Millennials: A Convenient Label Or A Dangerous Stereotype?

Mark Barlow


We are well used to hearing that Millennials have different expectations about the world of work. Employers, keen to secure the best young talent, are developing their workplaces and practices accordingly. A considerable number of studies have collated data which supports the concept that those born after the early 1980s are, in some ways, a breed apart. They are said to have different attitudes and aspirations than their older peers, to be more flexible and more mobile. And every one of this vast number of individuals is assumed to love and be fully conversant with the digital technology they grew up alongside.


The statistics collated may be sound, and employers should take note of them, but they represent a huge oversimplification. What’s worse, is that they have the potential to amplify a disconnect between Millennials and other employees.


Are Millennials all that different?


For Millennials to be fundamentally different in nature, they would have required something more than a revolution in digital technology. We would have had to have undergone a massive cultural shift too, and the rate of change in our societies – although rapid – is nowhere near what we’ve experienced over the last two decades in the digital arena. We still need the same basics: food, water and shelter. We still crave friendship, love and security. In the workplace, we’re still motivated by the same drivers: trust, recognition, reward, challenge, advancement and the ability to make a difference. And, at the risk of another huge oversimplification, everyone, from the Baby Boomers right through Generations X, Y and Z, wants to be happy in their work.


The characteristics that we share are bigger than the things that separate us. And this point is crucial because by focusing our attention on the Millennials and their needs, employers risk the alienation of a vast pool of talent. If half of the workforce is now Millennials, half the workforce isn’t.


Millennials aren’t immune to the passage of time


Yes, we’re moving – rapidly – to a situation where more and more of the working age population were born after 1980. By 2025, 75 percent of the US workforce that will fall into this category, but this is a continually evolving process – Millennials are ageing too. Should we really be promoting a culture where the longest serving, most experienced staff in our organisations are not supported and valued?


Already we have seen commentators breaking down the Millennials into different sub-sets, Older Millennials, Younger Millennials, Generation Z and every new decade continues the process. It won’t be long before Millennials are the equivalent of today’s Baby Boomers. At what age does the Older Millennial fall off the radar and become the ignored long-term employee usurped and surpassed by the rising young star who knows everything there is to know about the latest big thing?


We’re all tech savvy


These age-group categories have their uses, but they can be limiting because they reinforce the idea of fundamental differences between the generations. They have created stereotypes. The young are tech-savvy, hierarchy-hating job-hoppers, and the old are dogged, experienced, awkward and change-averse. In truth, the fundamental characteristics of the groups are largely similar and the differences much more nuanced. Where they do exist, it’s often a result not of today’s technology but of the reality of today’s global economy. The job-for-life has gone, so the Millennials’ oft-quoted mobility is a necessity not a sign of a fickle nature or the inability to knuckle down. Everything should be judged in context.


Today’s teens may be castigated by their parents for an inability to switch off their tech, but those same parents were unable to resist the pull of the Walkman, and their parents watched too much TV. Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga might have replaced the late 70s Space Invaders and penny slot machines of the 1800s, but every generation has experienced and adopted something new. To assume that the younger members of the workforce are the only ones with the capacity to move forward with the modern communications, systems and practices that 21st-century organisations need is yet another huge oversimplification.


Just think of the changes that have happened over the last century in the workplace.  Have the earlier generations refused to adopt punched cards, Xerox machines, fiche readers, Telex, word processors, PCs and facsimile machines? The world of work has always changed and will continue to do so. The pace of change has accelerated. That’s all.


Age and enthusiasm


Too often youth is seen in strictly age-related terms, but it shouldn’t be. Youth is as much an attitude of mind as it is a measure of years on the clock. We’ve all heard the expression “old before his time” spoken about someone who has lost interest in new experiences. We’ve probably worked with someone like that, but we’ve also heard “sixty is the new forty”. Longevity is increasing. People are retiring later, often through choice, not a necessity.


In July this year, David Perlman a science journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle, announced his plans to retire from the post he’s held for almost 70 years. David Perlman is 98. Talking about changes in science reporting over the years, Perlman highlighted his fears that the younger generation no longer has an appetite for critical thinking. If he’s right – and let’s hope he isn’t –  we’ve got a problem. If he’s wrong, he’s still a powerful example of the ability of the older employee to keep on contributing and challenging. And that’s the problem with trying to categorise people according to their age or the decade in which they born. Generally speaking, it’s okay, but at an individual level, it doesn’t work. And every one of us is an individual.


There’s room for everyone


Despite the complexities it might engender, the fact that we’re all individuals is good news. It’s because we’re individuals that we’re creative, that we can be flexible, that our skills and mindset will fit the needs of diverse businesses and other organisations.


Imagine, if you can, working within an organisation where every employee was the same age and gender. Where they all listened to the same music, watched the same movies, went to the same resorts at the same time each year. Everyone used the same software, ticked the same boxes, ate the same meal from the canteen, travelled on the same train to the office, had the exact same experiences to recount. At every meeting, everybody agreed on the next action. It might be efficient, but it would stall progress and be utterly, utterly grim.


We need diversity in our organisations and therefore we need to support the whole workforce, not just the up and coming. In today’s highly connected business environments, it’s natural that those most conversant with technology have made rapid progress. They may have been promoted – on merit rather than seniority – and this can be a major cause of negativity amongst the older workforce, acting as a reminder that they no longer offer the skills required in the digital age.


We need to work on this. We need to prevent the situation where those with experience and wisdom are excluded – or are excluding themselves – because they weren’t conveniently born in an age when classrooms have computers and every home has Wi-Fi.


Stop labelling, start learning


This challenge isn’t beyond us. We have the technology, as they say, and we know that it’s possible to tailor training in digital solutions to any level. If we take the time to understand the concerns of all employees, what exactly it is that is holding them back, what drives them, what scares them and what excites them, we can bring people together, get them out of their silos and benefit from real cross-generational collaboration.


The danger we face by putting people in boxes is that we build silos, not take them down. We need to drop this habit of labelling. Let’s lose the stereotypes. Baby Boomers aren’t change-averse, they’re the generation that started the change. Millennials aren’t idle, they just work in different ways.


Started the change. Work in different ways. You could say both of those things about any generation that’s been labelled in the last 250 years.


About the Author


Mark Barlow is CEO and Founder of AppLearn, an Emerald Sponsor at HR Tech World Amsterdam.


The post Millennials: A Convenient Label Or A Dangerous Stereotype? appeared first on HRN Blog.

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Published on Sep 18, 2017

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