There’s more to the millennial generation than meets the eye.
You may have seen this eye-catching infographic on Linkedin, where it’s been doing the rounds of late:
While some people have taken the content of this slide at face value, others have declared it completely unrepresentative of their experience. While there has been plenty of credible research on different generations – see the Pew Research Center and the Deloitte Millennial Survey, for example – I find these sweeping classifications of whole generations problematic. Let’s take a closer look at the stereotypes that define us, and the universal ties that bind us.
The Generational Who’s Who
Let's start with the basic definitions. While there remains some disagreement on the start and end points of each generational window, the dates I've used here mirror the mainstream definitions that are most often referenced in the media. These classifications are somewhat arbitrary groupings roughly linked to major societal changes (the end of World War II, mainstream adoption of the Internet, and so on).
The Greatest Generation: 1930 - 1946
Baby Boomers: 1946 - 1964
Generation X: 1964 - 1981
Millennials: 1981 - 1997
Generation Z: 1995 - 2014
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with categorising groups of individuals by the time periods during which they were born. The problem arises, however, as the majority of the published material and research referencing these groupings then seeks to differentiate them. When it comes to the generational workplace, much of the content available on the subject is devoted to how to attract different generations, how to retain them and manage them, what they're interested in and so on.
Take the above slide for example. Or a recent Business Insider article that describes Generation Z as “more conservative, more money-oriented, and more entrepreneurial than the millennials were." While from a highly generalised viewpoint, there are undoubtedly some trends – and even some commonalities that may be shared by these groups – to go beyond this takes us into a world of massive stereotyping and even discrimination.
Are We Really So Different?
At the heart of this lies the conceit that people born to a different generation are fundamentally, and universally, different from us: that they see the world through other eyes, that their brains are wired in a way that’s alien to our own – that quite simply, there’s a concrete divide between "them" and "us". It’s almost as if the simple fact of being born as a Gen Xer in 1979 as opposed to a Millennial in 1982 calls for a separate sub-classification of the term "human being", with such vast differences between these individuals that we might expect to see variation in their genetic code.
Okay, I exaggerate, but the point stands. In the US alone there are more than 75 million millennials. The idea that all 75 million of them conform to a specific set of personality traits and working behaviors is simply ridiculous. It's similar to saying that people in the UK are all reserved, like to queue and constantly talk about the weather – all 70 million of us.
As human beings, we are all influenced by our environment, culture, religion, technological advancements and so on. The Baby Boomers, who were born pre-Internet, may well be less attuned to the nuances of social media than those classified as Millennials or Generation Z. Yet there are plenty of Baby Boomers who are massive advocates and users of social media, and plenty of of Millennials who have never even joined Facebook. At the end of the day, we’re all individuals, and we respond to the nature of our environment in different ways. If by happenstance we conform to the stereotypes of our generation, this is not a condemnable offence.
We All Have Needs
If we look at Maslow's Hierachy of Needs, these still apply across the generations. We all need to eat, to drink, to sleep. We want to feel safe. We want to be loved, to have friendships, to connect with like-minded people. We want to be respected and we want to feel good about ourselves. Once these needs have been fulfilled, we can then focus on realising our potential.
Of course, what we may be capable of doing and what we want to do, aspire to do or strive to do are not necessarily the same. The decisions we make about work, which companies we want to join, how long we stay, our desires for promotion and so on will differ from person to person, influenced by a myriad of factors: our background, education, culture, personality, character, opportunities, support, etc.
Because members of your generation grew up under the same economy, with the same emergent technology and other macro-factors, categorising by generations does have some relevance here. These factors undoubtedly influence who we are; but they’re only one part of the equation that determines how we interact with the world.
Imagine you’re just embarking on your career (and maybe you are)! Via the internet, you have access to a huge amount of information on a seemingly infinite number of organisations, alongside a steady stream of stories of people who have realised dreams and aspirations similar to yours. Would you approach a new role differently than someone who was looking for work thirty years ago, without access to the same resources? Even if you’ve been in your position for 30 years, is it so difficult to imagine, should you begin again in today’s world, that you’d approach the job search process differently? Indeed, many of the distinct generational features we ascribe to fundamental, human differences are, in reality, simply a product of the resources available to those who come of age within a given time period.
What's important is that we recognise the changing environment we're operating within, and the impact this is likely to have on people at different stages of their careers. As employers, we need to create a compelling value proposition for our employees that reflects the world we live in and takes account of the opportunities available at competing organisations. For example, demands for more flexibility in working hours have increased because more companies than ever have recognised the value that can be gained from this arrangement - creating more loyalty to the company, and in many cases opening up talent options that would otherwise not have been available.
When it comes to evaluating candidates for a role, it’s imperative that we assess people on their organisational fit and how their personal values align with those of the organisation. At Launchpad, we help companies evaluate candidates against these criteria with video recruitment and assessment technology. Video is a powerful tool for communicating a realistic view of the inner workings of a company in a highly engaging way. It also provides more information about a candidate in a shorter period of time than other assessment options, helping companies make better decisions in a more efficient way.
What's important is that we evaluate people based on who they are as individuals, rather than stereotyping them based on the generic characteristics of their generation. In so doing, we cease considering people as "other" and assuming they are different from us on a fundamental level – and instead, we embrace the opportunities that our constantly evolving environment brings forth.