Stereotypes, don’t we just love them. Rather than doing the research and taking the time to understand what makes us different isn’t it so much easier to apply mostly derogatory – or at the least demeaning terms – to make up for our ignorance? Millennials are lazy, job-hoppers, Xers are all cynical, Boomers are selfish and Gen Z have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Really!? By creating these stereotypes, we demonise huge swathes of our society and turn generations against each other, leading to mistrust and disrespect, and unfortunately, this behaviour isn’t limited solely to the generations.
Generational labels are also all too often hijacked by one generation to demean another. This may come from a sense of superiority, or that it’s easy, and fun (for some) but also derives from a lack of understanding, and is a practice that pervades traditional and social media.
How is any of this helpful? How can this approach build a more inclusive and collaborative society or workplace? Clearly, it can’t, and it won’t.
My knowledge of generational differences came not through choice, but out of necessity. When running a business, retention is key to productivity and understanding the values and needs of your team a pre-requisite. As a marketer, you have to know your customers and tailor your messaging accordingly. Ask any professional salesman what communication platforms they use, and they’ll tell you “the platform that my customers are on”. Sales people make a point of understanding the preferences of their clients and flex their style accordingly. Having worn many hats in my career, I’ve learnt through experience what works, and what doesn’t, but have also come to recognise the commonalities that exist. Understanding these unique generational traits has become a mission in recent years in order to help businesses break down the divides and accelerate growth through a shared understanding.
To provide a few examples of the importance of understanding the facts behind the headlines, let’s look at a few of the most common, or recent stereotypes.
The 8-Second Attention Span
Goldfish have a higher attention span that Gen Z (those born from 2001 and onwards), or so the headlines tell us. This would suggest that the tweens and mid-teens that fall into this generation can’t concentrate. Gen Z are the second generation of digital natives, they’re always on and subject to a huge amount of online noise. They manage this by handling information at an incredibly fast pace and the 8-second attention span is more akin to an 8-second filter. Whilst the amount of data is limitless, their time is not, and they’re able to decide within that 8-seconds whether it’s worthy of their attention. Gain their attention though – and they’re all in.
Cynical Gen X
The Oxford English dictionary defines cynical as “believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity” So do all Xers fall into this category – clearly not – but it’s a great headline grabber. But why is it so regularly attributed to Generation X?
Understanding someone’s history can tell us a lot about the individual – and generational cohorts are no different. Generation X were more likely than any preceding generation to grow up with divorced parents and many witnessed them facing redundancy, having given years of loyal service to their respective employers. The mistrust this created towards corporations was only exacerbated by the stock market crash of 1987 which coincided with many Xers entering the workplace. On the political front, the Vietnam War and its aftermath tainted the political process for many, whilst the Cold War heralded a general climate of fear and suspicion.
Are many Gen X suspicious of politicians and the ‘establishment’ based on their background? Yes, but does it therefore follow that they are all distrustful of human sincerity and integrity? Absolutely not.
Millennials are Lazy
Along with accusations of Millennials being job-hoppers and lacking loyalty – this is another ‘classic’ sure to create offence and send Gen Y’s eyes skyward in exasperation.
Pay and financial benefits drive Millennials job choices but second to that is a good work/life balance according to most research – including the highly objective 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey. The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated and the fact that 47% of Millennials said they would consider giving up a well-paid/prestigious job to gain better work-life balance in a recent Universum study shows the strength of feeling.
Not sacrificing your life for your employer grates with some leading to accusations of laziness but Millennials have witnessed the sacrifices of their parent’s first hand and seen the sometimes negative outcomes – stress, ill-health, burnout. Sure they’re playing the long game but from an employer’s perspective who’s more effective, the well-balanced employee, or those that don’t invest in relationships, are constantly stressed and fly ever closer to the flame? Ultimately, the desire for balance is a way for this generation to achieve the long-term career goals they’ve set themselves.
There’s an App for That
As the first generation of digital natives, Millennials are constantly looking to technology to do things faster, and in more efficient way. They have clear expectations about how technology should be used and expect technology to drive communication in the workplace. This can create intergenerational conflict where workplaces are resistant to change and working styles old-fashioned and rigid. It can also generate the misconception that Millennials are working less hard, rather than a recognition that they’re simply working smarter.
Last but not least is career progression, which is high on the list of Millennials priorities and what attracts most to their employers. They are highly ambitious, confident in their abilities and expect to rise rapidly through the ranks. This is at odds with the ‘traditional’ career path where you put in the hours, serve your time and gradually move up the later – maybe. Delayed gratification is perhaps less applicable to this generation but does the willingness to make things happen fast also make them lazy? When a Millennials values are aligned with their employer, they’re managed effectively and the company invests in their skills development – they’ll put in the hours and are all-in.
The Truth is Out There
Once we dispel the stereotypes and see them for what they are, the door is open to a deeper and truer understanding of the generations which can benefit both business and personal relationships alike. Millennials want to work smart and have a wealth of knowledge on the best technologies to achieve this – let’s be open to this. GenZ filter content at lightning speed and are true experts in two of the most popular and fastest growing social platforms: Snapchat and Instagram – what can we learn from them? There’s no harsher critic than a GenZ (I know!) and if what you’re doing on social is ‘cringey’ or just plain ‘rubbish’ – you’ll soon know about it. Reverse mentoring is a small but growing trend in forward thinking businesses, but just as applicable at home.
Everyone’s got something to offer if we take the time to learn and understand. My training promotes generational differences in a positive and constructive way, dispelling misinformation and focussing on building understanding and trust. Whilst bias and the perpetuation of stereotypes will never go way, generational theory, based on solid research helps people see these stereotypes for what they truly are.
You can find more of my articles on generational dynamics, recruitment and retention here:
Do Millennials Lack Loyalty?
Where Do 265,000 Millennials Most Want to Work?
How Your Business Can Influence Graduates
Not Another Post About Millennials!
Craig has been involved in recruiting, managing and getting the best from multi-generational workforces for over two decades and uses this experience, combined with the latest research and studies to help firms break down the generational divide. For more information, visit mygeneration.co and connect on LinkedIn.