Millennials. The very mention of the word can be enough to strike fear into the heart of the most seasoned manager. Entitled. Narcissistic. Unwilling to work hard. Expecting their opinions to be valued above others. What Time magazine called “The Me Me Me Generation.”
How do you manage someone (or worse still, a team of someones) with those characteristics? And it’s not like you can avoid them—they’re everywhere! Current estimates put the number of millennials at about 80 million in the U.S. alone. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates they’ll make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2030. No wonder the millennial generation is so high on the list when it comes to discussing performance management and motivation in the workplace.
Oh, for the good old days when people were willing to work hard, didn’t put themselves first, and we all pulled together for the greater good of the organization. If you’re heading down this line of thought, you’re not far from reminiscing about how you used to walk to school every day, barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways—and suddenly you’re living the Four Yorkshiremen sketch by Monty Python.
Although that little foray down memory lane actually does have some bearing on working with millennials, let’s stay here in the present and give ourselves some context in order to tackle the issue. And the first question is, where did they come from?
The term “millennial” was first coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1987, and then written about in great detail in their book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. Interestingly, around the same time, Ad Age magazine tried to popularize the term “Generation Y,” but eventually conceded, “millennial” sounded way cooler.
Whatever you call it, the idea was to put a name to the generation that would be “coming of age” around the turn of the millennium. We now use it to refer to people born sometime between the early 1980s, and just after the year 2000, with our main focus being on those individuals who are old enough to be part of today’s workforce. And this grouping, it turns out, is a problem. They don’t fit with our expected norms, they don’t value the same things we do, and they won’t smarten up and do things the right way. Our way.
But hang on a minute: One generation lamenting the various elements lacking in the next generation? That’s never happened before. Well, except for, like, the last 2,000 generations. It’s not just standard practice, it appears to be the way of us humans to find fault with the generation that comes after our own. And also for that “after” generation to discover that the previous one really is not as cool as they thought when they were six years old.
The problem is not new. Fifty years ago we talked in terms of the “generation gap” (or the modern term of “institutional age segregation”—clearly no marketing folks involved in coming up with that one), but gradually we’ve moved on to defining broad characteristics for generations, and pigeonholing all of the members of that demographic under that term, as if each individual embodies the characteristics of his or her cohort. Baby boomer. Generation X. Depression Era. Generation Z. And, yes, our current challenge: millennials.
But here’s the problem with broad characterizations and generalizations (also known as stereotyping): It is wrong a lot of the time when applied to individuals. Very few people exhibit all of the characteristics of a given stereotype. We know and recognize that this happens, and go out of our way to reject this way of thinking, most noticeably when the stereotype is based on gender or race or ethnicity; many countries have laws banning this type of stereotyping. And yet at the same time, we devote significant intellect and discussion to doing exactly the same thing based on the year in which an individual was born.
In order to address what we perceive as the challenge in working with millennials, we have to take a step back and take a broader look at our world. If we agree that stereotyping is not a useful management tool when it is based on gender or ethnicity, why would we to use it for groupings of people with the same birth years?
The answer (I believe) is two fold:
- We’re looking for whatever help we can get to better manage people, and this is an honest and ongoing quest to do things better.
- The thing about stereotypes is that they contain elements of what appears to be “truth.” If we have a friend (let’s call him Barney) and Barney is tall and likes to wear pink shirts, and then later we hear someone say that it is very common for tall men to like to wear pink shirts, it’s easy to latch on to this “truth” as a way of helping us understand the fashion preferences of tall men. We don’t always step back to contemplate. The reality that this may have no broad application to tall men is lost in the immediate appearance of a tool that appears to be able to help us in the here and now.
We’re not helped by the fact that stereotyping of this nature is considered not just socially acceptable, but is encouraged. The title of this article leads with a stereotype. Unfortunately, stereotyping with generations comes with exactly the same problems that it has in any situation.
Check back for part two of this article next week, when we will continue discussing millennials in the workplace.