This article is written to discuss “Millennials” in the workplace, the stereotypes surrounding them, how those stereotypes can be harmful, and how to move past them.
Millennials are perhaps one of the most hotly contested generations of our time. There are a variety of reasons why Millennials became the focal point for generational discourse in the mid-to-late 2010s, mostly due to social media, the proliferation of digital news, and, of course, their position as a younger generation.
Throughout history, some of the most pervasive stereotypes will surround younger generations, as older generations are established while younger are discovering self and purpose. This becomes even more complex as we go through a technological boom, meaning that younger generations are being introduced to rapidly changing new technology at a younger age. Many of the stereotypes surrounding dependence on technology are based in technology which came not from the minds of Millennials, but from Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. The stereotypes then, are focused on the growing dependence on technology of today, especially in the workforce, while 50 years ago, workers were dependent on the technology of their day.
Let’s take a look at the Millennial generation, who they are, and how they fit into the workforce.
Millennials (b. 1981-2000)
The 3rd generation in our quad-gen workforce are Millennials, essentially meaning those who reached maturity or near to it in the early new millennium. Purdue University cites Columbine, 9/11, and the omnipresence of the internet as key influences on Millennials,1 and their adulthood or near-adulthood during the Great Recession and subsequent years of economic disruption can also be noted as key influences. Though Purdue’s information is United States-centric, increasing globalisation and connectivity through the internet makes these American events highly influential, even in Canada.
What impact do these influences and historical experiences have on the Millennial generation? Purdue indicates that Millennials are motivated by responsibility, quality of their management, and the opportunity for unique work experiences more than anything. Despite being stereotyped as lazy, entitled, needy, and immature, Millennials were the single largest generation in the U.S. labor force as of 2016, making up more than a third of the workforce.2
Millennials, Snowflakes, Generation ‘Me’ – What does this do?
Over the years, social media and news media have given Millennials a variety of names, many of which have had negative connotations attached to them. Labels, initially designed to help the human brain categorize and understand the world around us, develop pejorative connotations. Perhaps you remember, in the mid-2010s, it was quite common to tune into news media or social media and see or hear about what industry Millennials were “killing” that week. Everything from napkins, diamonds, doorbells, calculators, alarm clocks and more were touted in media as victims of the murderous Millennials. Yet, often the “death” of these industries comes down to new technology replacing the old and cost-efficiency, which is understandable when considering a generation who has not had much time to become financially established.
If the name “Millennial” is attached to self-centredness and the “killing” of established industries in media, does the name not become a dirty word? The commentary surrounding Millennial stereotypes is merely an aggressive way to suggest that a younger generation may have different priorities, wants, and needs – all natural in the cycle and development of life.
Social Stereotypes and Mega Metastereotypes
As discussed in previous articles, studies have shown that ageism towards younger generations and older generations is prevalent, unrecognized, and often unchallenged, tending to be more intense than “middling” generations such as Gen X. The concept of the “me” generation as needy, coddled, technology snobs who are unprepared for organizational life is in direct contrast to studies which show that Millennials are actually uniquely set up for organized success because they will check in, look for feedback, and are able to use technology to make work-life balance happen.3
In addition to these stereotypes and their influence on communication and empathy, it is important to discuss metastereotypes, as younger generations have statistically been shown to experience more negative age metastereotypes than older generations.4 Studies have shown that Millennials are significantly more critical of their generation than older generations are of theirs, leading to 60% of Millennials not identifying themselves with their generational label. This is compared to only 42% of Gen Xers and a mere 21% of Baby Boomers not identifying with their generational label.5 As a younger generation, growing up with negative stereotypes surrounding them with greater presence through social media and news media, Millennials are more likely to have absorbed these negative stereotypes into meta-stereotypes, viewing themselves negatively and believing others view them negatively, creating a feedback loop of missed empathy and lessened self-worth.
The Million Dollar Question – How to Move Forward with Millennials?
Now that we understand the negative impact of Millennial stereotypes and metastereotypes, how can we contend with them, and how can we take this knowledge into the workplace? The most important thing to do is recognize what motivates younger generations and focus on individuality above generation. What motivates one individual may not motivate another. Some studies suggest that Millennials are just looking for a purpose, and that having a purpose and working towards a larger goal of something bigger than themselves is paramount in motivation.6 When connecting to Millennial workers in the workforce, try some of these awareness protocols:
- Avoid using labels, as we have seen “Millennial” can place younger generations in a defensive position
- Emphasize the value of knowledge exchange, not knowledge transfer
- Acknowledge and encourage multi-directional knowledge exchange, with older workers giving knowledge to younger and vice-versa
- Focus on teaching soft-skills that can’t be learned online, i.e. how to develop managerial skills, how to promote effective communication, how do you become a good business partner, etc.
- Acknowledge each individual as an individual, generational labels hinder far more than they help in the workplace
Millennials, depending on one’s position in the generational scale, have gotten a bad rap in a variety of ways. Younger generations, throughout history, have been viewed as too change-oriented, lazy, or unaware of the realities of the world – all of which can be explained through the stage of their life-experience they are in. Instead of focusing on the media-made picture of Millennials, focus in on the individual in front of you, to determine how to best relate to them. As we go through this series on generations, it becomes clear that the most important thing, more than knowing generational influences and stereotypes, is to recognize every individual as a person at a different stage in their life with different life experiences, and that the best way to understand them is to get to know them.
Join us for our 5th and final instalment in this series, where we discuss the latest member of the quad-gen workforce: Generation Z.
Download this resource Multigenerational Workplace: Part 4 – Millennials
1 ”Generational Differences in the Workplace [Infographic].” Purdue University. https://www.purdueglobal.edu/education-partnerships/generational-workforce-differences-infographic/
2 Fry, Richard. “Millennials are the Largest Generation in the U.S. Labor Force.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/
3 Florentine, Sharon. “5 Steps to Ending Generational Stereotypes.” CIO. https://www.cio.com/article/3196794/5-steps-to-ending-generational-stereotypes.html
4 Finklestein, Lisa M. et. al. “A Daily Diary Study of Responses to Age Meta-Stereotypes.” Oxford Academic. https://academic.oup.com/workar/article/6/1/28/5512660
5 “Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2015/09/03/most-millennials-resist-the-millennial-label/
6 Weikle, Brandie. “With 4 Generations in the Workplace, Employers Expected to Juggle Vastly Different Expectations.” CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/multi-generation-work-place-1.4980659