Who Is a Millennial and What Difference Does It Make?

A recent radio news segment reminded me of why categorizing people works to their detriment. 

The segment started with some talk about millennials being lazy. I guess that was prompted by reports like an Inc. survey that found that 89 percent of millennials admitted to wasting time at work. My response to that information is, who doesn’t waste time at work? Unless your job is on an assembly line where production is controlled, at some point or other everyone wastes time at work.

By saying that all millenniums are lazy, is a huge mistake. When people are put into a category, it changes the way others respond to them. For example, when my daughters see me stumble, they immediately think it is a sign of my advanced age. Alternatively, when they stumble, it is attributed to an uneven surface or objects in their paths, not because of their advancing age.

I certainly understand there can be advantages of categories. If you tell me that millennials are those born between 1982 and 1995, I can accept that. But when the behavior of people in a particular category is described, I begin to have heartburn.

No one fits the millennial category perfectly. Someone in the media thought young people should be categorized so we have baby boomers, GenX, and millennials — I guess so managers could treat them all alike. It is not enough to call them young. We have this propensity to want to give all members of the category the same psychological or social characteristics. This is unfair. No two millennials are the same, and that is true of any other category that you can name.

My experience with young people today is that there are some that are lazy, feel entitled, need lots of attention, etc. But that is true of older people as well. We are all unique individuals and the only way to bring out the best in all categories of people is to treat each one as the individual that they are. Some are certainly lazy, but some are not. Some act as though they should be given things because they are entitled to them, but some do not. Some don’t follow the rules, yet some do. It would be a mistake to assume all millennials categorically behave this way. In fact, I have come across many young people today who are hardworking, creative and collaborative.

The workplace that cannot treat people as individuals will not last in today’s society. Technology is creating a very different world, and organizations that are bound by the old rules and practices are doomed to fail. Older people have been complaining about the behavior of the young from the beginning of time. The real truth is that each of these “categories” of people — as prescribed by the media — behave differently because they are born into a different environment. The world is constantly changing, and thus, people’s behavior is constantly changing.

What is most important to understand, however, is that the way people learn has not changed. We learn from our environment and because each generation’s environment is different, each generation’s behavior is different.

The good news is that all behavior can be changed. If you are lazy, those behaviors can be changed. If you behave as though you are entitled, those behaviors can be changed. I’ll admit, some behavior is difficult to change, but if the organization has the time and resources, all behavior can be changed, regardless of how it came to be.

The danger of organizations thinking in terms of categories is that it dehumanizes the employees.  Millennials, like all people, want to be treated as individuals and when they are not, it is impossible to bring out the best in them, which is what is required to be successful in today’s technology driven world.

For more on this topic, read “Managing Millennials: Can Science Help?