There's no shortage of musings on (or critiques of) millennials. They want to make an impact on the world, but they're also self-obsessed. They want opportunities to learn and grow at a company, yet they're quick to job hop every few years. They seek mentorship and community at work, but crave autonomy at the same time.
For employers, appeasing all of these generational expectations on top of the rest of their workforce's needs is a strain at best, and impossible at worst. Any effort to clarify and distill the millennial mindset only leads organizations further down the rabbit hole. A simple Google query for "What do millennials want at work?" churns up nearly 14 million results alone.
It's enough to make employers throw their hands up. But here's the catch: What millennials want out of work is actually not so different from what people have always wanted out of life.
The Search for Purpose is Nothing New
The field of psychology is ripe with theories on human behavior that echo the millennial musings we so often hear today. A look back reveals that certain behaviors often attributed to millennials, such as a search for purpose in work, are no strangers to the generations that came before.
Consider Viktor Frankl's 1946 psychological memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, which proposed that finding meaning in life helped Auschwitz prisoners survive. In his book, he identified three possible sources for meaning — one of them being purposeful work.
Other "millennial-isms" can be found in more recent psychology work. In 2000, psychology professors Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan published a breakthrough study on motivation called "self-determination theory." SDT suggests that people (not just millennials) are driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment, typically through three channels: autonomy, connectedness and learning.
The Breadth of Opportunity Makes "Purpose" Possible
Perhaps it's not that millennials are inherently different from earlier generations, but that our culture has enabled a mental shift around work. If you take a step back and evaluate our current world of work, we are surrounded by professional options and opportunities.
Technology has enabled us to work whenever and wherever we want, which means work-life balance is thinning. On top of the integration of work with our personal lives, we are presented with a grand variety of types of work. And if you can't find work you want to do, the cost of innovation to create your own workplace is lower than it's ever been — a company can be built in a college dorm room; an idea can be funded by strangers through crowdfunding; a team can be assembled across borders and time zones.
It's no surprise, then, that millennials want to find work that is purposeful — when there are so many options, why would you settle? It makes sense that they want to learn and experience several different careers — who knows what new jobs will exist in a decade? And it's strangely logical to desire both autonomy and community at work — even if you end up as your own boss, your network is your lifeline.
Focus on People, Not Millennials
When I examine my own expectations about the workplace and my career, I admittedly share many of the desires typically assigned to my younger counterparts. I was born on the cusp between Generation X and the Baby Boomers, but as an active participant in this new world of work — and particularly in the technology sector — my expectations align with the opportunities I see around me. I certainly want to create impact where I work. And as director of talent management, I am equally fascinated by finding growth opportunities for myself and creating growth opportunities for those around me.
When I look at other Gen Xers and Boomers, their behavior in our current world of work is, surprisingly, similar. It's not just millennials striking out on their own or following a passion. In fact, the Kauffman Foundation found that Baby Boomers are twice as likely to launch a new business this year as millennials. And across generations, employees are ditching the idea of a complete retirement just like : Recent studies show nearly two-thirds of workers ages 16 to 64 prefer a gradual transition to retirement.
As the world of work continues to transform, the expectations, dreams and behavior of workers of all ages will transform. Yes, millennials are front and center, but if you take a step back, you'll likely realize that the factors attracting young top talent to a company are the same factors attracting all top talent to a company.
If organizations want to succeed in recruiting, retaining and growing their talent, it is not millennial behavior they need to grasp, but fundamental human behavior. In our attempt to understand young workers, we are missing the bigger picture: to understand people.
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