No, Millennials Aren’t Weird Texting Aliens

Photo: Bentley University

Despite the continued prevalence of really silly trend-pieces about millennials, there are also researchers making honest attempts, some of them pretty rigorous, to understand how this generation is different from its predecessors. Bentley University has just released a new report called “The Millennial Mind Goes to Work: How Millennial Preferences Will Shape the Future of the Modern Workplace,” which does a good job not just explaining certain aspects of millennial behavior, but also putting them into the important broader societal context almost always missing from the discussion.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, but the study’s most “surprising” takeaway is that “51% of millennials say they would rather communicate with a colleague in person” than via email, IM, or other forms of communication. Throw in the 9 percent who say they’d prefer phone, and that’s six out of ten millennials who say they don’t prefer text-based communication at work. (We get annoyed at the constant emailing, too, older people.)

The report has some other interesting insights into millennials. Yes, here and there it slips into the old habit of treating millennials as some crazy new species rather than just another generation trying to get by. But for the most part, the study’s authors do a good job explaining the external forces giving rise to all these characteristics.

For instance, take the report’s explanation for its finding that “When choosing between two otherwise equal jobs, 96% say great healthcare benefits would be the most important factor in their decision”:

Susan Adams, a management professor at Bentley, points out that millennials grew up in tumultuous times. They were children during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the time of war that ensued and the Great Recession of 2008. “This is a group of survivors and they are looking for security in this insecure world wherever they can,” Adams says. “In this respect, having great health benefits is appealing to them.”

On the one hand, this comes across as a slight stretch — given that some millennials were 10 years old when 9/11 occurred, is this event really influencing their choices about health care? But on the other hand, the reference to the economic situation is exactly how you should try to understand a generation’s behavior. Millennials have come of age in a country where one of the largest causes of economic ruin is medical bankruptcy, so obviously, they’re going to react to that by finding health insurance very important.

There’s some similarly welcome logic in the report’s explanation for the fact that a solid majority of 68 percent of millennials expected to be in their current job for five years or fewer:

The employment landscape is much different from 20 or 30 years ago and loyalty has changed among employees and employers alike, says Susan Brennan, executive director of Bentley’s University Career Services and Corporate Relations. Since companies don’t offer the kind of incentives they once did and pensions are all but unheard of, the financial benefits of moving to a different company are greater today. So while millennials don’t intend to jump from job to job, changing companies often benefits their career in today’s marketplace.

A different, less rigorous explanation for this findings would make some sweeping statement about how millennials “lack loyalty” or “have a short attention span” or whatever. Instead, the authors actually took millennials seriously as a generation and asked about the labor and economic forces they face. This is the challenge, of course, when you have a young generation that also happens to be awash in gadgets that older people don’t understand: Even more so than with past generations, it’s hard to resist the temptation to scold and to caricature.

We have heard the assertion that ‘If there were smartphones at Woodstock, there would [have been] constant texting and selfies,’” said Gloria Larson, president of Bentley University, in an email. In other words, you can’t take the fact that a generation has more narcissism-displaying toys than ever before and assume that it’s a uniquely narcissistic generation. You really do have to look at broader issues. “Millennials were clearly impacted by key events like 9/11 and the 2008 recession, which framed their views and impacted their economic opportunities,” she said. “They were often exposed to family and friends being laid off as a result of cost-cutting. These experiences have helped form their views on loyalty — both their loyalty to an organization and the reciprocal loyalty of the organization to them as employees.”

It’s almost as though millennials, like literally every generation that has ever existed, look around at the world around them and make decisions and predictions based upon what they’re seeing.