The AARP continues to assert that older workers are, in fact, more valuable than their younger counterparts. However, evidence suggests that young employees are an important ingredient in the creation and growth of firms, in part because of their willingness to take risks and innovate. Yet, Millenials --people born between 1995 and 2005 -- often get a bad rap in the workplace.
Dr. Jessica Kriegel, organizational development consultant and author of Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes (Wiley, 2016), has been on a campaign to end the generational stereotyping of young people. Kriegel argues that not only does such labeling create unfair biases; in fact, there is no clear evidence to support the messages that the current stereotypes convey. The following is an excerpt of our interview:
Kate L. Harrison: Why do you call generational stereotyping "unfair" in your book title?
Jessica Kriegel: In 2010, I began a doctoral program at Drexel University with the intention of building a career as a "millennial expert." I believed what everyone always told me, that generational differences were real -- and I wanted to do genuine fact-based research to learn more. What I found when conducting the literature review, however, was that most experts were making it all up! There were so many contradictions in the research findings, so many assumptions based on small sample sizes, and based on anecdotal information. When I started to dig deeper, I found the data simply doesn't support the prevailing generational stereotypes.
Harrison: What surprised you most? Can you share some examples?
Kriegel: There are so many! For example, a common assumption about millennials is that they are the least loyal to their employers. Business leaders and consultants often discuss how companies need to adapt to the "high millennial turnover rates." The Employee Benefits Research Institute studied turnover rates for employees of all ages. They found that employees aged 25-34 have average turnover of 3 years, compared with 10 years for employees aged 55-64. However, in the 1980s, the turnover rates for these two age groups were exactly the same. That means that when gen-Xers were starting their careers, they had the same turnover rates as millennials do today. Times have not changed in relation to younger workers.
Harrison: What are some of the negative consequences of the generational stereotyping as you see it?
Kriegel: The consequences are that we make assumptions about people around us based on their labels -- and often, we're just plain wrong. Generational stereotyping oversimplifies the complexity of the human condition. By slapping a label on 80 million people, we are denying diversity within that group. Some millennials are 16 years old, while others are 36. Some millennials are illegal immigrants in the Midwest while others are CEOs in Silicon Valley. When we make assumptions about a large group of people, we prevent ourselves from actually getting to know them, and we lose true understanding.
Harrison: What advice would you give to business leaders based on what you know about generational stereotypes?
Kriegel: A few things.
1. Check your bias: When working with millennials, refrain making broad assumptions. If you already believe millennials to be a certain way (e.g., entitled, lazy, requiring praise, or benefits hungry) you will interpret their actions differently than if you approach them with an open mind.
2. Communicate more: Communication is the key to overcoming stereotypes. Put effort into getting to know your employees as individuals, rather than a group. If you manage millennials, ask them questions. If you are an organizational leader, conduct an organizational assessment to learn more about your employees needs, concerns and values. You may be surprised; your population of employees may or may not fit into the millennial construct the way the media has described it.
3. Be careful with language: It is easy to turn a statistic or notion about the millennial population into a judgment, which places millions of people into a box they may not belong in. For example:
When you say, "Millennials are less likely to vote for Donald Trump than Bernie Sanders," you are making a statement based on statistics about preference. When you say, "Millennials don't like Trump," it's a stereotype.
As a business leader, being careful with language will go a long way towards building trust between management and your workforce.