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Rena Rasch

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The truth about millenials in the workplace


Are the attitudes of today’s young people a unique generational trait or do they simply relate to their age and career stage? Rena Rasch unveils the truth about millennials in the workplace.


As CBS news correspondent Morley Safer warned in a 60 Minutes segment, millennials "were raised by doting parents who told them they are special ... They are laden with trophies just for participating and they think your business-as-usual ethic is for the birds". It made for juicy news copy, but is it really accurate?

New research raises serious questions about the truth of generational differences and the attitudes of millennials. In fact, Kenexa High Performance Institute research indicates the millennials often stand on common ground with their older counterparts, and in some key areas, the research suggests that the millennials may even turn out to be better employees and, eventually, better employers than their predecessors. 

"Millennial workers are often depicted as a unique and hard-to-manage generation. However, the KHPI research found that this unflattering picture is inaccurate."

While the millennial sound bites may be voluminous, scientific research is scarce. So far, research into generational effects on things like work attitudes, work values and personality, has largely been unable to say whether the differences were based on a particular generation’s complaints, or were more universal concerns reflected by all generations at the same stages in their life and career. In short, although research to date has shed some light, we still are not sure if millennials are any different than any other generation when they were young.

Separating fact from fiction

Given the current lack of quality research, the Kenexa High Performance Institute (KHPI) decided to separate the fact from the fiction in the generational debate. KHPI is in a unique position to report on generational work attitudes through its WorkTrends data. WorkTrends is an annual international survey of people who work full-time in organisations with more than 100 employees. In 2011, the survey included more than 30,000 people across the working-age spectrum, in 28 of the world’s most powerful economies.

For this particular generational study, we reached all the way back to 1984, using the data to check for true generational differences; the way generations felt at the same age, when in the same stage of their career. This distinction is important: if differences are a new phenomenon, HR practitioners and managers will likely need new strategies to manage millennials, but if differences are based on youth, then tried-and-tested HR practices can be employed.

Satisfaction, excitement and desire to leave

Millennial workers are often depicted as a unique and hard-to-manage generation. However, the KHPI research found that this unflattering picture is inaccurate. Millennials are, in fact, much like their older counterparts (see Figure 1). When it comes to pay, 42 percent of millennials say they are paid fairly, compared to 41 percent for baby boomers and 38 percent for Generation X. That means that more than half of millennials are unhappy with their pay, and while that’s an area for improvement, it’s not that different from their older peers.

When we look at the questions around excitement at work, the results are similar with just more than half of employees from all three generations being satisfied. What about a sense of accomplishment? In this area, the baby boomers outscore both the millennials and Generation X, by eight percentage points. This difference is not due to a generational trait, but is more likely dependent on career stage. The reality is that millennials generationally-speaking are pretty much like their co-workers in these areas.

One statistic that managers and human resource executives should take note of, however, is that a full third of millennials working today are considering leaving their current job in search of better opportunities. Generation X is almost as restless, with 27 percent considering a job move, while only 19 percent of baby boomers are considering leaving.

While this is an area for managers to address, it’s important to realise that this is likely to be an age issue and not a generational issue unique to millennials. Looking back at our survey results from 1990 we found that 31 percent of 27 year-old Generation X’ers were considering leaving their organisation. Almost two decades later, in 2009, we found that 31 percent of 27 year-old millennials were also considering leaving. Life is full of opportunities for young employees and they aren’t afraid to explore them.

Millennial positivity

The data refutes the ‘millennial malcontent’ stereotype, but there is one area where millennials stand apart from their older colleagues and that is in terms of workplace positivity. Millennials’ attitudes are actually more positive than Gen Xers’ or boomers’ (see Figure 2). In fact, 60 percent agree that they are extremely satisfied with their organisation as a place to work. Even more—63 percent— report that they have opportunity for growth and development at their company.

We also examined how millennials and their colleagues feel about being recognised for a job well done. Despite the cliché about needing trophies just for participating, millennials are more positive about recognition than their co-workers. Half of millennials are satisfied with the recognition they personally receive, as opposed to 42 per cent for boomers. Finally, as the recession recedes, millennials are more satisfied than their counterparts with the job security that their organisation provides for “employees like them.”

L&D lessons for managing millennials

While the hype and headlines demand attention, the facts speak for themselves; when it comes to the workplace, the differences in attitude are shockingly slight. So should L&D professionals abandon all generation-based interventions? Not necessarily, but they should be reviewed carefully.

Simon Foster, client solutions director at Kenexa’s leadership division, recommends the following:

  • Research your own employees to understand the true differences that may exist in your workplace, don’t just rely on the newspaper headlines to drive an L&D strategy.
  • Just because young people have a different attitude towards technology, doesn’t mean that their attitudes in the workplace are that much different to their elders.
  • Value the differences in young people in your organisation, but remember that they probably aren’t that much different from you when you were that age.
  • As with all employees, treat them as individuals: rather than generalise about a whole tranche of employees, ensure that your managers take the time to understand what motivates each of their team, and what their career aspirations are.
  • The impact of tuition fees won’t be known for a few years, but may drive a steeper career drive in millennials as they try to repay these costs. Ensure that you give employees the opportunity to grow and develop as quickly as they want to.
  • As the population ages, and we have four generations working in the same office, embrace this diversity by encouraging win-win relationships between digital natives and more experienced – but possibly less technologically fluent – colleagues.

Dr Rena Rasch  is the manager of the Kenexa High Performance Institute’s Minneapolis team, which she joined in 2008. She also manages the Institute’s WorkTrends study - an annual employee opinion survey of over 35,000 workers in 28 countries around the world and is the co-author of a free  white paper: Attitute? What attitude? The Evidence Behind the Work Attitudes of the Millennials.



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