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Are millennials misunderstood when it comes to their attitudes towards work?

Millennials have often been negatively stereotyped for their work-related behaviours, including claims that they feel more entitled and job-hop more often than their older counterparts.

A study the author was involved in found no direct relationship between age and job-hopping, turnover intentions, job satisfaction, and finding a sense of meaning at work.

A study the author was involved in found no direct relationship between age and job-hopping, turnover intentions, job satisfaction, and finding a sense of meaning at work.

Millennials have often been negatively stereotyped for their work-related behaviour, including claims that they feel more entitled and job hop more often than their older counterparts.

Recent data published by American analytics and advisory firm Gallup galvanised such views further, showing that three times more millennials changed jobs in the past year.

Millennials also reported lower levels of work engagement.

However, such perceptions should be treated with caution.

RESEARCH LIMITATIONS

The most common weakness of research on millennials is failing to separate cohort effects from age effects.

That is, do millennials job hop more than the older generations when they were at similar ages?

In fact, Pew Research found that data looking at millennials in 2016 indicated slightly longer work tenure records than those by members of Gen X of the same age back in the year 2000.

Another common weakness is to split age up into categorical bins, like millennials and Gen X.

This practice often helps laypersons understand research better. Unfortunately, it is statistically problematic, and can create artificial and unreliable results.

Together with my thesis students, we have questioned this stereotype of millennials, and examined deeper reasons behind their level of work engagement and job-hopping intentions.

Across two samples totalling 256 working adults of various ages, we consistently found no direct relationship between age and job-hopping, turnover intentions, job satisfaction, and finding a sense of meaning at work.

Put differently, we found no evidence that millennials and other generations are different in their job attitudes.

All the participants used in our data had worked in Singapore for at least one year. The study was conducted between July 2019 and December 2020 via an online survey, which was done by invitation only to ensure valid data.

The survey contains a variety of well-validated psychological measures from previous high impact research.

It measured participants’ personality, perception of their current organisational culture, and various job attitudes such as turnover, engagement, satisfaction and meaning. 

In looking at job switch data, it is also important to consider whether people job hop to escape disliked work or to advance their careers.

If millennials are as entitled and disengaged as stereotyped, one might expect higher escape motives among younger workers.

However, we did not find any link between age and escape motive, nor any other influencing factors that would alter this conclusion.

AUTONOMY AND RELATEDNESS

We further examined the organisations’ autonomy and relatedness climate. To our surprise, these factors appear to matter more to the older generation, and may influence whether they job hop to advance their careers.

Put simply, autonomy climate reflects the employees’ perception that they have some flexibility in how and when they approach their tasks.

We did find that younger workers are comparatively more likely to seek better jobs when offered little autonomy at work.

However, the data suggests that it is actually older workers who are more willing to keep jobs with low autonomy, rather than younger millennials who are eager to leave for advancement.

Relatedness climate reflects whether employees feel genuine care and interpersonal connection at work.

Once again, when experiencing these bonds at work, it is the older workers who become less likely to find a new job for the sake of advancement.

Beyond job switching, experiencing autonomy and relatedness at work are also important factors that promote job satisfaction and meaning at work.

However, when autonomy and relatedness at work is compromised, the job attitudes of older workers take a harder hit.

Overall, the findings challenge the common negative stereotypes of millennials.

In fact, it may even seem that the older generations expect and react more to their organisation’s climate.

IT IS ABOUT THE FIT

Still, many managers may remain concerned about younger workers’ turnover rates.

It is important to recognise that turnover is not always bad. Sometimes, people get placed in poor-fitting jobs. In such cases, a quick turnover is actually a boon for both employees and employers.

There is no doubt that people may job hop for more attractive positions. In that regard, rising turnover rates also reflect both employees and employers’ increasing openness to explore options to increase person-job fit.

It also signals increasing competition for human capital in the job market. After all, people would not want to keep changing jobs for advancement if that strategy is ineffective.

Therefore, a nuanced look at the issue will examine whether turnover stems from poor-fitting employees, or are desired staff members attracted away by the competition.

In that vein, organisations can also look at ways to enhance organisational fit among their employees.

In our research, we found that a supportive climate nurtured by direct managers, rather than top management, significantly improved employees’ perception that the organisation’s values align with theirs.

In turn, such organisational fit enhances work engagement. This is particularly so in the financial services industry.

However, we believe it also applies to those who tend to operate and make independent decisions in small work teams.

We also examined employees’ mindsets and how they fit into the organisational culture.

The way people approach goals and tasks can be broadly summarised by two mindsets.

A promotion-focused mindset strives towards ideals and growth, accepting opportunistic risks. In contrast, a prevention-focused mindset avoids errors, preferring stability and security.

Again, we find that work engagement levels were similar across the age range. However, younger individuals were more likely to adopt a promotion-focused mindset, which in turn corresponded with higher work engagement levels.

In tandem, people were also more engaged when they perceived their organisation to have a promotion-focused culture — those that pursue ideals, visions, and take opportunities for innovation.

Overall, our findings suggest that focusing on generational differences is mistaken.

Instead, organisations should look at how to nurture their organisational culture, in particular a supportive climate that fosters relatedness and autonomy.

With the right fit, younger employees may even show higher levels of tenure and work engagement, hence reducing turnover and boost employee engagement.

During recruitment, organisations can also invest in realistic job previews, which are a variety of methods targeted at helping employees understand what the job entails on a day-to-day basis.

Realistic job previews do incur more upfront cost. They take time and manpower to design and administer. More applicants also reject jobs after a realistic job preview.

However, these costs usually pay off in the long run. Applicants who take up the job usually feel that they have made a desired and informed choice, leading to a sense of autonomy and commitment.

These employees are also usually better fit for the role, and are less likely to leave.

By dispelling negative stereotypes against millennials, organisations will begin to usher in a new and inclusive generation of human capital.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Brandon Koh is an industrial-organisational psychologist and lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). The research described here was conducted by Bridget Bay, Farrell Tham, Sue Lyanna, and Pearlyn Chong while pursuing an honours degree in human resource management at SUSS.

Related topics

work millennial job employee

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