This year, the oldest Millennials will turn 39. It’s easy to forget that so many members of this generation are closer to middle age than they are to youth because Millennial has become a catchword for ‘young person’.
But this lazy labelling is emblematic of a bigger problem. Generational differences are misunderstood and often exaggerated. Specifically, Millennials are treated as if they are a special class whose needs and interests diverge from everyone else’s.
Given the choice, would other age groups really reject these things? Studies have found no sweeping differences in values and preferences between generations.
Perhaps the issue is that marketers and recruiters are so wrapped up in the Millennial idea that they haven’t bothered to ask Baby Boomers or Generation Xers the same questions.
The workplace has become a hotbed for this kind of myth-making and organisations that buy into it all risk miscalculating what employees need and disenfranchising large segments of the workforce in the process.
The most common stereotypes about young people are that they are fragile, entitled and hard to please. Yet our own employee workplace experience data – which now comprises 700,000+ survey responses worldwide – suggests otherwise.
A comparison between different demographic groupings reveals that the youngest employees report the most satisfaction in their workplace.
It would be wrong to insist that no generational differences exist in the workplace whatsoever. But the ones that do are far more nuanced than Millennial-myth marketing lets on. Young people’s contentment at work, for example, could owe to the fact that they have less complex jobs.
Respondents under 25 mark an average of 8.9 activities (out of 21) as important to their roles in our survey, while the 45-54 age group selects 11.1 on average. Fewer activities means fewer needs, so workplaces may not have to work so hard for their younger cohort.
New workplaces – particularly in sectors such as finance, media and technology – tend to feature more variety in the types of space they offer.
This might include open areas, cafes and breakout zones for informal get-togethers, or meeting rooms, quiet areas and sound-proof pods for the kind of work that requires concentration or creative thinking.
Once again, conventional wisdom says that this trend is geared towards younger people who don’t want to be stuck at a desk and yearn to socialise or collaborate with colleagues. It certainly explains why ping-pong tables and beer fridges dominate the contemporary conception of what a workplace looks like.
Leesman’s research, however, suggests that activity-based working may be better suited to an older demographic.
Our latest study, which examined the impact that relocation and refurbishment projects have on employee experience, found that these new workplaces with more variety deliver the biggest improvements to the employees with more complex roles.
Naturally, people that perform a high number of activities at work will need a wider variety of spaces to do them in. Conversely, the employees that spend most of their day at a desk and in front of a PC will have very little use for multiple activity-based settings.
A 50-year-old leadership executive will need access to a meeting room with digital conferencing tools far more often than an administrative assistant or a graduate does.
So, companies are designing more variety and choice into their workplaces, but for whom? If the more mature employees are the ones who will benefit from this shift, we cannot with confidence keep repeating the claim that it is only Millennials that want these things from the workplace.
Ignore the hype
There have always been four generations at work, it’s just that now they have catchy names. Young people are important. They represent the future and will shape the organisations that employ them in the years to come.
But prioritising their needs means shaping the workplace round the smallest group in the workforce. Respondents under 25 make up a mere 4.8% of our index.
Organisations owe it to their employees not to buy into the hype. That employees aged 35-44 represent the biggest group and the least satisfied in their workplace only reinforces this point.
Rather than make decisions based on assumptions and caricatures, employers need to develop a better understanding of what people do in their jobs and how the workplace can support them regardless of age.