The Degrading and Useless Practice of Generational Stereotyping

“The next time someone calls me a Millennial, I’m gonna punch them in the nose!” That was the exasperated response of a bright, successful 30-something young professional when someone commented that “all Millennials crave attention.” Like many, she was offended by being put in a box with which she did not identify but that is reiterated over and over in the popular media and in the more than 129,000,000 hits on Google for “characteristics of Millennials”.

“Us Millennials really go for that!” was the comment from an ebullient young lady that was asked to collaborate on a new project team. She had clearly drunk the generational stereotyping Kool Aid. The eye rolls from others on the new team were deafening. Of course, everyone knows that all Baby Boomers are competitive while Millennials are collaborative – just ask any generational consultant. This is despite the fact that we know (from one of the largest global databases of assessed leadership skills) that building partnerships and working collaboratively is a very common skill across age groups, and cultures . . . and is related to high performance at all organization levels.

The anxious question from a supervisor in a leadership development workshop was “I have a Millennial on my team that always shows up late for meetings. ‘They’ just don’t value time like older people. What should I do? I don’t want to turn him off?” The workshop facilitator suggested that, since respect is important for Millennials, the supervisor should play off that trait to try to get one of Them to not waste other’s time. What? Members of other generations simply don’t respect those with whom they work? Isn’t there a simpler answer to address a basic work habit that doesn’t degrade someone?

I could go on. The examples are endless. Heck, I even saw a consultant’s presentation that included stereotyped descriptions of generations that have yet to be born. Really? We need this information, why?

Research has shown that humans have a tendency to identify and form “in-groups” and “out-groups”, probably as an early survival mechanism. The same tendency is seen as the foundation for the bigotry, hate speech and associated violence that pervades our world. Once our in- and out-groups are formed, our brains pay attention to data that reinforces those stereotypes and ignores facts that counter them. The result is that we tend to wildly generalize about those in the out-groups, what psychologists refer to as attribution errors. The most extreme attribution errors occur when we attribute the behaviors of out-group members to some assumed inherent traits, such as “he owns an expensive, fast car because all Baby Boomers are motivated by status and are competitive.” No, he may just like to go fast, just like young gearheads.

Simplifying our world into in- and out-groups may help in some situations but the use of generational stereotyping has reached a level of way too much noise and very little value, especially in the world of work. Building talent processes based on “unlocking the generational code” (read “using attribution errors”) just doesn’t make sense. There are too many individual differences within cohorts to provide useful guidance based on trying to figure out in which age bucket someone fits. We can do much better by thinking more broadly, calling out our stereotypes and biases and applying approaches that work for any human.

I recently saw an article about a talk entitled “Tackling a Multigenerational Workplace” that included New Orleans Saint quarterback, Drew Brees. My initial reaction to seeing the title was, “Oh no, here we go again with bad advice based on stereotypes”. Instead, Mr. Brees’ comments never referred to generation names or stereotypes. Instead, Drew emphasized the following approaches that made a difference in his long career:

  • Differences fade when you have a common purpose.
  • Developing genuine relationships and levels of trust for each other translates to performance on the field.
  • It’s important to appreciate others no matter their position and for leaders to set a good example always.

Aha! It’s no surprise that the most effective people practices are what high-performing organizations have been doing all along, without considering anything about generations:

• Define and communicate a set of core values and a vision that reflects your brand in the marketplace and as an employer
• Set and focus on challenging and meaningful goals linked to the business strategy
• Provide meaningful, value-added work that is linked to the overall success of the business, a “Greater Good”
• Create a team-oriented culture that fosters innovation and collaboration
• Showcase learning and career opportunities available to anyone
• Provide regular opportunities for systematic and meaningful feedback

What member of any generation would not be excited by an organization like that?

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