Are young adults really just the same as we were at their age?
You'll hear conflicting reports.
Here's my summary of the evidence. It's based on peer-reviewed research and credible international surveys of large numbers of millennials, Gen Y or Generation Me as one research team calls them. (Think of young people just entering the workforce, or who've been there a few years.)
Is it worth worrying about the differences between generations?
Yes, because there are some patterns and we need to take them into account as leaders. To know them is to begin to retain them and their skills.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first.
Millennials more narcissistic than Gen X or Baby Boomers at the same age
The researchers with the most compelling evidence compared responses to the same questionnaire from three generations. Their data was from 1.4 million people and, even more important, the participants all answered the questions when they were in their late teens. We can now answer that question, 'Are millennials really just the same as we were at their age?'
The researchers found significant differences between generations.
Millennials were much more narcissistic than Gen X or Baby Boomers were when they were the same age. The researchers report an epidemic of narcissism - not just narcissistic traits, but in the serious Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The researchers are not using 'epidemic' lightly. They report that narcissism is growing at least as fast as obesity - and the most recent results suggest three times as fast.
Why narcissism? Because parents of millennials had focused on self-esteem to the extent that they constantly praised children for being who they are, rather than what they had done.
The young people's self-focus gave them a much stronger sense of entitlement than the two previous generations. (Entitlement as in: 'What really matters is what your organisation can do for me.')
Gen Y were much more motivated by extrinsic rewards - so money, not the work itself.
The students were all American, but researchers are seeing similar patterns emerging in other countries.
A much more loveable view of millennials
A survey by the consulting firm Deloitte implies a more loveable, but still different millennial generation. The Deloitte survey tapped the thoughts of 7,800 graduates in 26 countries and was published in January 2014.
Deloitte reports that young graduates wanted to work for organisations that were innovative and made a positive contribution to society.
They wanted more opportunities to develop their skills.
So what's the consensus?
If you are looking for good vs bad, there isn't a consensus. If you are looking for differences between generations, you are probably safe to add up the ones I've listed.
Don't treat the the differences as incompatible. Self-centred people can favour innovative firms that offer training. They could also hold altruistic views about contributing to society, though the more narcissistic they are, the less likely it is that they will act on them.
The safest advice: Treat the differences between individuals as more useful than generalising about millions of people. Keep an open mind on individuals, but accept that, overall, the generations are significantly different.
Skillset's experience with millennials?
Anecdotal evidence is risky, but not worthless.
We work with large numbers of recent graduates and I find the atmosphere in training different.
Millennial participants are more restrained at the beginning, but once they are convinced that it's going to be useful and fun, it's all go. They are enthusiastic and have a great sense of humour. White hair counts for nothing - but they have me on in ways that build rapport, are genuinely funny and contribute to the workshop.
Our experience of millennials includes unconventional behaviour that would be easy to take the wrong way.
Example? I was leading a workshop on writing and, mid-session, a young woman pulled out her laptop to consult Facebook. She shared freshly-posted news with her colleagues with a three-second interruption, then put the computer away and was fully engaged from there on. I chose not to be upset by that. Maybe she needed to know. Perhaps they did too.
I asked a colleague what stood out for him about millennials: 'A lack of social skills and awkwardness'. That may be just because they are young, but I remember leaving a workshop to make a phone call in the lunch break while a dozen young graduates sat in silence reading their texts. Ten minutes later, they were still silent and focused on their cellphones.
It's easy to see faults in younger generations, but let's keep in mind what happened after a major earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011.
When the city was in its darkest hour, 13,000 millennial students organised themselves for a second time into their Student Army. They shovelled silt to clear roads and gardens. (Not an easy or pleasant job) They delivered meals to people who needed them. Some flew in from other cities at their own expense. There's nothing self-focused or narcissistic about that.