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Whisper it to HR, but there is scant evidence that Millennials are any different from their grandparents

I was recently delivering a talk on Be Bulletproof, at a conference for the senior leaders of a large financial services firm. In the Q&A, the question of Millennials was raised a couple of times, and how these ideas of resilience apply to that generation.

I decided to issue a challenge… could somebody please point me towards any hard evidence that shows that values segment primarily along generational lines? I don’t mean a book – there are plenty of books – I mean one empirical, peer-reviewed, published study. I am still waiting…

The idea gets a popular grip because it puts people into boxes and gives them neat names. That appeals to people. It makes us feel like we have cracked some code. This universal impulse explains the reason why things like zodiac signs have been popular for millennia. It’s the Chinese, year of the sheep, by the way, so kids born this year are more likely to be into business… sound familiar?

Of course there are some generational variances, (e.g. Generation Y-ers will change job more frequently.) But these are broader, long-term, societal changes. They don’t fit into neat cut-off points.

This stuff also plays into another timeless human impulse… we all like to believe that our generation is somehow more interesting than those that have gone before. Baby boomers are fascinated by baby boomers and so it goes on.

It is true that there will tend to be changes in life-style norms between generations. But the primary drivers of these are changes in technology and the level of affluence. The basic machinery – cognitive, emotional and anatomical – is the same; which means that the basic motivations, values and personality types aren’t that different either. After all, we’re dealing with 150,000 years of evolution here.

It’s tempting to believe that the next generation will experience more turbulence and change than any before. Again this hypothesis falls apart under any sort of empirical scrutiny. Take a look at your grandparents if you want to see a generation who experienced true upheaval. Young people today live in a world of exceptional stability by comparison.

Ever since the ‘youthquake’ of the 1950s and 1960s, from which emerged the new concept of the teenager, there has been a tendency to view the next generation as a distinct and exotic species.

As David Bowie puts it:

Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race

The truth is rather more prosaic. But there is little commercial value in the proposition: Millennials – They’re just not that interesting. I can’t see your VP of Talent Acquisition rushing to that seminar.

If you want a really robust analysis of the segmentation by values at the heart of western society, try Jonathan Haidt’s brilliant book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Haidt puts forward a coherent thesis to explain human values, based on a vast data basis. As with much of Be Bulletproof, this thesis has its roots in the logic of evolutionary psychology.

Put simply, our minds have evolved certain emotional responses because those responses would have facilitated a behavior best suited to keeping our ancestors alive. Hence they are more likely to be inherited by subsequent generations.

Haidt argues convincingly that the value judgments we make are instinctive and intuitive. Having made them, we then seek to rationalize them. Our minds come with a pre-disposition towards certain attitudes. These attitudes are innate. In other words, they exist prior to experience. This influences the path in life that we subsequently chose, and our experiences then reinforce these attitudes. For example someone who has an innate wariness of people who are different, may chose a lifestyle that sticks closer to home, and therefore has less experience of people who are different. This in turn, reinforces the attitude.

This helps to explain why some people are more socially conservative and some are more socially liberal. Look at the ‘culture wars’ currently raging in American politics. There is some segmentation by generation, but it is simply not the primary one.

Likewise there is little evidence that personality or motivation tend to segment along the lines of the decade of one’s birth.

By the way, I spent a long time on Google trying to find empirical evidence of this segmentation by generation. I finally came across AIR, The American Institute for Research. I settled down to get my teeth into an article called. ‘Retaining Teacher Talent The View From Generation Y’ I was disappointed. Here’s a quote.

“Because members of Gen Y are accustomed to positive reinforcement, they desire constant feedback and want to be rewarded when they do things well. They prefer to “text” with their thumbs rather than with their pointer finger, and they do not see any career as a lifelong pursuit.”

Little empirical evidence to support these claims exists, yet considering how critical this generation is to the workforce in general and to the teaching profession in particular—Gen Y teachers currently make up more than 18 percent of the teaching force, doubling in proportion in just the last four years2—keen attention must be paid to Gen Y teachers’ needs and preferences

So, to paraphrase, ‘there’s no actual evidence for what we are saying, but darn it, these folks are important because there’s lots of them, so hey ho…’ Oh and they prefer to text with their thumbs… make a note of that.

The search for empirical evidence continues. I had a glimmer of hope when I came across a paper that seemed to be promising a segmentation by generation of ‘Schein’s Career Anchors’. It was by researchers from the University of Guelph, and it was called, Examining How Generation Ys’ Career Anchors Influence their Compensation Preferences. It is appallingly written, even by the standards of most academic papers. (And that’s saying something!) I’ll leave you with its two concluding paragraphs.

 

“Although our study was extensive as it examined twenty- four potential hypotheses, it may act as a stepping stone to eliminate the anchors within Generation Y that do not have any real statistical merit which can be taken into consideration with researchers in the future.
A major limitation to our study was the lack of variation between our dependent variables; this could be attributed to our respondents scoring each compensation preference high, regardless of career anchor.”

 
Again, to paraphrase, ‘we looked at a whole bunch of stuff to try and turn up something interesting… but nope. Sorry. Zilch. But hey, at least no one else will have to go through the fatuous exercise’.

 

Let’s not be seduced by faddish labels. The holy trinity of personality, values and motivation do not significantly segment along generational lines. If we are going to attract, develop and motivate the best, we need to speak to the perennial human universals.

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