Are millennials really so different?

Many executives complain about millennials, the employees they’ve hired who were born between 1980 and 1996. They’re widely perceived as high-maintenance, in need of constant feedback and somewhat feckless, moving from job to job in search of reward and praise.

For PwC, one of the big four global accounting firms, they represented a serious problem because millennials constitute two-thirds of their workforce. Hiring younger workers wasn’t hard, but retaining them was. So the firm roped in London Business School and the University of Southern California to conduct the largest global survey of generational differences.

What they found poses a challenge for employers:

·  Millennials aren’t all that different from other generations. While 71 percent of the respondents were not persuaded that excessive work demands were worth the personal sacrifice, so too did 63 percent of other generations. Everyone wants a life.

·  All generations want more flexibility, too. They want to be able shift hours, change schedules or work from home. And they want it enough to be willing to sacrifice some promotions. Millennials know that productivity in this age can’t be measured in hours, and they don’t think of work as a place but rather as output.

·  Email isn’t everything. While it’s been easy to think that the rising generation is hooked on digital communication, PwC found that millennials don’t think it’s equally good for everything. This tallies with less formal research I’ve done with my MBA students who routinely say they prefer face to face communication. Just because they can live online doesn’t mean they want to live there. They even like books.

·  Culture and feedback are critical. More than their older colleagues, millennials care a great deal about workplace culture, and they seek a sense of community at work. While older generations are focused on pay and promotion, these young professionals care more about belonging to something that they feel matters.  And yes, they do crave feedback. They know it's what helps them improve.

It’s always great to encounter any research that smashes stereotypes, and this report certainly accomplishes that. The cliche of the whiny, needy new hire isn’t what jumps out of this report. But it is clear that it millennials don’t find what they want in their employer, they’re more than willing to walk out the door.

One caveat. I recognize the workers PwC surveyed, and I’m glad to find them appreciated rather than condemned. But I’m also aware that there is a segment of the workforce – perhaps the third that doesn’t appear in the survey – that is diametrically opposite: highly driven by pay, desperate for promotion and willing to work all hours to climb the ladder. I teach these young people at business schools, and I meet them at conferences. They have persuaded themselves that they can have a life – later. They can buy balance. They’re hungry and eager and more than a little competitive.

It’s tempting for companies to be turn to these dynamos with relief: No demands, relentless effort, blind obedience. But they should be wary. Why? If they don’t burn out, it may be that these are the very people who are sending the other millennials screaming out the door.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.