Americans have become overly enamored with generational labels—such as “millennials,” “gen X,” and “baby boomers”—and their associated stereotypes. Used heavily by organizational leaders, marketing gurus, and self-proclaimed generational experts, these labels seem at first to conveniently simplify the complex diversity of the people around us.
But are the specific characteristics that each of these labels bring to mind accurate or even appropriate?
My research has shown that, in fact, they are false constructs of social fictions. We’ve replaced a real understanding of the individuals in any given generation with false assumptions about the generation as a whole.This can be particularly destructive in the workplace. And millennials have suffered more than others as a result of these labels: You must have casual dress in the workplace to attract millennial workers! You must let millennials work from home or they’ll leave!
Recommendations based on generational stereotypes—while they may have been intended to help foster understanding of generational differences—instead lead to unfair discrimination, with real economic and human consequences. The human consequences that these stereotypes lead to are misunderstandings between millennials and their managers—people perceiving each other differently than they really are. Economic consequences include millennials quitting because they feel misunderstood.
Managers can avoid this trap by rising above the labels and striving for true understanding. The following are five best practices for working effectively with your intergenerational colleagues.
There is a myriad of generational “truths” perpetuated in the media. Millennials are supposedly tech-savvy. Baby boomers are loyal to their employers. Gen Xers are cynical. Traditionalists are frugal. (I would be too if I were retired.)
Trends do not an individual make! Just because the baby boomer generation might statistically tend to stay at their jobs longer than millennials, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that does not mean your baby boomer employee is not a flight risk. Just because millennials are generally tech-savvy does not mean that the millennials you know are tech-savvy.
A personal example: I am a millennial who works in a high-tech company. On paper, it would be a fair assumption that I hold a certain level of technical prowess. But I work in HR, and having never used Facebook in my life, I am considered a technical pariah among my friends. Bottom line: Assume nothing.
Using generational labels puts you at risk of alienating colleagues, even if you are well-intentioned.
For example, Janice works for a med-tech startup and recently hired a millennial to the marketing department. In welcoming the new hire to the team, Janice proclaimed that as a millennial she could provide an innovative perspective on the work the team is doing. While she intended to compliment the new hire, she ended up offending a generation X marketing employee on the team who later complained. By saying that millennials are innovative, she implied that other generations were not. If she had simply removed the generational labels from the equation, it would not have been exclusionary.
Given the pervasive use of generational stereotypes, we might be forgiven for buying into the hype. However, overcoming stereotypes is not as simple as one might imagine. Subconsciously, we still might apply judgment to those around us without realizing our generational preconceptions.
For example, at a conference where I was speaking on the topic of generational stereotypes, a baby boomer from a state agency told me of a young colleague who always had headphones in at work. He described the colleague as a millennial who “always had to be connected outside work and didn’t know how to interact socially face-to-face.”
Instantly, another person in the audience (a millennial) stood up and shared a personal story. He said he grew up in the projects in a chaotic home. He has found that listening to classical music allows him to focus at work. He had headphones in his ears all day in an effort to do well. He said his motivation for using headphones had nothing to do with being connected or anti-social. Instantly the older worker realized he might be applying his own subconscious bias to his colleague, without truly understanding him.
When you realize how misguided generational stereotypes are, you begin to notice how much content there is out there on the subject. Because they perpetuate gross generalizations, headlines such as “How to Manage Millennials” and “What Millennials REALLY Want” are a waste of time. Ignore them. Refrain from clicking. Avoid sharing them. Resist the temptation to buy books that highlight generational differences, and to sign up for seminars that amplify generational stereotypes. The less interested we are collectively, the less motivated people will be to write about it.
Instead, talk to your colleagues and team members. If you want to know how to manage them, ask them! If you want to know what they really want, talk about it with them. Nothing can substitute for asking questions when trying to understand the people in your life.
If you’re still not convinced, think about this: What these self-proclaimed generational “experts” often forget to mention is that generational stereotypes are based on a middle-income, white, American-born demographic. The common stereotype that millennials are entitled trophy kids comes, in part, from the popular practice of handing out participation trophies in little league sports in the 1980s and 1990s. As children were praised for simply showing up, their entitled expectations grew.
However, America is a melting pot of cultures, socioeconomic classes, and nationalities. Children from lower-income areas might not have had access to competitive sports. Additionally, consider that over 16% of the workforce in America is foreign-born. Do they give participation trophies in India? Perhaps not so much.
Other than cultural diversity, there is a diversity of age within each generation. The definitions of each generation can span up to 20 years, rendering the labels even more useless. While some baby boomers are well into retirement, others are raising young adolescents. While some millennials are still in high school, others are over a decade into their careers.
The labels are too simplistic to describe any one individual with accuracy. Working effectively with intergenerational colleagues means giving each individual—not his or her label—due respect.
This article originally appeared on Monster and is reprinted with permission.