Popular media has reached a millennial think piece saturation point. Well-meaning and often well-credentialed business leaders, organizational psychologists, and other experts have devoted ample time to parsing the generational differences and personality characteristics that supposedly set younger generations apart from their elders. Unfortunately, most of that is bogus.
But there’s a good reason for all this hand-wringing and analyzing: Baby boomers are steadily exiting the labor force, and as they continue to do so in tremendous numbers, they’ll leave new opportunities–many of them in leadership roles–for millennials and, later, generation Z workers, to step into.
Regrettably, though, most observations you’ll find on his subject are based on intuition or extrapolation rather than valid data. This explains the wide range of qualities popularly attributed to millennials: selfishness as well as altruism; greed and curiosity; laziness and ambition–the list goes on. You could more or less pick any trait or adjective randomly, and that wouldn’t stop you from finding several opinions on the Internet that support your own.
The main problem is that time-lag data–which simply means when study participants of the same age group respond to the same questions at different points in time–are needed in order for us to reliably infer what a given generation is like. Yet most surveys on generational differences are simply cross-sectional, which means that they only compare people from different age groups at a single point in time.
As a result, we’re left with a surfeit of snapshots of how younger people differ from older people, but not of how younger people have changed as a result of time or culture.
Luckily, some scientific studies have examined actual differences between generations using time-lagged designs, albeit mostly in the U.S. They suggest that individuals’ egos are generally inflating over time, and that millennials are significantly more individualistic, assertive, and overconfident than previous generations were at the same age–phenomena that I’ve written about before for Fast Company, here and here.
With that being the case, though, generational differences are less important than you may think when it comes to the workplaces of the future. There are three main reasons why.
The essence of people remains the same, whatever their personality tendencies. Let’s zoom out a bit: If you take into account that we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and that the species we usually refer to as homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years or so, there are no reasons to expect major changes from one generation to the next. Thus the fundamental characteristics that drive human behavior are constant.
We all want to get along and get ahead, and we all need a system of meaning to understand and make sense of our surroundings. When it comes to the way those foundational needs shape motivation and behavior, millennials are identical to other generations. In order to move ahead with their careers, they’ll likewise need to build alliances and bond with others while being able to outperform their competitors. And like any other generation, millennials need to master their environments by making the world more predictable.
Even if group differences exist–and there’s reason to believe that they do–the most important level of analysis for understanding people is the individual one. Today, thanks to advances in data science and technology, we now have the ability to zoom into those granular features at a large scale to help us work out how and why people differ from each other.
This makes it pretty fruitless to fall back on group-level categories and characteristics, which are far more likely to both reflect and promote prejudiced and stereotyped views. To say that a given generation is so-and-so is no different from saying that a given gender, age group, or nationality is so-and-so–yet we usually understand the political (and actual) incorrectness of the latter much more easily.
What’s more, generational differences in particular are simply less clear, and probably weaker, than group differences in gender, age, and nationality. So even if average differences between generations do exist, they still aren’t big enough to eliminate the wide range of individual differences when it comes to any relevant career trait–from ambition and intelligence to talent and leadership potential.
Finally, there’s a simple practical reality: While it’s comparatively easy to predict demographic changes like population growth and decline, it’s hard to influence them. Estimates about the percentage of millennials expected to be at work in the U.S. in the next five to 10 years range between 50% to 75%, depending on the region. Yet we know with near certainty that a considerable proportion of these individuals will be managers and leaders over the same timeframe.
So while speculation about how their values and style may impact the organizations they lead are theoretically interesting, they’re almost entirely metaphysical. Sooner or later, young people will be in charge, and older people will retire and die. It’s the natural order of things, and there isn’t much we can do to prevent or mitigate it, even if we understood that dynamic better.
When you get down to it, a practical interest in millennials in the future of work is relevant primarily for those who have to work for them–generation Y–but not so much for those who currently manage them. More to the point, if you’re interested in predicting and understanding what people do at work, focus on the individual rather than the generation she belongs to.
Decoding and explaining what makes each person tick, regardless of their demographic category or group affiliation, is what we should really be focusing on.