly retiring and Gen Z just making their way out of school, three generations account for most of the professional workforce, especially in leadership roles:

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

Like their parents, Boomers are likely to stay loyal to organizations and avoid job-hopping; however, unlike their parents, they are motivated by positions, prestige, and climbing the ladder. Coming of age in era of protest and social revolution means that they instinctively question authority.

Generation X (born 1965-1980)

Gen Xers hold the majority of leadership positions at present, which means that they’re setting the course in many organizations. Unlike prior generations, who felt that it was their responsibility to work as long and as hard as they were asked, Gen X views work as a contract: they’re here to do a job, but they don’t want that job to interfere with their work-life balance. Gen X gets creative about side-stepping rules that they don’t like, rather than challenging them directly as their Boomer parents might have. They’re extremely independent and self-reliant.

Millennials (born 1981-1999)

This generation gets so much buzz, we must know their key characteristics by heart, right? To see if there was consensus about who this generation is, our audience created a word cloud (below), and it shows just how much diversity there is in the way this group is perceived. A few of the trending characteristics: they grew up highly scheduled, so they struggle with free time; they’re used to social engagement through technology, so their communication patterns may be more brief than previous generations; they have a lot of flexibility, and they also want a lot of flexibility; they’re more socially conscious than any prior generation; they want to be included in everything. They also have an interesting duality, in that they were encouraged to start making noteworthy accomplishments and “building their resumes” as early as middle school, but they were also quite protected emotionally. This has created a group who are ambitious in the workplace but more laid back in other areas of their life.

Generation X vs. Millennials: How do They Compare in the Workplace?

In our research study comparing these two generations on 22 leadership behaviors (measured using the LEA 360™), several distinct contrasts stood out:

  • Millennials are highly structured. Their overscheduled youths led them to become extremely organized.
  • Millennials are not as likely to delegate. They behave more like individual contributors.
  • Millennials are not as effective at delivering feedback.
  • Millennials are very productive.
  • Millennials are connectors. They work well in teams and rely a lot on their socials skills to work with others.

… and How Do They Compare When We Control for Age?

Once we match the data for age, however, we see a much more similar pair of profiles! Only three differences hold steady:

  • Millennials are still less likely to rely on being persuasive.
  • Millennials are still higher on production.
  • Millennials are still more consensual.

What about motivation?

Beyond looking at behavioral trends, we used data from the Individual Directions Inventory™ identify patterns in what drives leaders from each generation. These drivers measure not necessarily a skill, but something that gives the individual energy and keeps them motivated.

So what’s driving Millennials? A few things stand out:

  • Millennials less energized by freely expressing their feelings – they may be talkative, but less inclined to share deeper self-reflections.
  • Millennials do, however, love entertaining – think telling stories or being the center of attention (in a good way)
  • Millennials are high excelling – they’re motivated by very ambitious goals
  • Millennials love structuring and scheduling – so they can be good organizers of processes, and can find effective ways to get things done
  • Millennials are slightly less independent – they like to have a sense of belonging

Why is motivation so critical? In addition to being the thing that gets us going each day, our drivers also become a lens through which we see the world. We naturally develop biases based on our own strong drivers, and assume that they are other people’s drivers as well. Because these drivers are beneath the surface, we use our biases to “fill in the blanks” and tell stories about what’s driving those around us. When we lack awareness of these biases, we can misattribute the intentions of others, causing distracting – even destructive – conflict.

One way to create awareness of contrasting motivations is to bring them out into the open, creating not just individual self-awareness but team awareness as well. The IDI Team Development Report is a tool that was designed for this purpose, shedding light on motivational clusters and contrasts in a way that is value-neutral, giving everyone on the team an opportunity to understand themselves and each other, reducing confusion and friction. It can also help unearth hidden sources of energy within the team, leading to better alignment and even improved efficiency.

Top Six Tips for Helping Millennials Thrive at Work

Leveraging these research insights, a few strategies emerge that are likely to energize millennials in the workplace:

√ Ask them questions to draw out deeper insights.

√ Give them opportunities to be in the spotlight.

√ Challenge them with stretch goals.

√ Help them feel connected to the organization and to their teams.

√ Coach them on persuasive skills. 

√ Provide good training on how to delegate effectively and give clear feedback.

Remember, research on an entire population will never give you the information you need to work most effectively with an individual. Every person – no matter what their age – has their own unique behavioral patterns, motivations, and therefore their own unique path to success. For more research exploring generational patterns, visit the MRG Research Library.


About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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