Generations at Work: What Are We Really Talking About?
The words “diversity” and “inclusion” have been around a long time. Most organizations that desire a happy and productive workforce, financial viability and competitiveness, and organizational sustainability have bought into the idea that diversity among the employees is important, and that an inclusive culture is the best way to leverage the advantages that diversity can bring.
Increasingly, one form of diversity that is featured in workplaces around the globe is generational differences. Employees gather for training opportunities, workshops, or “lunch-and-learns,” where they can learn valuable tidbits of information, such as:
Baby boomers don’t really know how to work their computer.
For Generation X, sarcasm has been elevated to an art form.
Millennials will bring their parents to their job interviews, but expect to be running the company by the time they’re 35 years old.
And, I’m kidding. Sort of. (What can I say? I’m planted right in the middle of Generation X; I can be a little snarky.) But it’s true that discussions around generational differences often traffic in wildly overblown generalizations, ignoring the vast amount of diversity within generational cohorts. When I see organizations wanting to spend a lot of energy talking about generations, my little red flags of cynicism spring to life and I wonder: What else are we talking about? Or, more to the point . . .
What else aren’t we talking about?
Sometimes, certainly not always, a conversation about generations is chosen as a topic du jour because – unlike “stickier” issues such as race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation – it’s simply easier to talk about. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not an important conversation, or that every company that shines a spotlight there is simply practicing avoidance, but it’s a question that occurs to me. And, it’s one possible explanation for some of the sweeping generalizations I mentioned above. Speaking about generational differences is an important conversation, but if an organization is either unable or unwilling to talk about all forms of diversity, the conversation can be more harmful than helpful, leading employees to ask questions such as . . .
So are Millennials really just a bunch of spoiled brats?
In a word, no. But the messier and more complex truth is probably closer to “yes and no.” The Millennial generation is the most diverse generation that many countries (including the United States) has ever seen, and it cannot be adequately described in simple – not to mention judgmental and offensive – statements such as this. A White Millennial who went to an exclusive prep school is going to be very different from a Black or Latino Millennial who grew up in the inner city projects. A heterosexual Millennial who was raised by a single dad in the suburbs is going to be very different from a gay Millennial who grew up in a conservative small town. These distinctions should be obvious, and yet this generation – and all the others as well – are often presented as a homogenous entity. The people within the generational cohorts are not permitted any human complexity, and the entire cohort is painted with a brush so broad that the conclusions we’ve reached about them are absurd.
At the same time, you’ve perhaps noticed that “young people these days” seem to be impatient to move up in the company and often arrive with unrealistic expectations. Not everyone, perhaps, but there’s something going on . . . isn’t there? And yes, I think it can be argued that, while Americans of this generation were growing up, there was a sense among many of the adults of the world that the worst thing that we could do to these children was to damage their self-esteem. So, we removed them from situations that risked that kind of damage. Everyone on the soccer team got a trophy.
America wanted children with high amounts of self-esteem, and that’s exactly what we got. And many of us regret it and generalize this cohort as “a bunch of spoiled brats,” while ignoring the many gifts that this generation has to offer, often because of the self-esteem that their parents were so desperate to protect.
So what are we really talking about here?
A key message that is often lost in these conversations is that we are the products of our life experiences. We often behave as though we arrive in the workplace as twenty-something newborns that can walk and talk, and we expect that every person we meet has, as their default, the same behaviors, beliefs, values, and expectations that we had when we were their age. But those behaviors don’t align with reality. In the messy, complex reality of our lives, our backgrounds make us who we are – and naturally make us different from every other person we encounter at work. Some of these differences are individual (perhaps your parents divorced when you were young, or you moved around a lot as a child), some are cultural (you went to that fancy prep school, or were raised in a Jewish household), and many are generational (you played all day without adult supervision as a child, or had access to the internet when you were five). Understanding a person as a member of their generational cohort is an important and often instructive piece of knowledge, but ultimately, it’s only a piece of a much larger puzzle.