The attention span of Millennials; why we should challenge the research statistics; and meaningful engagement.
I just finished reading “Combating the Millennial Attention Span to Keep Your Team Engaged” from Entrepreneur Magazine. The article cites a study found “human attention span” to have dropped to 8 seconds making it “shorter than the attention span of a goldfish.”
8 seconds? Really? This sounded a little fishy.
According to this BBC article, this “eight second” stat has shown up in Time magazine, the Telegraph, the Guardian, USA Today, the New York Times or the National Post. A Harvard academic cited the figure on US radio, and it’s included in the management book Brief.
Sounds like we have a lot riding on the veracity of this statistic. We’re supposed to trust this stat because someone quoted Microsoft. And science. But wait eight seconds here: How did this statistic get measured in the first place?
This matters, because of the application of this data is the basis of conclusions about an entire generation. This led me on a journey to go deeper into these assumed “facts.”
What really matters here?
We all pay more attention to what we care about. Did Microsoft measure people’s attention spans when they are performing all their work duties? What about other things, like cooking? Driving? Learning how to swing dance? Studying for a test? Reading a book? Watching a movie? Carrying on a conversation? Playing a sport? Even brushing their teeth? No. It was a simple study connected to a relatively small population, focused on screen time engagement. BBC examined this statistic in 2017, and concluded that both the statistic and its application are questionable.
But don’t we already know this? Millennials or not, come on. We all know how to focus longer than twelve or eight seconds, or we would live in utter chaos. It took me longer than eight seconds to write this, and it’s going to take you longer than twelve seconds to read it.
Numbers can lie – when we misapply
Let’s assume that the study itself is solid. The application is as important as the findings themselves. If the study was focused on screen time, the findings can only be applied to screen time. What is universally true for a goldfish’s attention span is not universally true for the attention span of the human race. That is why the question “how did they measure?” matters. Since the study focused on how long people are willing to stay on a single screen when searching for information, that is the only way we can apply the findings. And applying it to general Millennial work engagement is not an appropriate application of the findings.
People are getting faster at skipping through all the hype and noise in marketing until they find something that is meaningful to them.
Xers like me have had to develop this skill, but Millennials have been doing this their whole lives. This can help explain how the average “attention span” continues to go down. With the increase of Millennial engagement with workplace screens, it is safer to assume that overall we may be getting more efficient at wading through meaningless noise, cutting to the chase and finding what we need. You mean Millennials are actually more efficient than the rest of us at getting to the punchline when engaging with cyber-media? Probably! They’ve practiced all their lives!
Millennials are as capable of passionate engagement in and ownership of their work as anyone else, and when given the chance are raising the bar of meaningful engagement. The problem is that we haven’t adapted the way we measure to the way that they engage. How many NON-MILLENNIAL employees have you observed who come to work on time and leave on time, and stay “busy” all day long, but never excel? How many NON-MILLENNIALS have you observed who know how to check off every traditional box of “doing their job” who never produce anything of high quality – never taken ownership or pride in their work? It is time to adapt.
New approaches to increase engagement
The secret of engagement is to be willing to “continuously recreate jobs so that each person has a chance to do what they do best,” according to employee engagement expert and Gallup researcher Jim Harter, PhD. For most workplaces, this just isn’t happening. And, as is consistent with their screen time tolerance for noise, they’re not going to stick around if they don’t experience meaningful engagement. Why does this need to be a flaw, instead of a challenge?
Millennials use new approaches to old problems, and rightfully ask new questions like: “If I have figured out how to do this entire job well in five hours – whether through technology, skill, or focus – why do I need to stay at this desk for eight hours? And if I do need to stay at this desk for eight hours even if I have finished all of my work and finished it well, why can’t I engage in other things?”
Time in a seat doing tasks for eight hours may check off the boxes we in the older generations are familiar and comfortable with, but has this been a responsible and effective way to measure true engagement? Someone fully and meaningfully engaged for four hours could outperform someone going through the motions for eight. And wanting to work meaningfully until the work is done instead of going through the motions for eight hours is not a character flaw. It’s a different approach. Using the same method to measure approaches to the needs of the workplace is no more responsible than calling the human attention span eight seconds long. How we measure matters, and what we do to each other with the findings matters.
We are so much more
Can we stop faulting Millennials for not engaging like previous generations and adapt to the way they engage with the world?
When we look at current statistics like these, for example, instead of taking them at face value to support our opinions about ANY generation, we need to figure out how many of the findings were measured fairly and are being applied responsibly. This is where “engagement” truly comes in. We are all so much more than the embodiment of our birth year. Let’s try to get to know and see the people we are working with – try to understand and value the way they contribute, and engage with them the way that makes sense TODAY. Let’s focus on meaning and finding relevant ways to measure bottom line outputs and responsible ways to apply our findings.
Millennials are no longer the young punks new on the scene. They know things. They have serious skills and impressive experience. They have passion and care about meaningful engagement. Millennials are taking over, and that truly has the potential to be a beautiful thing.
Let’s admit that their approach to work is disorienting for previous generations. But we cannot afford to let that translate into “the sky is falling.” When we look deeper, we can see that Millennials are engaged – but, they focus more on meaning than time. They are better at wading through cyber-noise than we are. They stay while doing meaningful things, and then leave to do more meaningful things.
We can look at the same numbers and interpret them as “no attention span,” or a “stronger filter.” Let’s just be careful that we’re using data in a way that is honest, fair, and respectful to every generation.