Hyping generational differences is unhelpful

5 November 2018

I’m starting to feel sorry for the so-called ‘Millennial’ generation. For years, they’ve been surveyed, sorted and categorised into a cohort with distinctly unappealing characteristics: the ‘Me’ generation, ‘snowflakes’, self-absorbed, restless, entitled, and needy.

Now they’re going to suffer the indignity of being overtaken by a new ‘generation’: Gen Z, the digital natives, who are attracting breathlessly enthusiastic terms like ‘Generation We’, creative, self-aware, sharing, and caring. They’re so very different from the Millennials – apart from the fact that they spend loads of time on their smartphones and social media!

The idea that each ‘generation’ is uniquely different is hype. For a start, these are not true generations, but marketing categories. Secondly, there’s no agreement about the age definition of these segments: ‘Millennials’ are variously described as having been born between 1982 and 2004, or 1981 and 1996, or 1980 and 2000.

Thirdly, the context for their apparent characteristics may be culturally skewed, as when this global cohort is described as having been shaped by growing up amid events such as ‘the war on terror’. This is undoubtedly a global problem, but young people growing up in Gaza will probably see it very differently from young people growing up in the US or in China.

There is a lot of money to be made from focusing on generational differences. But it also stokes fear that young people are aliens, and raises unnecessary concerns about the difficulty of managing a multi-generational workforce. There are some important divides between the generations, which I’ll come to, but first let’s see how real some of the so-called differences at work are.


Description: Never satisfied, Millennials are always hopping from one job to another.

Reality: Many young people want to try out different jobs and gain lots of experience. Since the early 2000s, however, Millennials in Britain have actually been 20-25% less likely to move jobs voluntarily than the preceding Generation X at the same age, because the world of work is riskier for them, according to the   Intergenerational Commission.

Description: Millennials really want to be entrepreneurs, not employees.

Reality:  It’s much easier to start a business if you have digital and marketing skills together with a great idea. It also makes sense to consider entrepreneurship in the mix as young people don’t have the benefit of careers for life and will have to work longer than previous generations. But it’s those without degrees who have driven the increase in self-employment in Britain, with the fastest growing occupations for people in their late 20s in the lowest paying sectors, such as leisure and caring. And a US survey shows young people are a smaller percentage of new entrepreneurs than in the 1990s.

Description: Millennials crave instant feedback.

Reality: They use technology to keep in constant contact and have information at their fingertips, so it’s no wonder they appreciate fast feedback from experienced people. It helps them do better at their jobs. Besides, who still thinks annual performance reviews are a good substitute for regular constructive feedback?

Description: Millennials want their managers to be guides, not authority figures.

Reality:  Increased transparency and social media have contributed to raising expectations of leaders. Management by command and control is really unsuited to the new world of work. Coach-style ‘servant’ leadership is much more likely to create a fertile environment for everyone to grow, flourish and give their best. So what Millennials ‘want’ makes sense for us all.

Description: Millennials dislike voicemail, so if you must leave a message, send a text.

Reality:  I tested this generalisation on a small sample of Millennials and they were split. Some rarely pick up voicemails, while others are willing to listen to this clunky form of communication because the message could be important.

Let’s talk

There are serious generational divides that governments and society must address. These include stalled earnings progress for young adults, the decline in job mobility, the precarious nature of many jobs, and the unaffordability of housing – not to mention massive issues like Brexit.

These are far more significant than generational differences at work. Creating and sustaining open communications and mutual respect is important. Two-way mentoring is useful, with young people shadowing seniors to discover ‘how things work around here’, while seniors in turn learn how to code, create zappy presentations, or use social media.

We are individuals first and foremost. Differences between generations at work are quite small, and often explained by life stage or external social factors. If employers accommodate so-called Millennial tendencies, other generations at work will benefit, and probably enjoy it too.

This is an edited version of my column published by IWE on 4 November 2018.

©Alison Maitland 2018, all rights reserved.

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