Business Opinion

Millennials and Work — Why Generational Stereotypes Are Mostly Myth (and What Actually Matters) 

Millennials taking a selfie

In the last few years, the fascination with generational differences has grown into all-out obsession — particularly when it comes to work. 

Aside from the thousands of books and articles on the subject, generational consultants (who barely existed a decade ago) now charge up to $20,000 an hour to share hacks for retaining commitment-phobic millennials, misanthropic Gen Xers, and selfie-shooting Gen Zers (or so the stereotypes go). 

But here’s the thing: generations, as we’ve come to know them through pop culture and the business press, aren’t actually a thing. And far from leading to better management practices, generational myths may well be hurting your office culture and your bottom line.

Busting the generational myth

Scientific studies have repeatedly shown there is no conclusive evidence to support the sweeping generalizations we make about the personality traits, attitudes, or work ethic of specific age cohorts based on when they were born. Furthermore, even experts admit determining the birth years that supposedly separate one generation from the next are largely arbitrary

While it might be harmless fun to consider the differences between millennials or Gen Z at a cocktail party, basing management strategies on stereotypes is at best a distraction from real, evidence-based approaches, and at worst risks breeding resentment among individuals that don’t appreciate being painted with a broad generalization. 

As someone with 40 years of experience managing teams in organizations like IBM and Symantec, and now building a data analytics company dedicated to uncovering real, actionable data around managing people, I’ve never seen a focus on generational differences yield any positive results in creating better management strategies. 

For sure, there are real differences between employees of different ages, but these are more about their status as students, parents, or empty-nesters than any made-up generational group. I wasn’t much different when I was twenty-something from the young people I see around me today, four decades later. 

Here are some better places to devote your attention and get the most out of your employees, no matter when they were born. 

Focus on experience level, not generational clique

Most people of every generation enter the workforce as an unwritten book — somewhat bewildered and trying to find their way through the maze of an organization. Except in standardized professions such as law, accounting or medicine, career is a vague concept. Most people have not yet committed themselves to a specific direction. 

In these beginning stages, employees are not only considering whether the companies they work for are a fit, but even whether they’re in the right field. Some will switch sectors altogether, others will want to clarify career goals and seek positions at firms that promise to give them a more varied experience. 

This pattern is identifiable across all generations. Indeed, for all the hype about millennials being compulsive job-hoppers, studies have shown Gen Xers moved just as much in the early stages of their careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even Baby Boomers, with fewer career options than today, bounced around at a higher rate when they were getting started in the workforce.

From a management perspective, a degree of churn among early-stage employees is to be expected, even embraced. You don’t want employees sticking around who ultimately won’t be happy in their profession, your organization, or your industry. On the other hand, keeping those who could be a potential fit comes down to learning, shaping, and supporting their long-term career goals. Which brings me to my next/ point…

Ask about career goals and individual ambitions 

The fact is, different people will have different ambitions based on individual interests, personality types, and personal circumstances. No matter when they were born, employees want to know they work for a company that’s invested in their goals and has plans to help reach them.

When I landed my first job out of university at IBM, I had a vague idea that computer programming was a rewarding career. But within a few years, I realized that I wanted to lead people, and not necessarily be a code jockey, a data scientist, or a researcher. I was lucky in that I worked for people who took the time to give me guidance, feedback, and opportunity along the way. (And I was just as hungry for instant recognition and constant reinforcement as the greenest Gen Zer out there today.)

Plenty of my contemporaries, though, had different ambitions. Some felt more drawn to be individual contributors on a team, to invent new products, or to be entrepreneurs, while others valued jobs just as a means to support a family or a passion outside work. I see the same variation among my employees today — of all ages. 

The takeaway for managers? Keeping people engaged at any age requires getting familiar with their individual goals and providing relevant experience and clear pathways to get there, as well as exposure to mentors and more senior employees who are living examples of meeting those goals. Mass prescriptions or cookbook approaches are unlikely to succeed.

Get personal: understand family dynamics 

One real difference between older generations and those entering the workforce today? The number of women now in the workforce combined with increasing economic pressure on families means that in nearly half of all two-parent households, both parents are now working full-time — a significant increase since 1970. 

Efforts to support working parents are paramount in attracting and retaining top talent in an ever tightening labor market. Supporting new mothers with parental leave and a transition back to work at their current career trajectory is especially important, but creating family-friendly policies doesn’t stop, or even start, there. 

What’s often overlooked is that parenting is a 20-year commitment (if not longer) that demands attention from both moms and dads, meaning working parents of any age group or gender may benefit from flexible work arrangements, job-sharing, or mentorship to balance career goals and family demands. Meanwhile, employees considering children in the future will undoubtedly be paying close attention to how well, or not, parents are supported within your organization and deciding whether it aligns with their long-term career and family goals.

Of course, there are some other real generational differences between people. Gen Z and millennials, some born with computers in their cribs, are much more comfortable with communicating digitally than me and my cohort. Today, video, social media or even texting take the place of the more focused and personal interaction of yore. But at the end of the day, we all want to hear the same thing: I am recognized, valued, respected, maybe even popular, and I have a future in the organization.

When it comes to recruiting and retaining your team, the key is fostering a sense of being invested in the individual employee’s success and wellbeing, no matter what generation they belong to. Pursuing that goal will yield results far more measurable and meaningful than fixating on made-up labels.  

John Schwarz is the founder and CEO of Visier, a cloud-based analytics platform, and served as president of Symantec.