Research Findings on Millennials: Helpful Data Points or Harmful Stereotypes?

Don Tennant
Slide Show

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We’ve all heard the characterizations of millennials that have been recited ad nauseam by pundits, academics, and even millennials themselves. They have a sense of entitlement, because as kids they received trophies just for participating in soccer. As “digital natives,” they demand the instant gratification of consistent and timely feedback. They want a fast-paced, collaborative workshop environment, supplied with advanced technology. Sound familiar?

It certainly does to me. But as someone who has interviewed the sources behind these characterizations and written quite a bit on the topic, am I providing an informative, useful service that strengthens inter-generational understanding and collaboration, or perpetuating harmful stereotypes that create unfair biases and reduce productivity in the workplace? That’s the question I had to ask myself after speaking last week with Jessica Kriegel, senior organization development consultant at Oracle and author of the new book, “Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit from Ditching Generational Stereotypes.”

I opened the conversation by trying to get a sense of whether this generational stereotyping tends to be limited to the way we characterize millennials. I discovered that it’s not; according to Kriegel, we do the same things with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers:

Whereas millennials are characterized as feeling entitled, not being loyal to their company, and being very tech-savvy, Baby Boomers are considered tech-averse, maybe more resistant to change, certainly loyal to their company, and also very stubborn in some ways. Gen Xers, on the other hand, are typically considered to be the most cynical generation. Because there were high rates of divorce in their generation, so the story goes, they became more cynical, but also more family-oriented, because they didn’t want to be like their parents. This is the stereotype—whether they’re actually family-oriented because of the divorce rate, or simply because that’s the age of raising a family, is open for discussion.

So is there no value at all in the volumes of research that have been done to try to understand what millennials want in the workplace? Kriegel, a millennial herself, said it depends on the context in which the data is being used:

If you are using the data to learn how to manage this next generation, I think there is no value. The reason is that we millennials are a diverse group of people, and we are all being characterized under a millennial construct that’s based on a middle-income, white, American person. So when we hear that we got “participation trophies” for playing soccer as millennials, and as a result we feel entitled today, consider that 16 percent of the work force wasn’t even born in America. At Oracle, where I work, we hire a lot of millennials every year, and 80 percent of millennials in our college hire program in the product development field weren’t born or raised in America. They were born and raised in China or India. So to say they are entitled because they had soccer trophies is completely irrelevant to them.

This reality is what needs to be understood when managing millennials, Kriegel said:

When you look at the studies, what will often be the case is it will say, for example, that 70 percent of millennials have a particular characteristic. When you are leading a team of millennials as a manager, not everyone is going to fit into that 70 percent. So when you define how you manage, or how you lead, based on these statistics, it’s preventing you from actually getting to know the people who are sitting in front of you. You’re placing them in a box or a construct that they may or may not want to be in. So that’s where I think it’s really dangerous—in the workplace.

When we’re talking about marketing—for example, if you find a statistic that says, 80 percent of millennials don’t want to live in urban centers anymore—that may be relevant, and may be good information. Maybe that’s a trend that the real estate industry needs to pay attention to. I’m not advocating for this to be abolished in marketing. I’m more focused on interpersonal dynamics—how we characterize each other, how much work we put into actually getting to know each other, and how much stereotyping we’re doing with the people in our lives.

To try to wrap my head around what Kriegel was saying, I cited a 2011 PwC report, “Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace,” which presented findings like these:

  • Millennials’ use of technology clearly sets them apart. One of the defining characteristics of the millennial generation is their affinity with the digital world.
  • Millennials tend to be uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures, and turned off by information silos.
  • Millennials have a strong appetite for working overseas.

Now, what’s the difference, I asked Kriegel, between a survey finding that identifies a characteristic that a particular group tends to have, and a stereotype? She said the difference lies in how you apply that finding:

OK, now I understand that millennials want to go overseas, and they don’t like corporate structures. The challenge now is, if I’m the leader of an organization, and I decide that I am now going to create a flat organization and avoid rigid corporate structures because that’s going to help attract and retain more millennials, I’ve now made a massive leap in assumption that that is actually an effective business model for my organization. I’ve also assumed that the millennials I work with want that. It could be that in this particular industry, or in the particular roles people are in, their preferences may be different. I’d love to see the PwC survey to understand who was being surveyed, what kinds of companies they came from, what age group of millennials they were in. Some millennials right now are 15 years old, and some millennials are 35 years old. Are we saying that all the millennials want the same thing, because they’re in that 20-year age bracket? Broadly defining character traits becomes less useful because of how wide the gap is that exists in that age group.

I wondered whether there are any differences in the tendency to stereotype among leaders in the various generations. For example, do Baby Boomers tend to stereotype more than millennials, or vice versa? Kriegel said she has no statistics to reference, but she doesn’t think so:

What I have found is the reason we stereotype is because the brain is uncomfortable with ambiguity, and we crave certainty—we crave patterns and predictability. We create these stereotypes to remove the ambiguity in our lives—now I understand Baby Boomers, because I can label them as something black and white. I’m uncomfortable living in this world of gray, where Baby Boomers are a diverse, complex group of people. And Baby Boomers have the same tendency toward millennials. So I don’t know that it goes in one direction more so than the other, but I will say there’s this concept of in-group/out-group dynamics, in which once you are identified as being part of a group, whatever that group looks like—it could be the jocks in high school, or Americans in general, or millennials—there is a tendency to bolster one’s own group, to consider it the best group. It’s a mechanism for creating more self-confidence, and as a result, we need to put the other groups down. I do know that millennials generally tend to think that it’s great to be a millennial, and that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are lesser generations. But Baby Boomers and Gen Xers think the same thing with respect to the other generations. So there’s this inherent dynamic in creating a label that pits us against each other.

Kriegel also provided a glimpse into the generational stereotyping she’s found to be most common at Oracle, and elaborated on stereotyping as it relates to IT professionals and the notion that millennials are more tech-savvy than other generations. I’ll cover those topics in a forthcoming post.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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