Guilty of millennial profiling: all of us

Stop searching the Internet for secrets about “millennials,” and instead get to know the individuals within all these labeled groups.

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As we wind down the year, it seems an ever-growing number of companies want to know how to “harness the power” of the millennial generation.  In fact, Google reports that business searches for “millennials” are 11% more frequent than “harassment,” and twice as popular as “supervision.”  And what those searches turn up is sometimes not very flattering to millennials.  Articles, videos, and podcasts describe millennials as lazy, unfocused, and indulged.  To be fair, authors usually couch these descriptors as perceptions, not truth.

But it strikes me that there’s a lot wrong with this analysis. Labeling a group and assigning characteristics to it goes against everything good leaders (and civilized societies) have pursued for at least the last hundred years.  And yet, we don’t hesitate to jump to conclusions about anyone born between 1982 and 1995.  Sure, we’ve had the baby boomers and GenX, but never has the frenzy of generational branding been so universally accepted, since it’s equivalent to “millennial profiling.”  Can you imagine attending a lecture where the objective is to educate you on how to compensate for the short attention span of a certain religion, race, or gender? 

Here’s the unwritten truth:  Most of the characteristics assigned to the millennial generation are held by most of us.  And it’s not a factor of the decade of our birth; it’s a factor of the age we all live.  Let’s take another look at these millennial traits:

  1. Millennials are described as technology-obsessed. But, I’ve seen many of my fellow GenXers and baby boomers swiping their phones in the checkout line, ordering from Amazon, and driving their upscale cars while texting.  This isn’t a “millennial” thing at all.  Sure, millennials are more tech-savvy than their parents, but that’s been true since the wheel.  Does anyone doubt that millennials’ children will be more tech-obsessed than their parents?  But here’s a thought: “tech-obsessed” may actually be the opposite of what they are: many millennial trends are about making technology less intrusive, to allow for more human interaction.  Prior generations interrupted their lives to watch a TV program at a certain time, but now “Stranger Things” fans fit the show into their lives, not the other way around.  So which generation seems tech-obsessed?
  2. A second attribute given to millennials is that they care more about the world impact of their job than prior generations. Here again, we observe this trend across all age bands, probably because the civilized world is working its way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:  instead of worrying about mere survival, many skilled workers now have the luxury (and information) to select jobs based on their contribution to a better world.
  3. Perhaps the most cited trait of millennials is their supposed penchant for instant gratification. But does this apply to millennials or to people of all ages?  Examples abound that contradict the correlation of instant gratification with only millennials: Viagra, Botox, and flash mortgages are targeted at non-millennial generations for obvious reasons, yet few accuse these more mature individuals as instant gratification addicts.  Today’s technology has given all of us the ability (and desire) to get everything faster, so maybe that makes us all millennials.

What can leaders learn from this? 

It’s a lesson we’ve already learned, over and over: we should resist the temptation to generalize based on any external characteristic (like age).  We should instead recognize that every person is an individual, and their age is but one influence over their feelings, choices, and behavior.  If workers, friends, and neighbors sometimes cluster based on age, it doesn’t mean they’re all alike.  For years, diversity and inclusion specialists have strived to help us understand that making snap judgments based on outward characteristics is hard-wired into our instincts, but it should not drive our consequential decisions or behavior. 

So, here’s a new year’s resolution for all of us: Stop searching the Internet for secrets about “millennials,” and instead get to know the individuals within all these labeled groups.  Acknowledge that we’re all here together at the start of 2018, and our best hope for making it to 2019 is to harness the power of all our different birth years and backgrounds.

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