Is “Conventional Wisdom” Wrong About Millennials?

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. We find our comfort zones and are wont to stay there.

One of the elements of any comfort zone is our reliance, to some degree, on the concept of “conventional wisdom,” sets of tried-and-true beliefs and aphorisms that help guide the way we make decisions and manage risks. One example is the saying that working hard is the path to success. It may not always be true, of course, but it certainly makes success more likely, and so is useful. Another is that education leads to a higher standard of living, an equally useful tidbit, as are many others.

Such conventional wisdom often serves us well, but not always.

Sometimes conventional wisdom can be annoyingly, devastatingly wrong. One has only to remember that there was a time when the conventional wisdom had most people believing that the earth was flat. As Mark from marksdailyapple.com writes, conventional wisdom can be “a lumbering beast: slow to move, but difficult to alter course once its big bullish head is set on moving in a certain direction. It’s the pigheaded, stubborn curmudgeon yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn.” And often that’s true.

Why all this preface? It’s because we came across an article recently that challenges a very specific conventional wisdom—this one about millennials.

We’ve all gotten quite comfortable with the generational nomenclature by now. We recognize our GenXers and our Boomers and our Millennials. Theories have been written about generational differences, and we’ve incorporated a lot of that thinking into the way we hire, develop, and lead. In many ways we’ve internalized “conventional wisdom” about these generational classifications.

Now, a new study is asking that we take a hard look at what we think we know.

The study, conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value (and reported in this month’s HR Magazine) reports that Millennials are much more like the rest of us than conventional wisdom suggests:

  • Millennials’ career goals are nearly the same as those reported by GenXers and Boomers, focusing on financial security and seniority to the same degrees as these other categories.
  • Millennials do not live in a world where “everyone gets a trophy,” nor do they expect it. What they want is transparency and a chance to be heard.
  • Millennials are much more interested in face-to-face interactions than supposed; though they are more versatile in virtual situations than older workers, they don’t always prefer it.

There are a few other example in the article as well, but the point is less about the specifics and more about this point: As leaders and HR experts, we must challenge our pre-conceived notions, challenge the “conventional wisdom” in order to create the best environment for our employees. This study brings home the importance of that message. All is not always as it seems.

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