At best, answers to the “millennial question” have offered advice on how to effectively motivate and mentor a new generation of workers, and at worst have spread and reinforced sweeping generalizations.
The so-called “millennial question” has been addressed by popular psychology and business management gurus for over a decade, resulting in a robust archive of advice on how to deal with millennials in the workplace. The negative millennial stereotype goes something like this: narcissistic, impatient, distracted, demanding, social-media obsessed, selfie-taking “me, me, me” generation. At best, answers to the “millennial question” have offered advice on how to effectively motivate and mentor a new generation of workers, and at worst have spread and reinforced sweeping generalizations.
Analyzing millennial stereotypes reveals what our broader anxieties are over new trends and larger socioeconomic forces that threaten the stability of our already knowable past. Leadership guru Simon Sinek notes four key factors related to millennial sensibilities: failed parenting strategies, technology, impatience and environment. In Sinek’s 2016 viral talk, he stated that millennials’ unrealistic expectations and difficult-to-manage behavior was the fault of their helicopter parents, the influence of technology on their lack of social skills and lack of willingness to commit to a job. However, his advice on how to manage millennials focuses on how they need to change, adjust their expectations and develop the skills they lack, suggesting they need to learn patience, accept their place in workplace hierarchy, get off technology, talk to people, build trust and accept constructive feedback. His most concrete piece of advice is to ban mobile devices in meetings.
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Whenever I hear the famous millennial descriptors, I wonder: Who exactly are they talking about? Who are the millennial workers that they encounter? Are they a narrow subset of a generation or a representative sample? Are they from a wealthy, middle-class or low-income background? Are they male or female? Are they white or are they racially diverse? Which millennials have access to decent, entry-level white-collar jobs?
Reactions and Critiques
In response to the popular negative stereotype, writers and researchers (some millennials themselves) have critiqued generational theory as unhelpful and even harmful. Developing a specific set of defining characteristics for any generation is simplistic and can overshadow the individual assets and needs of workers. Generational theory can place blame on a specific group of people for workplace issues and challenges, rather than looking at the wider social, cultural and economic forces that impact how we all function and make sense of a rapidly changing world. Some researchers have claimed that a focus on identifying generational characteristics has produced a sort of generational “othering” where differences are constructed and essentialized. Kristen Hadeed, a millennial entrepreneur, claims that what managers face is a human problem—workers want to feel valued and respected.
A more sociological approach to understanding generational differences can help steer us away from blaming individuals (millennials or their parents) and look toward the social, economic and cultural forces that impact all of us. The parents of millennials (boomers and Gen Xers) experienced or were born into the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement and a booming economy. The American Dream of advanced capitalism hasn’t changed; we were all hoping we could be anything we wanted, that we were protected from injustice and that higher education and a decent, meaningful job should be available to everyone. Those ideals haven’t changed, but our expectation that they are possible might have.
Myths and Counterpoints: Impatience, Purpose and Impact
A common complaint about millennials in the workplace is that they are impatient—they want to have purpose and make an impact, but are unwilling to commit. The missing piece from this common argument is what exactly the impact is. How is it defined and by whom? Some generational theorists claim that millennials are more socially and environmentally conscious—and that the impact they are looking for relates to business ethics and positive change. In light of recent events regarding Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, the growing gap between rich and poor and lack of access to healthcare, perhaps positive, meaningful impact on the world is a goal that companies need to revisit.
Myths and Counterpoints: Employee Retention
Realistically, how many millennials flippantly leave secure, well-paying jobs? How many millennials have taken on unpaid internships and volunteer work in order to gain experience? Or worked three jobs at a time to get through school or make rent? How many have considered saving money for a down payment an achievable goal? Or feel committed to a job because they have a mortgage? In a recent survey, nearly half of millennials indicated that owning a home was a pipe dream.
Millennials aren’t kids anymore; they are mid-career professionals, parents and managers. The current global health crisis has placed us all in positions where we are hyper-dependent on technology and are physically and socially isolated. Workers and management have been forced into schedules that must be highly flexible and accommodating. These are situations in which generational theory claims millennials are comfortable. Perhaps pandemic working conditions have created an opportunity for companies to experiment by creating new ways to engage employees, reduce isolation and improve communication.
More recent research in human resources and employee relations suggests that companies should focus on their own localized work culture in order to identify and address generational gaps. A recent study discovered that millennial workers wanted more feedback, but that they wanted holistic feedback that includes performance and their role in the culture of the company. Another found that workers wanted more opportunities to train and learn new skills, specifically from their colleagues and peers. Researchers suggest that training opportunities could also be used to create a stronger company culture, with opportunities to socialize and build relationships and mutual trust. Torsello’s 2019 study proposed that a disconnect between the real and expected work culture may be a reason for lack of retention of millennial employees. How can companies ensure that theory and practice align and that the work culture they want to promote is experienced by workers on the ground?
Finally, management should be wary of essentialized generational theories and question their assumptions about workers based on their age to ensure they are not ‘othering’ their workers. Generational features and membership are not strict or exclusive categories—but they may provide guidelines and ideas on how to engage and seek out further information on what employees need to thrive.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.