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By the year 2020 five separate generations will occupy the workplace: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen 2020. In just five years, the newest person hired at a company could be working right next to her great grandfather. This half-century age gap is unprecedented. And with Millennials now the biggest proportion of our workforce, companies worry how they’ll make do with a generation that’s so self-pessimistic: According to a Pew Research Center survey, Millennials—more than all other generations—declared that traits like “responsible,” “hard-working,” “willing to sacrifice,” and “self-reliant,” did not describe them well.

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But in their new book,  “What Millennials Want From Work,” organizational behavior researchers Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson come to different conclusions about what makes a Millennial. By surveying and interviewing more than 50,000 workers in 22 countries, the University of Southern California researchers found that, contrary to Pew, Millennials aren’t doing themselves justice. At least when it comes to work, they’re more like people from previous generations than they think.

Nautilus spoke with Levenson, himself a Gen-X-er, about how our generations shape us, both economically and technologically, and about why that matters in the workplace.

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Does it help to identify different generations of people at work?

It’s not really meaningful, but people can’t help themselves. When you’re working with somebody, it’s one of the first things you notice. Every generation that enters the workplace has lots of stereotypes about how they’re radically different than the people who are already there. They confuse life stage differences and generational differences. They’ll look at the fairly predictable changes that happen over someone’s life—when you’re starting off, you’re not very attached and don’t have a spouse, a child, a mortgage—and they will often say, ‘Oh this generation is so much different.’ That often is not true, and it’s one of the lessons we keep on having to relearn.

What are the principal factors that identify or drive a generation?

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Every new generation is much better at using the new technology than previous ones. You can almost define them based on what the current technology was when they came of age. For Gen X, it was the Internet and cellphones (but we didn’t do a lot of texting, because they didn’t have texting back then). You can’t even say that Gen X is less reliant on technology for communication than the Millennials are. The huge difference is what they choose to do. Gen X is much more likely to use email, whereas Millennials are much more likely to use texting if they’re reaching out to communicate with their friends. People tend to adapt to whatever the norms are. Millennials tend to be more impatient with organizations not adapting to all the new technologies as quickly as they might like. Part of that is personal preference, part of it familiarity with a new technology—they’re in a better position to be able to see how it can benefit everybody at work.

Do people have misconceptions about Millennials?

There are a number of stereotypes. One is that they are very needy, that they need a lot more feedback than previous generations. There’s this talk about them being the helicopter parent generation: Parents are always looking over their shoulders and trying to help make sure that everything’s going fine for them. And there’s this perception that the Millennials themselves want that.

But the reality is that Millennials want to have reliable, good, accurate, and consistent feedback. You can say that is being needy, but lots of other people would like to have good feedback as well.

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Millennials are more used to communicating electronically, and there’s a perception that people should be communicating with them this way. It turns out that’s not the case—in fact, when it comes to critical feedback around careers, everyone wants that type of feedback in person. Millennials are no exception. What they want isn’t really any different than what the older generations have wanted: work satisfaction, being able to learn, having the opportunity to grow, to develop, to advance, and to do work that’s interesting and able to support whatever family you have.

Are Millennials getting less out of their more expensive college degrees?

We can compare Baby Boom, to Gen X, to the Millennials: With each subsequent generation, what you get out of having a college education has become less and less secure. Among the Baby Boomers who got a four year college degree—that was pretty much a ticket to the middle class. It almost didn’t matter what you majored in; you would end up doing well in the job market. Now it’s become more of a commodity, so it’s hard to differentiate yourself. The world has changed pretty dramatically in terms of the kinds of competition that’s out there for people who have college degrees.

It is still true today that the people who get hurt the most by a recession are the ones who do not have a college degree. So a college degree is still helpful for getting someone a ticket to middle class—but where it used to be a sure thing, it now has become only a probable thing. As a society, we actually have not yet come around to the very sobering fact that getting a college degree, no matter the cost, is not necessarily worth it.

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Is it possible for Millennials to have careers in the way that previous generations did?

It’s not clear that that kind of idealized notion of what it meant to have a career was ever what the vast majority of people experienced. But it certainly was an expectation that many people had. The Millennials are really the first generation that have entered the labor market with zero—and I mean zero—illusions about what they can expect. I mean, the Baby Boomers actually had the expectation they could spend their careers working for one company. My generation, Gen X, had much of that expectation broken by the experiences starting with the recessions in the 70’s and 80’s.

Nobody has any more illusion that a company is going to do anything but look out for its best interest, and that its best interest can change on a dime. It’s that orientation, that way of thinking about work and about careers, that really distinguishes Millennials from previous generations. Their economic environment growing up, the kind of financial challenges they have in terms of student debt and the cost of housing, and ways in which the labor market has changed, can all have very important current and lasting effects.

Why do Millennials have the reputation of living at home too long?

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In the US, there had been a long-term trend toward people striking out on their own, leaving their households earlier and earlier. But that’s really reversed. People who get a college degree are moving back home at much greater rates than we’ve seen in decades. Housing is very expensive, so it’s risky for people to go out there and try to set up a house—particularly if their income isn’t secure. In addition the job market has become a lot more difficult to navigate. Regardless of what occupation you’ve chosen, and where you are in terms of your career prospects and the kind of education you have, we have a lot more winners and losers. 

JoAnna Klein is an editorial intern at Nautilus.

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