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Millennials on a Mission

SIOP Members’ Research Finds Gen Y Employees More Motivated to Learn and Use Training Than Gen Xers

By Stephany Schings, Communications Manager
Millennials, individuals born after 1980, have often been aligned with characteristics such as laziness and entitlement, but SIOP member Emily David says her group’s research shows that Millennials also bring more positive characteristics to their workplace and that they appear to be more motivated to learn and apply their training than older generations.
David, a graduate student at the University of Houston, was consulting with a faculty advisor, SIOP member Christiane Spitzmueller, associate professor at the University of Houston, and another graduate student and SIOP member, Ari Malka, also of the University of Houston, at a large multinational oil and gas organization when they noticed several instances of older employees making comments about characteristics associated with members of the younger generation.
The Millennial generation, the cohort immediately following Generation X, is sometimes also referred to as Generation Y, Generation Me, and the Net Generation. Although some researchers have found no personality/work value differences between generations, others paint a picture of members of the Millennials that is consistent with common stereotypes—narcissistic workers with high self-esteem who place more importance on status and freedom and have unrealistically heightened expectations.
On the other hand, the popular press and existing empirical research also highlight both the inherent curiosity of Millennials and their constant exposure to new information. David and her group believed the tendency for members of this generation to be open to learning in every domain of their lives may predispose them to seek such opportunities at a greater level than previous generations.
“While we were working (at the oil company), some of the longtime employees were making offhanded comments about how the younger generation workers seemed to have different values and priorities,” David explained. “And certainly the popular press is abuzz with the message that Millennials are different from other generations, so we decided to conduct research to determine how different they really were.”
The group decided to examine the effects of five traits—motivation to learn, proactive personality, Conscientiousness, learning goal orientation, and performance goal orientation—to determine whether Millennial Generation employees differ from Generation X employees (those born between mid-1960s through 1980) in post-training motivation to transfer training content back to their jobs. Motivation to learn (MTL) is defined as the “desire to engage in training and development activities, to learn training content, and to embrace the training experience.”
The group conducted their research on the employees at the company in which they were consulting.
“We already had these people going through training in this organization, and by looking at that data we were able to see whether there really were personality differences and also whether there was a disparity in training motivations or not,” David explained.
In the study, they surveyed 290 employees of the oil and gas organization at the end of technical training courses. Approximately 73% of those surveyed were Millennials and 27% were members of Generation X. Millennials had an average age of 25.70 and average organizational tenure of 1.77 years. Members of Generation X had average age of 39.32 and an average organizational tenure of 7.38 years. Sixty-three members of the Millennial generation and 15 of Generation X were female.
Results of the study indicated that members of the Millennial generation had higher levels of motivation to learn, greater levels of proactive personality, and higher levels of conscientiousness than members of the previous generation. The results for performance and learning goal orientation, however, were less conclusive. Finally, results revealed that relative to Generation X employees, Millennials reported higher post training motivation to transfer what they learned during training back to their jobs.
“In general, the Millennials seemed much more motivated and were more oriented to take the materials they learned and apply those concepts at work,” David explained. “We think part of this is because people in the younger generations are exposed to constant information and more media than people of older generations. If you have an I-phone, you can look something up online immediately and even find a useful app to help with your problem or quell your curiosity.”
David said their research included another interesting finding about Millennials: Despite the characteristics commonly attributed to them, their levels of conscientiousness and organization had little to do with their motivation for learning.
“From other research we find that generally people who are detail oriented, proactive, organized, and highly conscientious are usually some of the best at applying training to their job,” David explained. “Interestingly, we found that this is not the case among Millennials. Regardless of how conscientious the Millennials were, all of them seemed to want to apply their training back to their job.”
There are limitations to the study. For example, it only examined a single multinational organization, and the breadth of outcomes studied was limited.
Further research in other organizations is needed, David urged, to identify whether these differences in predictors of training outcomes are supported or whether potential differences in hiring practices across decades at the organization where the data were collected may be responsible for the reported differences.
In addition, the researchers warn that one must use caution when interpreting these findings. For example, changes in personality or outlooks across the lifespan may also be responsible for the differences detected. Individuals may become more jaded as they age and lose some of their initiative and motivation to learn if such attempts went unrewarded in the past or if additional barriers to transfer once existed, David continued.
"On a more specific level, although motivation to learn and post-training motivation to transfer are important antecedents of actual training transfer, it is important to note that these are not the only precursors," Malka added. "Therefore, future research should explore generational differences in other variables--supervisor support levels, psychological climate, etc."
However, despite any limitations, Malka said the research is important right now.
"In our perspective, this research is well-timed as there is a transition in the workforce," he explained. "Many Baby Boomers are retiring while Millennials are being hired. As we heard in the organization where we collected our data, many employees foresee a problem in knowledge transfer as older employees are leaving at the same time as young employees are just beginning their careers. Thus, it is imperative for both formal and informal training to be maximized to avoid any knowledge loss. From this perspective, the results of our study are promising as Millennials are eager to learn new information and motivated to transfer what they have learned to the job."
David said the research has a number of implications for employers. Because Millennial generation employees may possess higher levels of motivation to learn and potentially higher levels of post-training motivation to transfer than Generation X employees, in training contexts they may need fewer extrinsic rewards, and potentially fewer training elements geared towards enhancing trainee motivation may be necessary.
“On the one hand, it’s pretty good news for companies because I think a lot of what the popular press would lead us to believe is that the younger generations are lazy or tend to feel entitled, but when it comes to training, the younger generations don’t really need any external motivation in order to apply their training to the job,” David explained.
Companies may be able to capitalize on this by designing training systems that emphasize self-directed learning and the need for the training participant to retrieve necessary information from sources other than the course instructor.
“On the flip side,” David added. “What this could also mean for organizations is that older generations may need more support mechanisms and reward policies in order to encourage them to learn and use new training on the job.”
Malka said he hopes this study spurs organizations to be more aware of these generational differences.
"I think studies like this are important as they challenge what most of us read in the popular press," he said. "Furthermore, our hope is that studies such as these raise organizational awareness around the differences in today's workforce. This attentiveness is critical to organizations creating policies and procedures that can be tailored toward specific subgroups."