Let’s Stop with the Millennial Bashing, Already

Stephanie Douglass, Teknion‘s director of workplace strategy, takes a stand.

Millennials aren’t kids, they’re having kids. Image via Mashable.com.

It’s the end of January, and for those of you who didn’t bother making a resolution for 2016 – or if yours has already failed – I’ve got one to suggest for you: No more millennial bashing.

Seriously. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read, presentations I’ve heard, and corporate meetings I’ve been in during which millennials in the workforce are referenced as a foreign species who demand things like “flexibility” and “input” and will only work while wearing headphones and sitting on beanbags. Anytime I hear someone reference “the millennials”, two things pop into my head: one, if you’re using the term, then you’re not one (and likely not speaking to one), and two, haven’t we learned that putting large cohorts of people into stereotypical buckets generally doesn’t end well? Why do people assume it’s OK to do it based on age?

Millennials are loosely defined as being born between 1980 and the early aughts. Based on that, there are an estimated 83 million millennials in the U.S. alone. For reference, the preceding Generation X (born 1965 to 1980) is around 82 million people, and Baby Boomers (born 1944 to 1964) are an estimated 76.4 million. These are massive groups of people. Unsurprisingly, they share many, if not more, similarities as differences between them.

I was born in December 1979, so I self-identify as a borderline millennial (the leading edge, if you will). And I’ve become something of a millennial apologist, since I’ve most often been in the position of being the youngest person in the meeting room and feel like I need to stick up for my cohort. Though they’re not in the minority: according to the most recent findings from the Pew Research Center, millennials now make up a majority of the labor force (by one percent, a number that will only increase in the next few years as more Baby Boomers retire).

I’ve become something of a millennial apologist, since I’ve most often been in the position of being the youngest person in the meeting room and feel like I need to stick up for my cohort.

To be clear, differences between generations are nothing new. Older generations and younger generations looking at each other in distrust is standard operating procedure. (If the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30” rings a bell, you know what I’m talking about.) Younger generations have always wanted to ambitiously change the world; older generations have always had more experience and life lessons that shape their views. There’s nothing new about the dynamic. What has changed are the tools – namely, technology – that make this generation and beyond less beholden to the traditional ways of doing things.

We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg here, particularly in terms of how it impacts the workforce. My husband and I have been together for 13 years. In that time we’ve moved 10 times as we both sought to establish our respective careers in our mid-20s to 30s. Between the two of us, grad schools, job opportunities, and post-docs moved us to eight different cities, two different time zones, and more moving vans than we care to remember.

What’s most interesting about our situation, though, is that it’s not all that unusual. As younger people are trying to establish careers, particularly as part of a couple, it will inevitably require more balance, and often times more flexibility. Opportunities to work remotely and companies that allow workers more flexibility will have a much wider talent pool to choose from. When we decided to move to our current locale, it was for my husband’s teaching position, which requires him to be physically present on campus. My knowledge work doesn’t require that sort of physical presence – working remotely, with a combination of the right technology tools and travel when necessary allow me to work for a company that doesn’t have any physical presence in this state. The company gets a resource that’s not limited by geography, and I get a role that is a better fit for my skill set than what’s available locally: a mutually beneficial scenario.

For an increasing number of millennials in the workplace, bean bags are only relevant if they’re in the childcare center that the company provides.

We had a son last year. Mark Zuckerberg, symbol of the millennial generation with his hoodies and billion dollar startup, had a baby last month. We are now on the front edge of the wave of our generation having kids. That’s going to have big implications for work and work life balance. And if companies think that people will want less flexibility than they have now, guess again. Celebrated millennial-centric workplace perks like beer and ping-pong may evolve into things like childcare and new parent leave. Here’s hoping that our generation has enough pull to change the current business protocols, which are hopelessly outdated and based on a model that had the men working outside the home and women dedicated to childcare at home. We know that’s not how things work now, yet many of our system and policies don’t reflect current needs.  For an increasing number of millennials in the workplace, bean bags are only relevant if they’re in the childcare center that the company provides.

And if we really want to think about the future of work, millennials aren’t it. I spoke to a group of students at Cornell this past fall and had two revelations. First, I trouble figuring out the classroom technology to present my visuals, and then, I heard myself using the phrase “back in my day”, un-ironically. It was an a ha moment for me – I’m used to being one of the younger people in a corporate setting, but to these students, I’m old. If we’re really focused on the future and designing for the next generation entering the workforce, this is who we need to focus on.

It’s time to move beyond the fiction of millennial stereotypes, and focus on designing work, and workplaces that celebrate the fact that our workforce today is more diverse than ever, in every category, and that everyone has something to contribute. Even millennials.

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  • Good points, but in many many ways I have seen that millennials have a much harder time accepting the “older” generations than the older folks do accepting the millennials. Perhaps that too is as it has always been…

  • Stephanie, I agree. Broad Millennial bashing is counterproductive, especially given the size of the labor force Millennials now represent. Companies must invest more effort to integrate young workers and their needs into the workplace, to create an environment that maximizes the productivity, contributions, and engagement of all generations (not just Millennials).

    But let’s also look at the legitimate concerns behind such counterproductive bashing: I’ve read more postings (on LinkedIn and elsewhere) from Millennials and their evangelists who proclaim (often stridently) that organizations must transform all workplace practices or be deemed ‘obsolete’ and irrelevant. One of LinkedIn’s young writers recently posted a tone-deaf thought piece entitled: “Your job description sucks!” Some (not all) of these voices convey an intolerance or inflexibility regarding established workplace rules – not to mention a naivete regarding the pace of change in most organizations. Perhaps they represent a small number of such voices, but they do attract notice in the business press.

    My prediction is that the pace of Millennial entry into workplaces and the rate at which tools and technology transform organizational workplace practices will not run in parallel. Hierarchies and power relationships, managerial authority, career trajectories, telework and remote work policies will evolve slowly, despite our impatience with them. (Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer writes extensively on this.) That was true when I began working, and it’s still true today. We’re more than a decade into the social media revolution, and many workplaces still look surprisingly familiar (and they’re still profitable). It strikes me that some Millennial writers cannot separate their participation in the workplace from their larger demographic identity. They are not the first generation (nor the last) to understand the dichotomy of work and life identities, and the brightest and most socially astute young workers have already figured this out.

    Effective workplace integration of Millennials requires openness and learning on the part of both new, younger workers and the tenured employees who are still contributing, advancing, and developing themselves (and who have built successful careers by working within existing company culture and systems). As with most organizational changes, this requires the respect and appreciation for existing company practices, while being willing to constantly rethink them in light of business and employee needs.

  • Millennials and younger people might help themselves by not labeling things as being outdated without taking the time to understand how things work at individual companies.

    Sometimes the so called fresh perspective lacks the depth of understanding to make an informed and educated decision about particular situations.

    Sometimes you need to spend time working to gain that particular education so you can see what changes might be appropriate.

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