Blog Post

Why Millennial Stereotypes Should Be a Thing of the Past

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller’s column "The Science of Workplace Motivation" on

A simple Google search for "What do Millennials want at work?" serves up around 15 million results. Needless to say, there's no shortage of advice on (or critiques of) Generation Y and the many ways organizations should cater to their perceived needs. They demand opportunities to learn and grow at a company, but they're quick to job hop every few years. They want to work for a company with purpose, but they need recognition, too. They seek mentorship and community at work, but desire autonomy at the same time.

For employers, appeasing all of these Millennial expectations in addition to meeting the rest of their multigenerational workforce's needs is a strain at best and impossible at worst. But here's the catch: What Millennials want out of work is actually not so different than previous generations. They share a basic human desire that has been shaped by the technology they grew up around -- and this tech is influencing Generation X and Baby Boomers, too.

The Age-Old Search for Purpose

There are multiple theories on human behavior that echo the Millennial musings we so often hear today. Needs often attributed to Millennials, such as a search for purpose at work, are no strangers to the generations that came before.

Consider Viktor Frankl's 1946 psychological memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, in which he proposed that finding meaning in life helped Auschwitz prisoners survive, one of them being purposeful work. In 2000, professors Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan published a breakthrough paper on a term they coined "self-determination theory," suggesting that people (not just Millennials) are motivated by personal fulfillment, typically through three channels: autonomy, connectedness and learning.

What's more, many of the popular observations about Millennials have been made about other generations as young adults. In 1968, LIFE Magazine ran a cover story on the "Generation Gap," describing "privileged, narcissistic, entitled, spoiled, lazy" young people -- young Baby Boomers, that is. TIME ran a similar story on young Gen Xers in 1990, calling them "lazy, entitled, selfish, shallow, unambitious shoe-gazers ... [who] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder."

The New Standard Is Change

So, what gives? Perhaps it's not that Millennials are inherently different from earlier generations, but that innovation has enabled a progressive mental shift around work. Over the past three generations, the world has gotten "smaller," not to mention faster. It's never been easier to change your career or pursue a passion -- and it's never been more acceptable either.

Young Gen Xers may have wanted to hike the Himalayas, but Millennials are able to turn their Himalayan adventures into profitable travel blogs and global non-profits. And while Millennials are the most well-versed in this new world of work, company leaders should recognize that today's norms continue to influence every generation's career expectations.

It's not just Millennials striking out on their own or following a passion. In 2015, the Kauffman Foundation found that Baby Boomers were twice as likely to launch a new business this year as Millennials. And across generations, employees are willing to make life-altering decisions to find fulfillment in their careers. In fact, Cornerstone's Career Trends Report found that 81 percent of Baby Boomers, 91 percent of Gen Xers and 94 percent of Millennials would consider a lateral career move with no financial incentive.

Meeting the Needs of a Multigenerational Workforce

Instead of worrying about Millennials, organizations should meet the needs of a multigenerational workforce in whole by keeping purpose and mobility top of mind. Company leaders can foster an organizational climate conducive to individual growth through practices that make employees feel heard and supported -- regardless of title or tenure -- such as:

  1. Asking employees at every stage of their careers about their interests.
  2. Aligning their skills with these passions as much as possible.
  3. Offering flexible schedules.
  4. Preparing them for an ever-shifting world of work through learning and mentorship opportunities.

As the world of work continues to transform, the expectations, aspirations and behaviors of every generation will transform. Millennials may be leading the charge, but they're not alone -- regardless of age, the best employees are seeking organizations that can fulfill both their potential and their purpose.

Photo: Creative Commons

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