Labeling Millennials: Is It Misguided and Discriminatory?

Experts debate if derogatory terms could apply to any group of young workers from prior decades

By Dana Wilkie October 30, 2014

Lazy. Unfocused. Demanding. Overly dependent.

If an HR manager caught you labeling all workers older than 50 this way, he or she would haul you aside for a chat on age discrimination.

Yet these terms are frequently used—in news articles, books, speeches and, yes, workplaces—to characterize the entire generation known as Millennials.

It’s become common at many companies to view Millennials (born between 1980 and the early 2000s) as requiring special attention and expertise. A whole industry of speakers and consultants has sprung up to advise employers on how to hire them, keep them, treat them and “handle” them.

Are Millennials Just Typical Young Adults?

Alison Green, author of the popular Ask a Manager blog, wrote in the Sept. 22, 2014, issue of U.S. News & World Report that “most of the stereotypes people attribute to Millennials aren’t about what generation they happen to belong to.”

“They’re about being young and inexperienced in the work world,” she wrote. “This generation is far from the first group of 20-somethings to find entry-level work boring, not understand the concept of paying their professional dues, bridle at dress codes and office norms, or yearn to have more of a voice in office decision-making.”

In short, Green wrote, “the traits and behaviors commonly attributed to Millennials are about being inexperienced—not about being born between 1982 and 2004.”

Lindsey Pollak, a Millennial workplace expert and author, and spokeswoman for The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., agreed that Millennials are young, inexperienced employees who, like previous generations, have basic needs such as training and leadership development. The difference between Millennials and younger workers of decades ago is “what kind of training Millennials want and need, when they need it, where and how it is delivered, and why,” she said.

For instance, Millennials’ behaviors and values often stem from their immersion in technology, she said. They grew up with computers, cellphones, the Internet and social media, expecting speedy responses to their questions, and benefitting from instant interaction with friends and co-workers. This translates into a need for frequent and regular feedback from managers.

“Millennials are digital natives who value an educational experience, such as a field trip or online class, rather than traditional in-person training in a classroom setting,” she said. “Millennials have been coached and mentored their whole lives. That’s why they value mentoring at work. Years of research from organizations, companies and government agencies have shown that Millennials … are changing everything from our culture to the workplace. Companies will succeed when they meet the needs of this giant generation of 80 million people with an estimated spending power of $600 billion every year.”

Millennial Research

Considerable research does suggest that there’s a genuine difference between the young workers of today and those of previous decades:

  • In 2014, the Pew Research Center issued a report noting that Millennials in adulthood are “detached from institutions and networked with friends.” []
  • William A. Draves and Julie Coates, authors of Nine Shift: Work, Life and Education in the 21st Century(LERN Books, 2004), write that Millennials have distinctly different behaviors, values and attitudes from previous generations as a result of the technological and economic implications of the Internet.
  • In the book Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2009), the authors predict that Millennials will switch jobs frequently, holding many more jobs than older generations, in part because of their high expectations. [ ]
  • Studies by the University of Michigan and UCLA have found that a higher percentage of Millennials, compared to Baby Boomers and members of Generation X, consider wealth a very important attribute, while a lower percentage of Millennials think it’s important to say abreast of political affairs or develop a meaningful philosophy of life.
  • Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me (Free Press, 2006), used personality surveys and found that Millennials possess the traits of confidence and tolerance, but also an increasing narcissism, compared with older generations when they were the same age. []
  • A study reported in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that Millennials are more materialistic, more politically disengaged and less concerned about helping the world than Generation Xers and Boomers were at the same age.[]

Are Labels Demoralizing?

Even if this research reflects reality, is it demoralizing, discriminatory or damaging to manager-employee relations when Millennials are broadly painted with none-too-flattering terms such as “entitled,” “lazy,” “unfocused,” “demanding,” “narcissistic,” “self-promotional,” “coddled,” “whiny,” “needy” and  “unwilling to pay their dues”?

Millennial consultant Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), said discriminatory labels and remarks about younger workers “will always be there and perpetuate because of … [older] people’s fear of becoming irrelevant and replaced by younger, cheaper workers.”

“Older workers are seen as not as tech-savvy as younger workers, for instance,” he said. “You will keep seeing these trends occur because every generation will have a competitive advantage technology-wise. Generation Z poses a threat to Millennials because [the former] has learned from [the latter’s] faults and had tech access earlier in life, with more access to people and resources. This is why they are more entrepreneurial than Millennials, too.”

Pollak said such derogatory terms shouldn’t be tolerated.

“I’ve declared 2014 to be the end of Millennial-shaming,” Pollak said. “This is the year that Millennials should be taken seriously. More and more Millennials are taking on leadership roles in business, government, communities and culture. Eighty-three percent of Millennials say they are leaders today and 78 percent aspire to be leaders tomorrow. We end the Millennial-bashing once and for all. We need to support them in every way we can.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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