Generationally speaking: Assessing the Millennials (and tomorrow’s workplace)

A common assumption has been that members of the Millennial Generation (“Gen Y”) — comprised of those born in the early-to-mid 1980s and beyond — are more socially and environmentally conscious and less interested in material success than their Generation X predecessors.

Not so fast, say growing numbers of commentators and studies:

More “me” than “we”?

Joanna Chau reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education on a study by university researchers Jean M. Twenge (San Diego State), Elise C. Freeman (San Diego State), and W. Keith Campbell (Georgia) on characteristics of the millennial generation:

Millennials, the generation of young Americans born after 1982, may not be the caring, socially conscious environmentalists some have portrayed them to be, according to a study described in the new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study, which compares the traits of young people in high school and entering college today with those of baby boomers and Gen X’ers at the same age from 1966 to 2009, shows an increasing trend of valuing money, image, and fame more than inherent principles like self-acceptance, affiliation, and community. “The results generally support the ‘Generation Me’ view of generational differences rather than the ‘Generation We,'” the study’s authors write in a report published today….

It’s not all negative, however. The individualistic streak identified in the survey data points to “more tolerance, equality, and less prejudice.” In other words, many of the Millennials take in greater stride some of the diversity issues that have divided earlier generations.

Moral and spiritual orientations

In the current issue of The Cresset, a public affairs & humanities journal, there’s a thoughtful and disturbing essay by Valparaiso University political science professor James Paul Olds, “Talking with Emerging Adults,” examining the moral and spiritual makeup of today’s college students. Among other things, he summarizes survey and interview results contained in Souls in Transition (Oxford University Press, 2009) by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, finding that:

…most emerging adults were uninterested or even incapable of discussing or thinking about moral issues. They simply lacked the vocabulary for those conversations and, when you live in a world where “…anything truly objectively shared or common or real seems impossible to access,” there is not much motivation to develop one.

Olds opines that:

…many emerging adults find it difficult to connect with stable communities, or find reliable sources of structure and authority in their lives. This lack of rootedness in the physical and social worlds effects how they perceive the moral universe. When so little in life seems stable, emerging adults have little to fall back on except their own subjective experiences. Everything is personal, and they believe that whatever you think is right must be right.

Workplace implications

These assessments of the Millennials carry significant implications for the workplace. As leadership consultant Ray Williams observes in a Psychology Today blog:

There are 85 million baby boomers and 50 million Generation X’ers in the U.S. For baby boomers, it’s the juggling act between job and family. For Generation X (1965-1980), it means moving in and out of the workforce to accommodate kids and outside interests. Now there’s 76 million members of Generation Y (1981-1999) or Millennials as they’re called, are coming into the workforce. A yawning generation gap among American workers–particularly in their ideas of work-life balance– has arrived.

Williams gathers various studies and assessments indicating that Millennials at work are tech-savvy, more expecting of support and accommodation, less likely to stick with jobs they dislike, willing to work hard but very desirous of work-life balance, and seekers of growth opportunities and new experiences.

Organizational psychology professor Ron Riggio of Clarement McKenna College, another Psychology Today blogger (and one of my favorites), offers these observations about the work and career expectations of the Millennials as a group:

  • “They are Technologically Savvy.”
  • “They Play Well With Others.”
  • “They Want the World (and They Want it Now).”
  • “They Want Recognition and to Be Taken Seriously.”
  • “They Want Employee-Centered and ‘Fun’ Workplaces.”

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether these assessments spell a high engagement or a high maintenance workforce!

A more troubling consideration, in any event, is the question of moral grounding raised by Professor Olds in his Cresset essay. Against the well-publicized backdrop of scandals in the corporate, political, and non-profit sectors, will the next generation of leaders do any better at advancing ethical standards than their predecessors?

Stay tuned.

3 responses

  1. ‘will the next generation of leaders do any better at advancing ethical standards than their predecessors?”

    I think they have a better shot at it if their predecessors start leading by example while they are our current leaders.

    • Linda, that’s a really good question, and I don’t have an answer for it!

      I do suspect there are class differences, though. No research, just a hunch…

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