Millennials 101: What they’re not

“Once you label me you negate me” – Soren Kierkegaard

‘Who are millennials?’, ‘what are they like?’, ‘what are their behaviours?’, ‘how does generation X communicate with millennials?’. These sorts of questions are popping up on newsfeeds almost as much as Donald Trump’s pyrite smirk. It seems we’re all in a tremendous tizz trying to decoct millennials so that we can better understand the next generation of workers and leaders or, more precisely, understand how we can motivate and work with them. But, is all the hubbub worth it and, if so, are we going about this in the right way?

One major problem with articles about ‘millennials’ attempting to reconcile older generations with younger ones is that, in the process of simplification, they mould a huge and fuzzily defined demographic of people into one singular being. As Dean Burnett notes in his Guardian article criticising the glut of millennial analysis, two decades separates the 1980s from the 2000s – the birth years Wikipedia says ‘most researchers and commentators’ use to demarcate millennials.[1] So adults approaching 40 and teenagers preparing to take their GCSEs are both classed as millennials. Do these two hypothetical individuals really buy the same things, eat the same food, share the same political views? Exactly. Yet they’re spoken of in the same breath, distilled to the same essential being.

And to this singular being known as the millennial simplistic epithets are affixed, like cheap prosthetic limbs. Here are some of the very sweeping definitions of this obviously very large cohort from experts writing in reputable media publications:

“They’re [millennials] the ones who state their ambition is to be a Big Brother contestant. They’re the work experience kids expecting to go straight to the corner office.”[2]

“Generation Y isn’t busy, they’re lazy. The thing about work is, it’s not always fun and fulfilling. It’s work. And you have to work to keep a job.”[3]

“They seem flummoxed when told that things take time. They are happy to give lots of short bursts of energy, but commitment and grit come harder.”[4]

“Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that a recent study showed that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance.”[5]

Stereotyping, more often than not, takes on a vilifying tone and uses a few basic concepts to construct a generalised and negative image of a large group of people. The above is not far off this. And stereotypes are often erroneous. Take, for example: ‘if drinking were an Olympic sport, the Irish would win gold’. Statistically, this stalwart of bad stand-up routines doesn’t hold; Ireland actually ranks a distant 18th in per-capita alcohol consumption, with the Moldovans, Russians, and Romanians taking gold, silver, and bronze respectively.

But maybe – suspend belief for a second – everyone within the vast millennial age-range is as the quotes above suggest. This line of inquiry, however, is not only countered by the sheer mass and diversity of people within it, but such a counter is corroborated by a recent study from Pew Research found that only 40 percent of millennials even identify with the term “millennial,” while nearly 80 percent of those aged 51 to 69 consider themselves part of the Baby Boom generation.[6] So, however many people may actually fit millennial stereotypes, it appears that, more often than not, a millennial isn’t something you are but something you’re told you are.

So, where does this leave us?

Well, like most stereotyping, these blanket assumptions about millennials are often wrong and counterproductive, say psychologists who study age diversity in the workplace. In fact, “such generalisations likely drive wedges among co-workers and generate miscommunication,” notes Jamie Chamberlain, an Editor at American Psychological Association. The term ‘millennials’, although it tries to consolidate a vastly ambiguous group into simpler understanding, it fails to increase our understanding because of the breadth of said group. Any sense of categorisation is undone, assumptions about millennials are falsified and expectations of them become erroneous based on the inaccurate discourse surrounding the term.

Ironically, therefore, despite the glut of articles anatomizing what and who a millennial is and telling business leaders how best to appeal to, communicate with, and inspire them, the very reductive approach taken by the articles doesn’t simplify problems so much as it precipitates further polarisation. It would be ill-advised to build a company structure and strategy based on assumptions regarding millennials. Taken to its extreme, the millennial discourse creates what psychologists call ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ mentalities in which you’re either one or the other and neither converse effectively.

Chamberlain goes on to say that, as we know, “in today’s economy, when more retirees are returning to work and employers want to save money by retaining younger workers who are more likely to job hop, preventing age-related clashes is more important than ever”. And this is so, so true. But how can this be achieved?

Openness to Diversity

One thing millennials are is diverse. There is no singular, referential, archetypal millennial. Like all human beings, millennials are complex people with complex emotions and experiences. So, first things first, in order to avoid mismanaging and unconsciously discriminating against millennials we need to lose the lens of stereotype, looking beyond presumptions of laziness, narcissism, and entitlement.

We can achieve this by enhancing our cognitive flexibility. A cognitively flexible mindset doesn’t think in fixed, rigid, binary terms (millennial/generation Xer) but views the world as a diverse and changing place that we must and can successfully adapt to. Instead of blindly accepting the automatic negative thoughts that come to us so easily, we should develop the skill of challenging and reevaluating those thoughts. Psychologists call this process ‘cognitive restructuring’. Rather than, for example, dismissing a millennial as ‘lazy’ try and understand the individual’s unique approach to work and find its merits, as well as its faults.

Being open to diversity and generating a ‘tolerance of uncertainty’ (not perceiving ambiguity and that which we do not know (millennials) as threatening but as benign and potentially beneficial) is key to a company’s creativity, productivity, and growth. Welcoming and encouraging the ideas of people from across generational divides engenders ‘creative abrasion’. Such a rewarding clash of various thinking styles generates fresh concepts and keeps a company healthy, ensuring the company progresses and doesn’t fall into the trap of stasis.

So, to facilitate this, rather than packaging the multitude of individuals branded as millennials into one cramped box, we should develop cognitively flexible mindsets and allow individuals to express themselves. This isn’t to say that everyone has to like each other. But, really, we should all be given a chance. It is by breaking the glass behind which we have placed millennials and making genuine, personal contact, that we can provide this opportunity. And, you never know, we may start working together more productively, happily, and humanely.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2016/apr/15/what-does-millennial-mean-is-it-vague-lazy-and-meaningless?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[2] Wendy Squires, Sydney Morning Herald

[3] Rachel Ryan, Huffington Post

[4] Simon Sinek, Salon

[5] Joel Stein, Time

[6] http://www.people-press.org/2015/09/03/most-millennials-resist-the-millennial-label/

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