Generation Y, aka the millennials, now make up the largest cohort in the workforce, and the people hiring them — and marketing to them — have plenty of preconceived notions about them. But no generation is a monolithic block, and trying to fit all of them into the same pigeonhole does everyone an expensive and often demoralizing disservice, whether it is “cynical” Gen Xers or “tech-averse” members of the Silent Generation.
Jessica Kriegel works at Oracle as an organization and talent development consultant, and her new book dissecting this issue is Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit from Ditching Generational Stereotypes. She recently appeared on the Knowledge at Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to talk about why it’s so important for businesses and managers to avoid stereotypes.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do we break down millennial stereotypes?
Jessica Kriegel: We’ve done things like this in the past. Think about stereotypes as they pertain to gender: In the 1950s, women were not allowed to work overtime in the workplace because they were considered the weaker sex, and they needed to be protected from the rigors of hard work. That was a stereotype, obviously, and there were policies in place based on those stereotypes.
Then we had the feminist movement, and we had a major campaign of awareness around stereotyping women, and we’re still working on it a little bit. That’s what we need to do — have some kind of campaign of awareness. We have to start talking about how silly this is. That’s already happening. People are starting to realize … there are more and more articles by people talking about how silly the stereotypes are, but we’ve got a long way to go before it’s unacceptable to say, for example, “Millennials hate Trump.” …There may be a large percentage of millennials who don’t want to vote for Trump, but saying that millennials hate Trump, that’s really a stereotype, and that’s just putting everyone in the same box.
“The word millennial now means tech-savvy, and it means entitled, and it means innovative, and it means all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily true.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Let me play devil’s advocate here for a second. I’m sure that there are companies out there that, when they hear this theory of not stereotyping, their response will be, “From our corporate perspective, we don’t have the time or the money to be able to treat everybody differently.” How do you respond to that?
Kriegel: I haven’t really run into that, honestly. I can’t speak to companies who react that way. What I do know is that, in writing the book and writing multiple articles for Forbes, for example, the response I’ve gotten has been really positive. People are starting to get sick of these stereotypes, and they are starting to be tired of the same old, same old. Oftentimes, what is interesting with the advice that is given about how to deal with millennials is that the advice is pretty relevant for every generation. It’s usually just best practices, good advice; it would be just as valuable for a baby boomer. That’s why a lot of this is really just hype: The word millennial right now is sexy, and it gets clicks, and that’s why people use it.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is that label fair, then?
Kriegel: I don’t think so. The word millennial itself, which by definition only means people born between 1980 and 2000, has so much baggage associated with it. The unspoken connotation of the word millennial now means tech-savvy, and it means entitled, and it means innovative, and it means all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily true. I know lots of entitled, tech-savvy millennials, but I also know a lot of really tech-averse millennials who are not entitled. Because there is so much baggage associated with the term, I just think it makes more sense to stop using it altogether, at least for the time being.
Knowledge at Wharton: You bring in the media angle of it, in that the media obviously is looking to create more and more content, and get stuff out there that reaches more and more consumers of whatever generation. It’s almost like part of this has just been blended into the great race among a lot of media organizations.
Kriegel: Yes. I think what’s really dangerous is that the media will take an academic study that may have some kind of conclusion, or a theorized conclusion, and then they’ll turn it into a headline that really misleads the public. Interestingly, John Oliver just did a bit on this on his show on HBO. But I had seen articles written about how millennials want to collaborate. First of all, the study that they are citing was sponsored by Cisco WebEx — which is a collaboration tool, so obviously, they have an interest in coming to the conclusion that millennials like to collaborate.
The actual report, when you look at it, found that 56% of millennials surveyed in their study like to collaborate. That’s basically half, if you round it, and the sample size was so small that you couldn’t then take that conclusion and apply it to 80 million people. It’s just bad science. Giving that kind of hype to studies that are small, or that don’t really have much to say, they are creating conclusions where they don’t really exist. And part of the problem is that the people doing these studies are a lot of consultants. They are people who have an interest in having a point of view about this so that they can sell their opinion, and their advice.
Knowledge at Wharton: Within the book, you include what is, essentially, a toolkit for managers. I’d imagine managers are a very important piece to the whole process of dispelling generational stereotypes, correct?
“With managers, it can be particularly dangerous if you buy into these generational stereotypes. If you’re coming to those conclusions based on what you’re reading online, you’re really not getting to know the person in front of you.”
Kriegel: Yes, absolutely. We’re all an important piece, but for managers, there is a special kind of responsibility that you have in dealing with your team, and in ensuring that the people that you work with are engaged, that they are motivated, that they feel valued, that they are learning, that they are growing. With managers, it can be particularly dangerous if you buy into these generational stereotypes. If you’re coming to those conclusions based on what you’re reading online, you’re really not getting to know the person in front of you. That lack of understanding can create a lack of trust, and a set of expectations that may be unfair about that person, and it can be really demoralizing for the person who is working for you.
Knowledge at Wharton: There is also a section in the book that talks about if there are times when labels are actually useful.
Kriegel: Yes. Marketing is the place where labels can be useful — but I’m going to qualify that in a million different ways. First of all, marketing has always been about identifying a demographic, knowing you’re not going to be right 100% of the time, but generally trying to understand what that demographic might want, how they might be spoken to in a way that resonates with them, and then selling to them, and hoping that they buy your stuff. So it’s not uncommon to do that with millennials – to ask, “What do millennials want to buy?” The difference, though, is that millennial is such a broad category, it’s like asking, “What do Americans want to buy?” How do you define that? It’s so broad. We need to be a little bit more nuanced about that demographic. Maybe if you are talking about urban, affluent millennials on the East Coast, you’re getting closer to something that I can identify as a valuable metric in marketing, but millennial, as I said, there is so much diversity within that group.
The other thing I will add to that, to qualify the point that millennial labels are useful in marketing is, they are not useful at all in the marketing campaign. I think it is very detrimental is to use labels like “millennial” or “baby boomer” in your campaign to the public. For example, Whole Foods recently came out with this new store brand, 365. They had less clutter in the stores, more technology, and it was actually a less expensive product. And they called it the store for millennials — which was supposed to be a good thing, that they were catering to this generation, and they were with it, and they knew what they wanted. They got all this backlash online from baby boomers saying, “Wait a minute, why is that a store for the millennials? You think we like cluttered, expensive stores? That makes no sense.” By placing people in a box, you are also placing other people not in that box. It’s just a dangerous game that doesn’t necessarily provide any value.
Knowledge at Wharton: In part one of the reasons why some of this stuff is being done is that the millennial generation now has more workers than any other generation, and marketers want to reach that plurality.
Kriegel: Yes, we became the largest segment of the workforce within the last year or so, and we’ve been talking about millennials since the 1990s, so it’s not really that we’re the majority and now we’re scary. What I think is really going on is that times are changing, technology is changing the way we live, and it is somehow being associated with millennials — as if millennials are changing it. Well guess what? The technology that we’re living with was invented not by the millennials. Some of it was, but some of it wasn’t, so it’s really not like these Gen Xers and these baby boomers are completely clueless.
“Technology is changing the way we live, and it is somehow being associated with millennials — as if millennials are changing it.”
I’ll give you a perfect example. “Traditionalists” — they’re also called the Silent Generation — are actually the generation that is older than baby boomers. They are supposed to be very tech-adverse, totally uninterested in anything to do with technology. Well, Oracle’s chairman and chief technology officer, Larry Ellison, is a traditionalist. To say that he is afraid of technology is completely ludicrous, right? So it really is just made up — it’s just totally made up.
Knowledge at Wharton: As we move forward over the next 20 or 30 years, we’ll have another generation that will follow your generation. Do you think that some of these shifts that companies are making today in terms of ditching generational stereotypes mean that we won’t pigeonhole that next generation as much?
Kriegel: It’s going to be everyone’s tendency to continue to pigeonhole the next generation. I’ve seen numerous articles calling them Generation Z. They’re getting really creative with the names, obviously.
One of the things I was hoping to accomplish with this book is to stop people from using the labels, and that also means millennials. It’s not just millennials who are stereotyped currently. Baby boomers are stereotyped. Gen X is stereotyped; they are considered cynical…. We need to stop as a whole. It’s just the question of how you get all of society to stop doing something. It’s about awareness, and having the conversation.
Knowledge at Wharton: The last part of the book talks about overcoming labels. For people who are being affected by this, how do they overcome these labels right now, especially if they are the employee, and maybe their voice isn’t as heard as loudly as somebody else’s?
Kriegel: When I talk to millennials, I talk about the importance of knowing what the millennial stereotype is and understanding how it is that you are being perceived, like it or not, and then making sure that your behavior doesn’t play into that, or combats that, if that’s not how you want to be perceived. If you feel like that stereotypical personality of the millennial that everyone seems to buy into is not reflective of your personality, then be aware of that. But also be aware that our actions can play into the stereotype. If I say something, and I know that my manager thinks I’m entitled, and what I said sounded a little entitled, then I know I’m just playing into the stereotype. Being self-aware is the key, and knowing how it is that people perceive me, and what it is that I’m doing to continue that perception.