Everything You Need to Know about Generational Differences in the Workplace (...or Not)
Are you a Millennial?
If you are like me, you bristle at this label.
But, if you are like me, you were born between 1981 and 1997 and that means—at least according to the criteria adopted by the Pew Research Center—that you are a bona fide, card-carrying member of the Millennial generation.
Of course, you have heard this before. How could you have avoided it?
There have been innumerable articles, op-eds, blog posts, and think-pieces devoted to the apparently inscrutable task of dissecting the Millennial mind. Entire consulting firms are dedicated to the (absurdly lucrative) business of helping employers figure out who we are, what we want, and how to get us to do good work. As a Young Professional yourself, it is likely that you have been recruited as a subject matter expert on the ubiquitous question, “What do Millennials think about ______?”
What do all of those consultants, the litany of expert opinions, and your personal views have in common? They are all essentially useless in determining anything about the individuals they purport to diagnose.
Labels are convenient. Like all theoretical models of reality, they are heuristic: they can help us navigate otherwise dauntingly complex situations, providing a cognitively efficient means of reaching a conclusion without having to go through the trouble of considering all the pesky details of the real world.
Labels are also fallible. When we use heuristics, it is important to keep in mind that we are taking an intellectual short-cut, which means we risk making false assumptions or overlooking subtle truths. Hopefully, it goes without saying that there is a whole host of potential errors and downright insidious results that can follow from making assumptions about individuals based on the class or group to which we assign them.
When it comes to making assumptions about our coworkers, bosses, or employees based on when they were born, the potential consequences are mostly benign. But when we habitually rely on generational labels to tell us something we want to know about somebody else, we risk more than just reaching the wrong conclusion. We risk missing out on the opportunity to get to know somebody as an individual.
The truth is, there is no silver bullet for effectively communicating with a Baby Boomer, or for understanding the motivations of a Gen-X’er, or for managing the emotions of a Millennial.
Some people prefer e-mail, some prefer meeting face-to-face. Some people thrive on collaboration; some work better on their own. Some people can only be persuaded with data, and some will not connect with an idea unless you have a personal anecdote to back it up.
None of these details can be found on a person’s birth certificate.
The sooner we stop relying on generational platitudes to give us quick-fixes and canned answers, the sooner we can get on with the business of actually getting to know each other.
The key to succeeding in an intergenerational workplace cannot be reduced to a pithy list of truisms or a 500-word blog post. Success requires taking the time to get to know the people you work with for who they are, as individuals.
Call it old-fashioned. Call it innovative. Maybe there is not much of a difference between the two, after all.
Meet the Author
TJ McCourt is a planner with the City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources Department. He holds a B.A. and J.D. from the University of Florida as well as an M.A. in Urban Planning from Harvard University. TJ’s professional work involves analyzing the Parks Department’s goals and priorities from a systems perspective—exploring how parks, recreation, and open space fit into a broader context of city planning, community development, public health, and natural resource conservation. Personal fun-facts: TJ is an avid player of pseudo-sports (such as spikeball, pickleball, and goaltimate), regularly relies on the kindness of strangers, and isn’t really a big fan of cake.
TJ can be reached at 919-996-6079 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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