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The Future of Work

The Problem With Generational Stereotypes At Work

Forget everything you've read: Research proves that millennials are no different from any other generation.

[Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images]

When Jessica Kriegel set out to write her doctoral dissertation on the unique attributes of the millennial generation, she discovered one major problem: There weren’t any.

"As I was reading all of the different books, research articles, and peer-reviewed studies on generational difference, I started to realize how much contradiction there is in the literature," says Kriegel, who earned a PhD in educational leadership with a specialization in human resources management from Drexel University in 2013. "I realized it's all kind of made up. There's not a lot of hard data that supports any of these assumptions. It's all anecdotal, case studies, research studies with 200 people that they apply to the broader population, and it's really damaging."

The results of Kriegel’s research appears in her recently published book, Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes. In it she explores how remarkably similar the generations are, and how damaging labels can be to both employers and employees.

"When we use language about millennials and gen Xers and baby boomers, it can be very off-putting, regardless of what you're saying, even if you're saying something complimentary," says Kriegel. "You may be putting them in a bucket they don’t want to be in."

For example, Kriegel is the organizational development consultant for Oracle Corporation, where many of her baby boomer colleagues are more technologically savvy than she is. In spite of being an "older millennial," she has never used Facebook.

"The way it’s most detrimental to managers is they will read all these articles, and they'll be saying, ‘This is what millennials are, this is what millennials want," she says. "They're creating a judgment about what their employee is going to be, and not getting to know the employee in front of them, because they think they've already got them figured."

In spite of the countless news stories, blog posts, and studies that suggest differences in the generations, Kriegel can point to other research documents, such as this one, this one and this one, all of which point to "exaggerations," "myths," and "perceived generational differences" as opposed to concrete distinctions.

"People are using the stats to sell whatever it is they're selling, and journalists are using the stats to tell a compelling story, whether one exists or not," she says. "It's way more interesting to say, 'We figured out millennials, they are X,' than it is to say, 'Well, we can't really label because that's stereotyping, and so in reality we're going to just continue to remain vague about what we know."

Busting The Millennial Hype

The word millennial has become such a hot topic in recent years that authors, journalists, and researchers are using it to draw more interest in their work.

"The millennial conversation, in a sense, is used by the media to get traffic," says Dan Schawbel, a partner and research director at executive development firm Future Workplace. Schawbel admits that editors have asked him to include the word in his writing in order to draw a wider readership. "You might not hire me to speak if I just want to talk about work flexibility, but you will hire me to talk about millennials, because I am a millennial, and it's a hot topic that people want to pay for, but I'll use that topic to talk about the bigger trends."

Schawbel adds that while this kind of generational stereotyping resonates with audiences, its explosion in popularity is ultimately polarizing, and creating conflicts in the workplace.

"I think there's a tendency right now to overglorify and overhype the millennial issue, and to try to paint millennials with one simple brush," says Josh Bersin, the principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte. As a human resources, management, and workplace trends consultant, Bersin admits that he often uses generational labels to help explain workplace trends.

A Product Of Your Time?

"As much as I don't like labelling people, I think the labels are really helpful in understanding why certain strategies don't affect everyone the same way," he says. "I think it gives us a language for making those decisions."

Through his research Bersin has found that people often adopt value systems from their parents and the environment in which they entered the workforce.

"If you grew up during the great depression, you're happy to have a job, you're happy to have any work, and you're happy to have a job that increases in earnings year after year," he says. "If you grew up during a time of social unrest and political topics like we have today about inequality and diversity and people moving from place to place and immigration, you're going to enter the workforce with those kinds of expectations."

Having heard this argument many times during the course of her research, however, Kriegel disagrees. When considering the generation that survived the Great Depression, for example, Kriegel says there’s one part of the story that often gets left out.

"I see in theory how that could be a really easy storyline that I would buy into," she says. "In reality, those same traditionalists who were young people during the Great Depression were adults when we were going through the 1950s post-World War II Keeping Up with the Joneses materialism bonanza."

Kriegel adds that the political unrest of today hardly compares with that of the civil rights and Vietnam War era. She adds that characteristics often attributed to millennials, such as a lack of employee loyalty, extreme technological savviness, aspirational career ambitions, social responsibility, etc., are, if ever, fair characterizations, merely attributes of various life stages.

"What really determines whether someone is frugal or if they want to save the world has to do with, Did your parents feed you? Did you have an aunt that spoiled you? Did you have books in your home? Did you go to a good school?" she says. "There are a million factors that go into determining the kind of person you are when you grow up, and this arbitrary 20-year-long age bracket that is widely accepted is not one of them."

Instead of making generalizations about people based on their age, or building workplace systems around the perceived needs of a particular generation, Kriegel has a much simpler solution.

"The sum total of all of my advice is this," she says. "You need to talk to each other and figure out what's going on in your organization, and not apply these broad brushstrokes of millennial nonsense to the people that you're dealing with in your world."