More on HRM

This is the mistake we’re making with millennial myths

There are many ideas about what millennials want and expect from recruiters, employers and their careers. But are any of them useful or are they all too non-specific? And is it possible we’re mislabelling the telltale signs of youth as generational quirks?

In a video that has gone viral, Simon Sinek, the author, motivational speaker and marketing consultant, breaks down what he believes are the key features of millennials in the workforce. It’s quite a performance and as good a summation of the millennial myths out there as you’ll find. He says that the generation was given too many participation trophies, grew up addicted to social media, and that they are convinced they’re the centre of the universe.

Here’s the thing, every single one of these ideas has come into question, multiple times. But the suggestion that we might be dealing with unhelpful myths doesn’t break through – the video is immensely popular (over six million views and counting) and there’s basically a cottage industry of books and articles drawing on the same theories.

Here’s why and how that became the case – and conversations with companies that boast successful millennial recruitment strategies.  

What even is a millennial?

This is the first problem when talking about any generation – what date range do you choose? Researchers who deal in generational statistics don’t all agree. While the majority describe them as being born somewhere between 1980-2000, some have pegged the first millennials as being born 1976.

These varying dates are hugely disruptive to most millennial theories.

Take for example the common belief that millennials’ personalities have been informed by social media – Sinek’s argument is that millennials became addicted to the dopamine hit given by a “like” on Facebook or Instagram.

But if you were born in the mid-eighties the first time you would have seen Facebook (the first social media platform that really ran with the idea of “liking”) was in your mid to late teens – when it was still a social network exclusive to University students. If you were born in 1976 you more likely than not first encountered the web at age 20 – the version that had no Google and where Geocities was a big thing.

Selfish young brats

Much of the prevailing feeling that Millennials are particularly selfish can be traced to the work of psychologist Jean Twenge, writer of Generation Me. It was her book that provided the background for the famous 2013 Time cover story: Millennials: The Me, Me, Me Generation.

But some of that data, which purports to prove that the generation is inherently more self-involved than previous generations, has been called into question by Twenge’s colleagues, as pointed out in this article from the Atlantic:

“Her assertion that narcissistic behaviors among young people have risen 30 per cent is flimsy, since she’s basing it around data collected from the 40-question Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), the results of which leave quite a bit up for interpretation.”

In a 2010 study, psychologists at the University of Illinois found that narcissistic behavior was related not to generation, but to the way humans behave at different ages. They summarised their discovery this way: “Every generation is Generation Me, as every generation of younger people are more narcissistic than their elders.”

So they’re just young?

Millennials have been described as job hoppers. And they are, to some extent. But again, that has been true for every generation when they’re younger.

It seems that a feature of 20 somethings is to try and find the right career, rather than assuming they need to get promoted. In fact, there’s evidence that Millennials are less inclined to job-hop than were Generation X.

The back and forth on millennials can get quite confusing, and make some of the recruiting theories seem suspect. For instance here is a survey saying they’re generally pessimistic, and another saying they’re optimistic – both surveys are from reputable organisations, Deloitte and Gallup.

Perhaps the most fascinating theory as to why these millennial myths persist is that millennials themselves believe them. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that millennials are more likely than other generations to describe themselves as “self-absorbed”, “wasteful”, “greedy” and, oddly enough, “idealistic”. Maybe they just believe what they’re told about themselves?

But how do I hire them?

Accenture, global management consulting and professional services company, recruits 90,000 millennials a year, worldwide. So it’s not a stretch to say they’ve figured out how to reach what is now the workforce’s largest demographic.

Andrew Woolf, Accenture’s Global Human Capital lead for Financial Services gives this advice:

  • “Millennials are after organisations with a good cultural fit, that is both socially and ethically responsive.”
  • “Our own research shows that only one in four graduates wants to work for a large company. Many desire to start their own business, and they’re looking for a small business vibe.”
  • Thirdly, engage earlier with potential talent. ‘Accenture Adventure’ is the company’s brand presence among undergraduates and offers a strong idea of what working at the company is really like.

Andrew Lafontaine, senior director, HCM Strategy and Transformation, at Oracle APAC is part of another company that can be said to have mastered the recruitment of millennials. He offers the following tips:

  • “In the modern world an applicant wouldn’t just take a recruiter’s word on something. These days people do due diligence on organisations via Linkedin, Facebook, other social media and through their own network.”
  • Like Accenture, Oracle puts a big focus on its ‘talent pools’, which include everything from alumni of other organisations, or graduates from university road shows. “We’re saying to them, there’s no role just yet, but we want you to work here at some point. This makes people feel special, and cuts down on the time lag when there is a role.”
  • In what could be described as an irony of the “digital generation”, Lafontaine finds that the most effective recruitment method is still what it always was – through personal referral. “They stay the longest, and they’re the best performers.”

The real lesson for HR

Even Twenge admits her research has limitations. And in the same paper, Twenge and her co-authors note, “Although not a limitation per se, we caution that this research should not be interpreted as descriptive of every worker from a given generation. Like almost all research, these results report averages.”

Sure, one of the millennials you’re considering could be that tech-savvy, idealistic, narcissistic job hopper who only wants to work with a company that saves the planet (while offering huge career upside). But you might also be talking to the cynical, unambitious millennial whose only interest in life is doing a good job at a large corporate and then going home to his wife and kids.

Because millennials are just like you. They’re all different.

Discuss your thoughts on the most talked about generation, and connect with HR’s brightest minds at Australia’s largest HR event – the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition − on 21−23 August in Sydney.

Leave a reply

  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Ricky Nowak
Ricky Nowak

This view is right on the money and it’s time we stop blaming the new kids on the block – the millennials – for dysfunctional workplaces. Clearly we’ve moved on from blaming Gen Y and X so it seems obvious that generation myopia carries on with mislabelling and blaming. But seems to me its just a convenient excuse to label another generation with stereotypical generalities. We know millennials are more equipped to handle technology, change, flexibility and agility than any other generation. Perhaps we would be better off checking in on our own generational dysfunctions and functionalities and work on… Read more »

Catherine Cahill
Catherine Cahill

I ignore generalisations about age groups as much as I do generalisations about gender, ethnicity, or social background. It’s funny that we can’t write articles writing off all women, or all Asians, or everyone who grew up in a certain part of town, yet persist in publishing articles that make sweeping claims based on age. As an older employee I also hate the generalisations that older employees are incapable of learning, or are fixed in their ways. I’ll leave the final word to Socrates: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for… Read more »

Mark Jelley
Mark Jelley

Honestly! Who is it that keeps banging on about so-called Millennials? What a croc! It’s like Astrology. You cannot treat people born within a particular time period as a homogeneous group or possessing the same characteristics. Each person is an individual and should be treated that way. Once you label a person, it depersonalises the individual and ignores their uniqueness. This whole malarkey is up there with the Y2K debacle. It keeps a lot of consultants fed, but nothing more.

More on HRM