Is It Time to Retire 'Millennials'?

03/20/2015 09:50 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015

In recent days I've read three articles with these titles: "Every Big Cliché about Millennials Is Wrong" (Forbes, March 6, 2015), "4 lessons about Millennials and news" (Columbia Journalism Review, March 16, 2015) and "5 Workplace Stereotypes About Millennials That Aren't True" (U.S. News & World Report, March 16, 2015). Each piece, either fully or in part, cited research on millennials and the reasons the commonly held beliefs regarding this group -- which too often convey a negative slant -- don't hold water.

These articles raised many interesting questions, but my question about "Millennials" would be an even more basic one: Why would anyone assume that sweeping generalizations about this group of young adults would be true? Since my earliest recollection of the wave of millennial thinking, following the publication of Howe and Strauss' Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000), I've thought that date of birth had to be among the weakest rationales for assuming a set of common traits. Why?

First, generalizations about large groups of people, especially those connected only by arbitrary birth date categories, are bound to be fraught with problems. If we look at the host of assertions made about millennials by "generational scholars," many are conflicting. In his excellent 2009 piece The Millennial Muddle, journalist Eric Hoover pointed out that to accept generational thinking, one must "swallow two large assumptions":

  • That tens of millions of people, born over a period of 20 years, are fundamentally different from people of other age groups
  • That those tens of millions of people are similar to each other in meaningful ways

Second, when viewed through a global lens, it is even more implausible to assume that people raised in different parts of the world would share similarities based on their age group. It defies logic to assume that the experiences, culture and events that shaped this generation in the U.S. are similar those of young people from, say, Western Europe, China, or Brazil. There is simply too much variation in the economics, politics, and cultural and societal norms that exist between each country. So is "generational thinking" mostly a U.S. concept?

That is not to say there is nothing unique about people born between 1980 and 2000:

  • They have been immersed in technology and likely know better how to leverage technology creatively for a variety of purposes than their older counterparts.
  • They are less likely to think about their work and life as being bound by traditional gender roles. Most young people in the U.S. today believe that their life partner will also have a career and therefore no one partner will exclusively own the domain of work or family.
  • They are less likely to have completed the traditional milestones of "adulthood" by age 30 than previous generations. Young adults get married later, have children later, are older when they attain a "career job," and are less likely to own a home than was the case a generation ago. For example, nearly twice as many boomers were married between the ages of 18 and 32 than millennials. But these delays are likely the result of cultural, social, and economic trends (e.g., more education before entering the workforce, the widespread availability of "the pill," the exorbitant cost of housing) rather than the inability of young adults to make commitments.

There is a widely held view that today's young people display a lack of loyalty to their employer. My experience and research suggests that this is more likely the result of whether they feel that their employer is loyal to them, rather than the other way around. Our center is presently collecting data on how young adults navigate their careers. Already we are hearing clear signals from study participants that they are very interested in staying with their current employer if they believe their employer is investing in them and offering long-term career options. Is this so different from what boomers were looking for when they were in their 20s?

Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership has been researching the millennials for more than a decade. Her work suggests that while there are differences between younger people and their older counterparts in the workplace, they are very minor, and those differences are likely due to:

  • Their life stage: Young people see some things differently than their older counterparts and always have. That is more a result of their life/career stage or level of maturity than the fact they were born in a given decade.
  • Their position in the organizational hierarchy: Young people want to feel "respected," which they define as being listened to and feeling that their opinions and experiences are valued in their organization.

Dr. Deal's assertions are supported by other recent research. An IBM study published in January found there were many unsupported myths regarding millennials. The emphasis millennials placed on career values such as working with a diverse group of people, doing work they are passionate about, and reaching a senior leadership position was remarkably similar to the responses from the boomers and generation-Xers in the study.

What characteristics do millennials value most when assessing a job/employer? According to Dr. Deal, they want to be well paid, do interesting work, and have the opportunity to advance, learn, and develop. They want a supportive boss, to work with people they like and trust, and have credible leaders who treat them with respect.

Is it just me or does that sound like what all of us are looking for?

Dr. Brad Harington is Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a research professor in the Carroll School of Management.