8 destructive myths about millennials in the workplace

July 29, 2021 - 27 min read

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Dispelling the myth of the millennial worker

8 millennial myths

Diversity and inclusiveness and how it applies to working with millennials

5 things to start and stop doing right now

Millennials are different, and that’s a good thing

Over the last decade or so, working millennials have set off a wave of panic, distrust, and resentment among older executives and managers alike.

We often hear about “they’re not like us,” and the solution seems to be “they should be more like us.” 

They’re often seen as volatile intruders who are disrupting companies. Not in a good way, either — and not as tremendous assets to the companies they work for. 

People have written countless articles on why millennials are unhappy at work, reasons they don’t want to work at your company, and how they should work with baby boomers

Studies have been conducted to uncover what makes them so different and how companies can mold them to better fit the current way of working.

But one question no one seems to be asking is one of inclusion and diversity as it relates to millennial employees. 

Rather than try to decipher and change millennials, how can we celebrate and benefit from these generational differences? 

According to a 2018 Pew Research Study, this group represents ⅓ of the U.S. workforce, and by 2025, they’re expected to make up 75% of the global workforce. While their numbers are mighty, they’re often treated as “different.”

But are millennials really that different from the generations before them? 

Yes, and no. 

Is this an ageist rhetoric that’s hurting you and your teammates? Absolutely.

Dispelling the myth of the millennial worker

When you think of millennials, you might picture a teenager with a cell phone. The truth is that most of them don’t look like that.

At least not anymore. 

In fact, many of them are in their early 30s, some with young families, and possibly driving a minivan or SUV.

Opinions diverge on the year millennials first entered the world. Some argue it was as early as 1977 and others 1981

What you can’t argue is that this generation isn’t homogenous. 

Like other diverse groups, their motivations, aspirations, goals, and working styles vary widely. And yet, they’re often lumped together based on a handful of stereotypes. 

It’s easy to see some common threads and trends among millennials when you look closer. However, they’re not as cut and dry as you might believe. 

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8 millennial myths

Millennials are subject to plenty of stereotypes based on several myths — some of which contradict each other at times.

Here are some of the most common myths about millennials and why they’re false.

Entitled

Unsurprisingly, this may be one of the biggest gripes older generations have with millennials. 

A 2016 article for AdWeek titled, “Entitled? Try Empowered: Why Millennials Work the Way They Do,” argues people often misunderstand their intentions. 

See, millennials aren’t “entitled” because they have an opinion or a set of wants. They want to contribute meaningfully to their company and community. They also have great disdain for mundane or repetitive work.

In fact, many millennials want to go beyond their job roles to pursue advancement. That way, they can feel like they’re making a difference.

Also, previous generations followed certain workplace etiquette and adhered to a strict work/life separation. Working millennials aren’t as tuned into a given set of office ‘rules.’

Yes, many of them show a strong sense of work-life integration. They may seamlessly switch between working hours and personal time. So some of them might not feel guilty about taking a yoga class mid-day on a Tuesday.

But (and there’s a big but), they’re also not averse to answering emails on a Saturday night. 

Millennials may demand more flexibility and trust. But you’ll notice that most of them aren’t actually abusing these benefits when you look closely.

Most are happy and willing to work hard, as long as they can fulfill their commitments without losing personal time.

Disloyal

Stressed about millennial workers leaving you in a lurch when they hop for a cush job? 

You’re not the only one. The job-hopping millennial is a meme among managers who worry about constant hiring and retraining.

But it turns out that this belief, too, is more myth than reality. 

Younger employees change jobs more often than older ones. But this trend isn’t new, nor is it as alarming as we’re led to believe. 

The numbers show younger employees changed jobs at the same rate in the 1980s, writes FiveThirtyEight in a 2015 article.

We can expect this, given the Internet and other recent economic transformations.

Need constant feedback

How much feedback do these kids need? If you’re used to the one-and-done annual review, you’re missing the mark not only with millennials but all of your employees, young and old. 

Millennials are often driven by a desire to make an impact in their work. Thus, they value training and development programs as well as coaching and feedback

They’re not necessarily “needy” — constantly demanding guidance through even the slightest of problems and uncertainties. Rather, they seek feedback and help because they genuinely want to do the best possible job. 

They also want to better themselves as much as possible, something feedback and support can help with.

But according to a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review, studies have shown that this desire isn’t unique to a younger generation. Not only do older workers appreciate feedback, but they actually want more of it, too.

You could do well to start implementing more feedback for all your employees if possible. Effective ways you can give and receive continual feedback are weekly check-ins with your team members and managers, reflective journals you are comfortable sharing with their team members and managers, and more detailed and consistent progress reports that frame current challenges as opportunities for growth.

Can’t or Won’t Listen

Somewhat contradictory to the last myth, some say that millennials are rebellious and not likely to listen to older generations in positions of power. At work, that could mean ignoring instructions from their boss.

Already, it’s odd how millennials working could seek feedback and instruction while also not listening to it. Some believe this, though, which might go back to the entitlement myth.

However, a 2015 study showed that millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers to believe employees should do what their employers say, even if the employee can’t see the benefit immediately.

This might be because those older generations are now in positions of power. 

When they were younger, they didn’t see any lack of listening around them get chalked up to “this generation doesn’t listen.” 

Now that they’re in the senior ranks of organizations, working millennials tend to hold subordinate positions. 

As a result, you have older generations managing millennials. When a couple of bad apples don’t listen, it can seem like all millennials act that way. Methods to increase communication, respect, and collaboration between working millennials and older generations include joint brainstorming sessions, reflective debriefs on approaches to previous projects, and open, dialogue about preferred management styles and learning styles. 

Tech-obsessed

Many millennials, especially younger ones, spent their childhoods surrounded by technology. Even older millennials are familiar with new technology or can pick it up fast.

However, they don’t necessarily have their nose in the phone all the time, like some like to say. According to a 2014 study, 80% of millennials say they prefer face-to-face meetings rather than virtual ones. 

Yes, it’s true that a good number are more tech-savvy than older generations. That’s what growing up in the digital age will do to you. 

But you can use this to your advantage in business. Your top millennial talent may have a keen understanding of technology that can pay off for your company.

This is especially true as we slowly emerge from the pandemic. Your firm most likely went at least partly remote. Millennials’ better understanding (in general) of tech can help smooth out many bumps on the road toward remote work. 

For example, they may be able to communicate better over chat apps and video conferencing software. 

Some may also — based on their experience — have great recommendations for new software solutions your firm could adopt to make remote work better.

In any case, the tendency for millennials to be tech-savvy can help them be more productive and efficient employees in a remote environment while helping you stay ahead of the competition. 

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Lack of social media etiquette

This one’s oddly pervasive, given that many millennials grew up in a world immersed in social media. You’d think growing up in such a world would equip them with good social media etiquette knowledge.

Yet many think millennials are terrible about keeping their social media clean and acceptable. They believe millennials blur their personal and professional lives for the public to see.

However, as mentioned, they may understand etiquette the best. Having grown up with social media, millennials understand the gravity of these digital platforms best. 

They were beaten over the head with “only post things you’d want your grandma to see” throughout their childhood. Thus, they understand people occasionally snoop on their social media in the professional world.

They understand their posts are accessible to the public as soon as they are published and cannot be guaranteed to disappear from the internet in the years to come.

Bad with money

One of the more notorious stereotypes not directly related to work is that millennials are bad with money. You’ve probably heard all of the “avocado toast and Starbucks” jokes.

Millennials allegedly don’t know how to save money, invest for retirement, or generally think about their future. Instead, they spend, spend, spend with no regard for tomorrow. As a result, they’re constantly struggling to stay afloat and prepare for a rainy day.

This is especially alarming to those who believe this, considering the fears of Social Security no longer being around when millennials retire.

Once again, however, millennials tend to be in unfavorable financial positions for reasons beyond simple financial illiteracy.

For one, many millennials were starting their careers right around 2008. 

According to a 2016 Business Insider article, the events of that and the following year (The Great Recession) destroyed trust in financial institutions among many millennials. Millennials entering the workforce around that time had slim job pickings.

Then, there’s the rising cost of college. Many millennials are up to their eyeballs in debt, and that debt doesn’t pay off when the job market’s bad (like in 2008 or even now).

It’s quite challenging to set aside money for savings and retirement when your debt eats it all up.

Despite the terrible events they’ve faced, millennials may actually be as good, if not better, than previous generations at managing money, according to a 2018 Motley Fool article. 

This goes to show millennials are responsible and even savvy with the resources they have. They’re not reckless. They’re prudent — which can rub off onto their performance at work if you observe them. After all, many of them need that job to contribute to a financially stable and personally fulfilling life.

Looking for (too much) meaning and impact

Again, the misguided belief that only millennial employees want work that helps the world proliferates divisiveness in the office. 

In fact, Harvard Business Review found in 2016 that millennials, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers are all nearly equally invested in making a positive impact on their organization and want to spend their life working on things they’re passionate about.

So, yes, (younger) millennial workers are idealistic and care about changing the world.

However, they might be the first generation to demand this out of their job, instead of hoping for it as a side effect.

It’s not like they’re the first generation to want to impact the world in a good way. Plenty of older generations marched and protested for various important causes decades ago, such as civil rights. 

They may have just not demanded that their jobs provide a way to make positive change in the world. That may even come back to the stricter split between work and personal life that previous generations experienced.

These stereotypes are not just harmful to the working millennials that they pigeon-hole. They also impair companies’ ability to win the war for talent. 

For instance, 33% of millennials point to future career opportunities as a top reason for choosing a job vs. 21% of other generations, according to a 2015 article in the Economist. 

If you focus on naming reasons millennials are troublesome instead of creating environments where they thrive, prepare for someone else to take your top talent. 

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Diversity and inclusiveness and how it applies to working with millennials

Getting the most out of millennial workers starts, as it turns out, with a conversation about diversity and inclusion.

If you think millennials differ from previous generations after the previous section, you’re not wrong.

But these differences aren’t meaningful to how millennials approach work versus other generations. Not enough to suggest that we should be treating them like aliens, at least. 

According to a 2012 report published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, millennials possess several positive attitudes and traits that may feel opposed to the stereotypes we often associate with them.

They are “more tolerant of races and groups than older generations,” are extraordinary multi-taskers, community-oriented, entrepreneurial, highly educated, and connected with their families. And they’re optimistic, too, despite the troubling times they’ve witnessed. 

Their unique experience makes them a huge asset, not a drain, to your business. The sooner you realize this, the better positioned you’ll be to leverage their diverse strengths and get the best talent. 

Getting the most out of millennial workers starts, as it turns out, with a conversation about diversity and inclusion. 

Although not talked about much, the problems the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset causes have escalated over the last few years. This type of mindset can cause harm trust between employees and stifle open communication. Eventually, employees in a culture that breeds this adversarial environment could become less engaged at work, ultimately harming your company. 

Apple believes that “diversity is critical to innovation.” Many other public and private companies have made great strides toward fostering a culture that welcomes all groups. 

So what can we learn from them?

5 things to start and stop doing right now

Diversity and inclusion experts have spent years working with companies to bridge communication gaps and coach managers to create stronger teams due to diversity, not despite it.

So how can we apply these learnings toward millennial workers? 

1. Check yourself

A millennial is someone who is finishing their last year of college. But it’s also someone with over a decade of experience who values good health benefits for their family as much as a free lunch at the office.

Much anxiety about working with millennials stems from assumptions about who they are.

After all, as mentioned, millennials are generally anyone born between 1980ish and 1996. An older millennial is about 40 years old at this point, making them experienced in their field. 

That said, all but the youngest of the millennial generation has been in the workforce for at least a few years. Most of them have a good chunk of that “real-life” experience you want. 

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Adjust your worldview to accept that the millennial worker isn’t a type, so much as a broad category. Are there differences between millennials and generations before them? Sure, but that’s not a bad thing. 

Studies have shown diversity to be a key driver of innovation. This applies not only to people but ideas.

Accept that there are differences between millennials and the preceding generations. On top of that, there are differences among millennials themselves, given the decade-and-a-half range. 

But rather than fostering fear and attempting to mold future managers and leaders to your existing models, celebrate differences in ideas and rethink your training programs to foster this diversity. 

  • Consider your stereotypes of the millennial generation — you may even want to write them down. 
  • Then, think of someone you know (a millennial, for the sake of this exercise) that disproves each stereotype. You’ll quickly find that many millennials only vaguely match any of their generation’s stereotypes, if they do at all.

2. Listen & communicate

Diversity and inclusion experts know ongoing communication and education are the keys to helping different groups understand each other and work together.

So commit to learning from your millennial workers: get to know what they are passionate about, what stresses them out, and create an open and honest space for two-way feedback, not one-way only.

Remember: bringing emotion to work isn’t a bad thing, and communication is as much — if not more — about listening as it is talking. 

Several studies have shown that millennials face some unique challenges at work related to productivity, engagement, social connection, and mentorship. These challenges are intensified for many millennials working as more companies shift to hybrid and online

Many of them are looking for more meaning, more feedback, and help managing stress. However, as discussed, this isn’t always limited to working millennials.

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Helping them — and other team members — develop the skills to cope with these struggles comes down to being better communicators.

It’s a “soft” skill that is so often swept under the rug but is becoming ever more critical. To become a better communicator, you can: 

  • Schedule a weekly 1-1 meeting with each team member. Emphasizing that you’re there to listen more than talk.
  • Actively listen so you can build a richer picture of the individuals that make up this vague ‘millennials’ group.
  • Debrief after meetings. Take a few minutes to jot down notes and reflect on major takeaways. This will enable you to keep your team members’ interests, hopes, and challenges top of mind. 

3. Build programs that work for a diverse team

Many studies suggest millennials working differ significantly from their older colleagues. But people’s motivations vary depending on life situation, background, culture, and other factors.

If you’re trying to understand how to motivate and inspire your employees, look at where they are in life now, and match your programs to these needs.

Here’s an example: you wouldn’t train managers on “how to work with women." Yet, you might train them on ways to help transition new parents back into the workplace. 

  • Set aside time with your HR manager or a head of diversity, if you have one, to discuss programs you can build to leverage each team member’s strengths.
  • Develop a transparent and inclusive culture that welcomes feedback and celebrates different ideas.

4. Create a culture of coaching

According to a 2016 Gallup poll, only a small subset of people say they report to the sort of leader they actually want: a coach, not a boss.

You might not be ready to change your title from CEO to “coach.” However, internalizing the differences between these approaches could massively impact your millennial employees.

Bill Campbell, one of the most well-known business leaders in Silicon Valley, was famously called “Coach” and emphasized the importance of caring deeply about your people.

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A commitment to coaching is one of the best ways you can lead a millennial-strong workforce.

  • Don’t just help them do well in their job — help them do well in life, and you’ll reap the rewards of their existence. 

5. Encourage ambition

Studies have shown that individuals who set ambitious goals are often happier.

Filled with optimism and a go-getter attitude, millennials are some of your most essential assets if you allow them to be.

Embrace their ambitions. Provide opportunities for open, thoughtful discussions around their goals. Empower them to tackle challenges they aspire to overcome. Let their enthusiasm serve as inspiration to all workers. 

Doing so will have plenty of benefits for you. For one, you get a happier employee. Happier employees are more likely to stay with your company for obvious reasons.

They’ll also feel more engaged at work, which could lead to better work and a bigger bottom line. 

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On top of that, millennials will go after lofty goals. Those goals likely involve moving up in your company or making a significant impact in some way (which benefits your company). 

  • Watch your language: the words you choose to communicate with your team are powerful. When people bring frustrations and ideas to you, emphasize your eagerness to learn, understand, and support.
Millennials are different, and that’s a good thing

It’s true; millennials are different than the generations before them. They want you to help them grow and learn, and they don’t view their job as just a job.

But ask yourself this: aren’t these the same things all generations want? And these changing norms aren’t just a reflection of millennial differences. Instead, all people differ based on their circumstances.

Good leaders should take a whole-person approach to leadership. 

Creating a culturally and generationally diverse workspace is your secret weapon to staying nimble and innovative.

At the end of the day, the accountability for creating an open and diverse culture lies with all of us. Yes, even you.

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Published July 29, 2021

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