Millennial Stereotypes Often Rooted in Myth

A GW researcher put together a special issue on generations and age and found that a lot of what we think we know about millennials is not backed by research.

June 16, 2017

Generations research

GW researcher David Costanza recently put together a special issue of the journal “Work, Aging and Retirement” that examined generational differences and the effect of stereotypes in the workplace. (Photo credit: Ted Eytan)

By Kristen Mitchell

Whether it’s saying they’ll never buy houses because they eat too much avocado toast or they’ll never settle down with an employer because they’re too busy looking for the next job, George Washington University researcher David Costanza says many popular stereotypes about millennials are not backed up by research.

Dr. Costanza, an associate professor in the Department of Organizational Sciences and Communication, studies generations and the effects, or lack thereof, of these social groupings. He recently put together a special issue of the journal “Work, Aging and Retirement” called “Generations, Age, and the Space Between” complete with articles that examined generational differences and the effect of stereotypes in the workplace.

GW Today sat down with Dr. Costanza to discuss the special issue, its findings and the need for more research in this area.

Q: There are common stereotypes about millennials as being job hoppers, lazy and more narcissistic than previous generations. What does the research say?
A: The research on this is inconsistent at best. For example, on job hopping, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that for those aged 25-34, median job tenure in 2006 was 2.9 years and in 2016 it was 2.8 years—essentially unchanged. The data on narcissism, one of the hallmark characteristics of millennials, shows that while college students exhibited a small increase, two points on a 40-point scale, in the mid-2000s, by 2016, narcissism was pretty much exactly where it was in the 1980s. The pattern continues for numerous other stereotypical variables like work values or organizational commitment, with some studies showing differences and others showing none.  

Q: If the research doesn’t back up these stereotypes, why do managers and so many articles in the popular press perceive them as true?
A: For managers, they are certainly reading articles and books and hearing from consultants about the prevalence and impact of these stereotypes. Psychologists have demonstrated that people are more likely to pay attention to examples that fit the stereotypes they hold, so just a few narcissistic millennials could convince a manager that all of them are that way. As for the popular press, simple answer—such articles and headlines, true or not, generate clicks.

Q: How do these perceptions and stereotypes impact the workplace?
A: Like any stereotypes, managers use them to simplify things. They are shortcuts and as such quite welcome in busy workplaces. Just as with stereotypes about other groups such as women, minorities, or immigrants, stereotypes about millennials might lead a manager or organization to assume everyone from that group is the same and therefore that they all can be managed the same way. There are popular books with all sorts of tips and tricks for dealing with millennials based on common stereotypes. One is called “Managing the Millennials” but just imagine if there were books were titled “Managing the Women” or “Managing the Italians.” Would those be used by managers?

Q: Where similar stereotypes prevalent in the past when baby boomers or Gen Xers entered the workforce en masse?
A: Certainly. There are plenty of examples from management books, newspaper articles, and even popular culture about how kids are different these days. Want an example? See if you can guess when the song with these lyrics was written:

Kids, I don't know what's wrong with these kids today
Kids, who can understand anything they say?
Kids, they are disobedient, disrespectful oafs
Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy, loafers, kids! *

Sounds like millennials? Or Xers? Or maybe boomers?

Q: How do we close the gap between stereotypes about millennials and research-backed findings?
A: The first step is to continue to do solid, empirical research that addresses the stereotypes head on. Our recent special issue of Work, Aging and Retirement includes nine articles addressing this topic. Beyond the research, academics need to do a better job of communicating to practitioners about what is true, what is not, and the dangers of relying on stereotypes. I have given presentations to industry groups, done interviews with outlets hiring managers read, and am working on a book with the goal of translating what we know in a way that is useful to managers and organizations. Closing the science-practice gap is always a challenge but in the end, organizations and their employees will both benefit from management based on reality rather than stereotypes.

*Answer: 1960 (from “Bye Bye Birdie”)