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Disregard Notions of Millennials: It's Time to Stop Generalising Generations in the Workforce

Posted by: sarah-hardy

HR Management

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am a Millennial. My views may or may not be representative of those of my peer group. Now we’ve got that out of the way, I would like to discuss the incredibly problematic generalisation of generations in the workplace.

People love to lump other people into easily definable groups; particularly in the working world. As humans are so utterly complex, it is perhaps comforting to think that we can manage large groups in the same way, rather than take on the seemingly mammoth task of tuning into individuals, each with their own behavioural characteristics and needs.

This is where the problems begin: Once we start to assume certain attributes according to factors such as age, we risk completely misjudging and ultimately alienating members of the workforce.

The focus is on Millennials for this discussion because there is currently a stream of articles either celebrating them for their fresh ways of thinking or (more usually) pointing the finger at them for not understanding ‘the real world’. This stream is flowing freely, showing no signs of stopping or attempting some self-critique.

If we are to believe all of the articles that boldly claim to give the full low-down on this ‘hard-to-manage’ generation we would be believing a lot of contradictions.

A recent study claims that Millennials are currently the most demanding workforce, according to UK bosses. Digging down a little further, this appears to be due to the fact that once in the workplace, they require a lot of support and ask a lot of questions. Could the same not be said of previous generations, when they entered the workforce bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Or did they all know exactly what to do from day one?

The study also states that managers need to learn what makes each generation tick, in order to motivate them. How about finding out what makes each individual in your workforce tick? Can you imagine how much more effective that would be?

Focus on the individual not the entire generation

Of course, I am aware that a varying economic climate, coupled with the advance of technology means that different generations have been exposed to vastly differing life experiences. That is undisputable. What I am saying, and humour me here as I’m not a psychologist (but then, neither are half of those claiming to know the minds of Millennials), is that these experiences will not have the same effect on every single person in a generation. When it comes down to characteristics, behaviours and motivational needs, everyone is different.

Two years ago, I read an article that explained that every generation faces conflict with the two or three that precede it. There has always been a generation gap, except now there is a much broader platform from which to launch a thousand opinions into the minds of the public. The very same media outlets that are supposedly addling the minds of these tech-addicted, forsaken young adults are the ones that are being used to spread the word about how difficult they are! A quick scroll through Twitter for anyone born between 1980 and 2000 can be very demoralising.

The same article pointed out that every generation has its share of hard workers and slackers, extroverts and introverts, visionaries and the uninspired, and everything in between. This is about personality and individuality. It’s about being human.

Some misconceptions about Millenials

To illustrate a couple of issues, here are a few of the ‘facts’ about all people born between 1980 and 2000 (or 1984-2004 depending on who you ask) that I have read thus far:

Millennials are fickle, and have a new job every 5 seconds.

‘In my day, you worked for one firm for life and that was it!’

Well, not everyone did that, but let’s assume it is true for a moment. The economic climate was vastly different. There was more loyalty from employers, pensions were almost guaranteed to pay out (rewarding loyalty), technology was nowhere near as advanced, and there simply weren’t as many options.

Now, plenty of people switch jobs in their fifties. There are also plenty of younger folks working their way up through one firm with a view to being there for many years.

Millennials are over-confident and self-entitled.

Speaking from personal experience, these are traits that could readily be associated with more than one person, from more than one generation, in any given workplace. Others feel this way too. Liz Ryan’s article on Forbes points out that each generation has accused another one of being entitled, and that it is really nothing to do with age. So, why are we so keen to perpetuate this notion?

Millennials require more flexibility and better work-life balance.

Now, I am an advocate for having the time to do what you really want to do in life, so perhaps this one is true. However, with some reports claiming that Gen Xers require more work-life balance than any other generation, and others claiming that Millennials do, I am confused as to which is the truth. I can only conclude that it’s probably just down to less-than-accurate survey methods.

It could simply be that in today’s working world, flexibility is more viable and companies are only just waking up to the possibility, offering the newcomers to the workforce more opportunity to take advantage of it. Still, some people prioritise job security, some prefer job flexibility. Again, this could just be down to personal preference relating to the needs of individuals.

Now for my personal favourite:

Millennials put too much trust in the wrong people.

According to this study, Millennials put most of their trust in politicians, estate agents, business owners, and people in suits. They are less likely than other generations to trust ‘ordinary people’… Does this not seem highly unlikely to anyone else, especially given the raging torrents of information claiming that Millennials are free spirits who won’t conform and don’t even like to wear suits, let alone put their trust them? This coupled with the view that they are redefining the word ‘leader’. They are said to offer their respect and trust to those who earn it, rather than those who are in positions of power, hints that this may not be accurate.

I won’t be delving into political opinion here, but I can say with conviction that politicians do not top the ‘most trusted’ lists of anyone of my age (or any age, for that matter) that I know.

It’s all very confusing.

How to manage diverse teams

So what’s a company to do if we can’t manage large groups of people in the same way? It could be quite terrifying to acknowledge that there are billions of people in work, and not one fool proof management method for all of them. Rather than being daunted, let’s look at a couple of options.

If you want to go down the Tech-Savvy route that a lot of companies and HR professionals have been following for years now, you have a huge range of behavioral assessments and people management systems on the market. These can help you really pin down the behavioural drives and motivational needs of each individual in your workforce. If you are a fan of quantifiable data, this route is probably for you.

If you have more time on your hands, try asking your team members what it is that they really want from you and/or their employers, and listen intently. Deep down, if you are a manager or leader of any kind, you probably know that it’s impossible to motivate an entire workforce in one way, and that it is nothing to do with the ages of your employees.

To summarise: Stereotyping doesn’t do anyone any favours. We need to get over this desire to put people in boxes, and look for better ways to create engaged, motivated and joyfully diverse workforces.

What do you think about this? Perhaps you think I’m deliberately ignoring facts, or maybe you’re just as over sweeping generalisations as I am! Let us know in the comments below.