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Making sense of millennials

How often do you hear the word “millennials” in your office? My guess is, you are – and will be hearing it more often.

Why? Because I’m hearing it more.

In my role, I see every nearly every question client companies have early in their location decision. These tend to be big picture requests, such as workforce costs, regional transportations assets, and an increasing number of vague requests for information about “young professional/millennial cool-ness.”

These businesses are trying to grapple with millennials – a group that can be categorized as workers who want flexibility and recognition. We’re told they live at home and won’t stay in a job long.

And as a proud millennial, I have a bone to pick with that.


What’s a millennial?

The term is thrown around frequently, so let’s define who we’re talking about. The Pew Research Center’s widely accepted definition includes Americans born between about 1980 and 1995, which means they are about 20 to 35 years old right now. Different sources have different definitions of each generation, but the goal is to capture wide swaths of a population with similar cultural experiences that impact upbringing. 

The danger of assumptions

So what’s my beef with all this talk about millennials? I have a problem with broad generalizations. While some – such as carrying student loan debt – are true for much of the generation, not everyone falls into the category.

Something else that’s true about millennials compared to other generations? The differences between a millennial, a boomer and really any other generation is purely cultural. Just as millennials have Power Rangers and N’Sync, Generation X has MTV and the Breakfast Club, and boomers have the Beetles and Gilligan’s Island. Remember, generational divides happen more along cultural relevance than a certain number of years.

What does this mean for you?

When it comes to the attributes impacting work, millennials are shockingly ordinary. A study by the IBM Institute for Business Value found the three generations in the current workforce have similar career goals. This same study showed workers across generations tend to leave jobs for similar reasons.

And speaking of workers leaving – I always hear millennials won’t still around long, and that’s true. But this has been true for past generations’ YPs. In fact, today’s young professionals stay in their roles longer than the YPs of yore. Take a look:


Median tenure in 1983

Median tenure in 2014

All workers older than 25


5.0 years


5.5 years

Workers 25-34

3 years

3 years

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS

When you are talking about changes in the workplace, be sure you are not making a comparison in a vacuum. Current baby boomers stay with employers for a significantly longer period of time (10+ years in 2014), but they didn’t when they were the same age as the current millennials. Same is true of many other generations.

Be cognizant of which workplace differences are generational (my constant use of earbuds) versus what is stage-of-life oriented (me enjoying frequent work travel).