Millen-nials and Curiosity

Millen-nials and Curiosity

Stress and Uncertainty: Key Barriers to Millennial Curiosity

A growing body of research outlines that Millennials, the generation born after 1981, are risk averse when making financial decisions. They are more likely to save money than invest it, which can have adverse impacts on their financial future. 

However, is risk aversion impacting other aspects of Millennials’ lives on a global level? For example, Millennials have been found to be the most stressed generation  and have high anxiety. In addition, a study of Millennials across the globe found that they feel their career drive is intimidating to older generations. 

Our State of Curiosity Report, which measures workplace curiosity in China, Germany, and the United States, examines workplace curiosity along four dimensions, inquisitiveness, creativity in problem solving, openness to other ideas, and distress tolerance. This research found that Millennials have lower distress tolerance in the workplace compared to other generations. Distress tolerance allows a person to take risks, to persevere, and to approach the new and unfamiliar without fear. While Millennials are the most inquisitive, creative, and open to new ideas, they are also the least distress tolerant. 

What if low distress tolerance is impacting Millennial careers? For example, worried about what others may think, an employee may choose to not speak up and share an idea. In decision making, an employee may choose to implement what they perceive to be a less risky opportunity when something seemingly bolder could create greater positive change.

According to Jennifer Deal, Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL©) in San Diego, California, life stage could be playing a larger role than generation.

“Generation doesn’t typically matter very much for many aspects of work. What really matters is life stage, and I would guess that especially when you’re talking about something like curiosity and creativity in the workplace, career stage would also matter. We don’t see many differences that are actually a function of generation. What we see are differences that are a function of life stage, or career stage, or level in the organization.”

Caroline Beaton, a workplace psychology journalist who focuses on Millennials, points to a new life stage called emerging adulthood. She feels that having a plethora of choices has disabled decision-making among young adults. “I believe that our generation has produced this life stage out of a surplus of options.” Beaton adds:

“There’s a misconception that Millennials are just an entirely different breed or species. And that’s just not the case at all. We’re human, and like any human we’re formed by our circumstances…our brains haven’t changed in millennia, but what has changed is our outside circumstances. Previous generations, they sort of struggled in their twenties with a deficit of options and opportunity. Millennials are characterized by this surplus of options. We have so many choices, millions and millions because suddenly our definition of success is completely different from other generations.”

Breaking down age into 5-year increments highlights that something is happening in the space of emerging adulthood. Young adults ages 22 to 26 score the lowest distress tolerance and some of the highest openness to other ideas. These findings support the idea that this age group feels a plethora of options that could be making it difficult for them to express curiosity in the workplace. 

Five years later and young adults have a distress tolerance of 52.4 compared to 48.2 among 22 to 26-year-olds. Creativity in problem solving and inquisitiveness also rise. All scores fluctuate through each five-year increment, but comparing 22 to 26-year-olds with 27 to 31-year-olds highlights big changes.

Jennifer Mueller, Associate Professor of Management at the University of San Diego, studies bias against creative ideas. She has found that people think they like creativity, but they dislike uncertainty. This dichotomy creates a tension that disincentives creativity.

“Research shows that Millennials can generate ideas with high levels of originality, but are less interested in elaborating on them or generating a lot of them. The question is why. Could the mindset instilled in classrooms with rubrics and multiple choice test create an intolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty—making students want to pursue the ‘best’ answers teachers will accept, not creative answers that are unknown. So there’s a winding panic that when you generate a new idea, people are more likely to hate it than love it. People don’t realize they hate creativity, because they hate uncertainty, they hate not knowing.”

Ultimately, there is an opportunity to help younger Millennials, 22 to 26-year-olds, narrow their choices. Helping young adults enter fulfilling careers early will mediate their stress and activate their workplace curiosity sooner, thus having a greater impact on innovation throughout their work life. Increasing overall workplace distress tolerance becomes the next goal where all employees can benefit and creating safe spaces for uncertainty will help employees activate creativity, curiosity, and innovation.

This piqued my curiosity!