Kittelson’s Corner: Generational Stereotypes Do Not Lead to Change

Posted on October 5, 2015

By Ben KittelsonTwitter
We’ve all heard one of those presentations. There are usually a lot of laughs from the crowd as the speaker describes how different generations behave in the workplace. And they rightfully argue that this creates challenges for managers, and then to make their point the speaker trots out every generational stereotype. More often than not, millennials receive the majority of the attention.
millenial stereotypesMillennials are the punching bag in these situations. As the newest generation to the workplace we are rarely at conferences in large numbers and often not invited to trainings on how to manage an increasingly diverse work environment. So assumptions about millennials are not challenged. The assumptions are often not intended for the millennial worker in the room, but for the older generation of manager.
Different groups of people have shared experiences that shape their worldview, interests, passions and even biases. Because of that, demographics presentations can be powerful. Of course coming of age during the worst recession in recent history will shape how I and my peers view investing and spending. Of course growing up in the internet and information age will shape how I view research, communication and work in general.
The problem arises when we take broad shared experiences, apply them to individuals, and assume their behavior based on the year they were born. That is where presenters and managers get into trouble, making assumptions about a person based on a date of birth.
One of the best presentations I’ve seen at any conference was on demographics, and one of the worst conference presentations I’ve ever seen was on demographics. The difference? One speaker (besides keeping his presentation grounded in his own research) framed the conversation around the broad changes we are facing as a society. And the other speaker talked about how millennials are like “x” and baby boomers are like “y”.
These demographic stereotypes and assumptions are an easy fallback on a topic that has more complexity and depth that it seems on the surface. I argue that these generational stereotypes mask an uncomfortable truth for local government managers and organizations. The workplace and workforce is changing and the public sector does not quite know what to do about it, so rather than discuss changes organizations should make to attract the best talent, of any generation, we fall back on stereotypes about generations that explain away any need to change.
The best way to show this is to discuss the three most quoted stereotypes about millennials and the underlying management issue that local governments need to change. The problem is not millennials (or generation X, or whatever name my baby sister’s generation will be assigned). It is the legacy management systems and practices local governments are burdened with.
“Millennials need lots of feedback and praise….”
every generation everThis stereotype is my personal favorite, I hear people say it or assume it and it goes something like this: “Because they were given participation trophies and patted on the head each time they did anything, millennials need constant feedback and praise in the workplace.”
When you think about the underlying issue that informs this stereotype, it is all about communication. Currently our society is in a communication revolution, there are more ways to communicate and connect with each other than there have ever been. This makes it easier than ever to share that funny picture you took of your friend, a video of your neighbor’s cat, or feedback on a project.
Good managers should give employees feedback, and no it does not always need to be positive. Individuals who have embraced technology and the digital age know that it is simple to communicate with one another and therefore expect it in the workplace as well. This is a problem for managers who are not used to interacting with their employees and the stereotype above is used to explain away a need to communicate more often and more clearly.
“Millennials are lazy, addicted to their smart phones and always on social media…”
viral videoOften used pejoratively the assumption that millennials are on their phone and social media is (when true) in fact an asset to an organization. As I write this I have Guilford County’s Twitter account, a Google alert with an article about the local school system, and my Outlook email all up in other windows. My familiarity with social media is a huge asset to my organization, we do not have a Public Information Officer or any communications staff (you read that correctly, and that’s a topic for another article), but because I know how to use these tools in my personal life I can act as a PIO and get information out for the county while I do my regular job duties.
This is the strength of “being addicted to their smart phones,” it is not a sign of laziness it allows individuals to juggle multiple projects at once and be a better communicator to their co-workers. Organizations need to tap into this resource, instead of suppressing this skill take advantage of it!
“Millennials feel entitled and don’t think they need to pay their dues…”
“Wait your turn…” “We’ve always don’t it this way…” This stereotype is like when you went to the waterpark as a kid and you had to be this tall to go down the best waterslide. It’s frustrating because that “qualification” is completely outside of your control. But it is not an issue of being qualified, it’s about meeting a predetermined benchmark that does not have any bearing on the job or task at hand.
This tension is everywhere in local government, and it’s not just with millennials – it’s with any worker who is seen as “not having enough experience.” The source of that tension is that so many of our human resources systems are set up based on longevity. More often than not, if you have been there longer you get more perks. Your resume goes to the top of the pile, you get those extra couple of vacation days, you get the benefit of the doubt.
I contend that it is not that individuals feel “entitled” it’s that we want promotions, jobs, assignments, etc. to be based on merit, not on longevity. This is a huge friction with how local governments have done things in the past. This stereotype gets spread around to explain away those who think this way, rather than challenge how organizations operate.

Don’t talk about my generation

millenial stereotypes 2The next time you hear a stereotype about millennials, or any generation, challenge yourself to think:

  • What is the underlying assumption of this stereotype?
  • Who is this stereotype designed to appeal to?
  • What needs to change, that group of people or our organizations?

Stereotypes about generations are a barrier to attracting the best and the brightest to local government, they get in the way of changing local government to be more nimble, flexible and attractive to workers of all ages and experience levels. Don’t talk about my generation, let’s talk about how we change change local government.

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