Time and time again we are led to believe the differences separating Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers are causing all sorts of leadership challenges. Surprisingly, the labels we believe to be true are actually hurting our organizations, demolishing creativity.
Those crazy and selfish millennials are rolling into the work force en masse with illusions of grandeur, while those stodgy, narrow minded baby boomer idealists begin to phase out. We’ve heard a thousand times how our management practices need to change due to a new type of worker. The truth however, is that this great generational divide doesn’t even exist.
We been collectively freaking out, bringing in millennial experts and spending oodles of money to prepare ourselves for this new generation and we’ve read articles about how millennials are tech savvy, entitled and a whole list of other adjectives. I've read the articles too. But it’s all wrong.
As a matter of fact, I was having this very millennial vs. baby boomer discussion at a conference with a fellow baby boomer. After interviewing Jessica Krigel recently, I realized that many of our boomer / vs millenials observations were totally wrong. Who the heck is Jessica Kriegel?
Kriegel is a senior organization development consultant at Oracle Corporation. She does talent development and organization development with Oracle’s senior leaders and a few years back, she decided to focus her doctoral research at Drexel University on the generational differences that are so challenging and obvious to us. As she dug into all the research, pouring over study after study, however, she found the evidence wasn’t there. She unpacks and discusses the research in her new book, Unfairly Labeled, released this week.
She digs into the nitty gritty finding, while one book claimed Millennials wouldn’t respect authority, another book presented the exact opposite. While some indicated millennials care about work life balance over paychecks, another would say the same thing about baby boomers or Gen X. Some experts will say how frugal baby boomers are and how reckless millennials are, and yet, baby boomers are the ones expected to retire completely broke. Indeed, there is no difference. Kriegel even recounted at a conference she spoke at where two distinct demographical groups had the same criticism of the other as “not wanting to work with teams and collaborate.”
Gen Z may walk around with headphones seemingly grafted into their central nervous system while the older generation scoffs at how disconnected they are, but could it simply be due to music not being transportable when boomers were growing up? Had we designed an iPod earlier would older generations have fallen victim to the same fate? (I’m a millennial and I almost never have headphones in - except when I’m flying and use my Bose QC15’s to cancel out engine noise.)
The most funny example of this I can think of is the famous viral photo busting the myth that only millennials keep their heads down all day staring at their media. The photo shows a side by side comparison of millennials staring down at their phones, with another photo taken in the 50s showing men in suits and hats doing the same thing, with newspapers.
To dig deeper, Kiregel went to learn more about generational learning styles at a railroad company. Were there differences in visual or auditory learning styles or particular technologies in the classroom? Did one generation prefer discussion boards? Twitter? Surprisingly, there was no difference at this organization. Even in this industry, there was no correlation tying generations to preferred learning styles.
While it’s unfair to scale this one example nationally, because of the small sample size, it was proof of one thing. Had this organization used the current understanding of generational differences in learning, they would have been way off base. It also proves these generational labels we use seem to be different in each sample, which is why we get all these conflicting anecdotes in the first place
Instead of millennials truly being different, it sounds like we’ve all simply made a huge logical error instead. “This fallacy is called a hasty generalization. According to Patrick J. Hurley’s book, A Concise Introduction to Logic, a hasty generalization ‘occurs when there is a reasonable likelihood that the sample is not representative of the group. Such a likelihood may arise if the sample is either too small or not randomly selected’.” said Aaron M. Long Ph.D. Candidate, in Department of English at the University of Kansas.
While the information we have about millennials may, in fact, be true, it may not actually apply to only them, or even half of them. Our labels become even more broken when we look at a deeper break-down of the demographic data. For example, while it’s true white millennials use tech more than older generations, hispanic millennials use tech less than White Generation X. It seems as though, our understanding of millennials tech use is based on a white, middle income Americans.
In China generational labels such as millennials or baby boomers for don't even exist. They use different criteria like Post 60s, Post 70s. and their generations are 10 years in length. In South Africa generations are labeled based on significant historical events, such as the Post Apartheid Generation. Or in Korea, they have the 316 generation, which is apparently a play on words about some Intel Processor that existed in the day. Russia has the same timeline for generation, but their characteristics they attribute seem to be opposite as the US.
These labels are completely unfounded, but where do they come from? Quote possibly our desire to erase any ambiguity about our work cultures. We like to think we are in control and understand those around us, so labeling is one of the ways we do that. “The simpler we can categorize or make our life around us, the happier our brain is, even if it means oversimplifying complex situations.” Kriegel commented. “If we can classify millennials, who seems to be changing the world […] I can read a couple articles that tell me how to manage and tell me what they are like, then I can call that understood. […] Diversity and complexity however, that doesn’t fit any particular label is scarier.” Kriegel argues that perhaps technology is changing the world, not millennials.
If you belief this is a non-issue however, it looks like these generational barriers may actually do some severe damage.When the word millennial is even brought up in conversation there are many assumptions that people make, namely: they are tech savvy, entitled, different thinkers or world changers.
Sadly, because these labels are wrong, we could very well be putting people in a box that they don’t belong in. We could misinterpret their technological proficiency, leaving them frustrated, trying to figure things out on their own and embarrassed to ask for help. We could micro manage them, assuming they are entitled and lazy, when in reality they simply want to work hard and impress you.
Kriegel herself, being a baby boomer doesn’t use Facebook, fearing her lack of privacy. Only a few weeks ago however, I had a discussion with a former insurance CMO and startup founder of Denim Labs, Gregory Bailey, who informed me of ManuLife’s new health tracking technology, the success of course which hinges on millennials willingness to be tracked!
Could this insurance company along with hundreds of others, whose success hinges on these labels, be in for a rude awakening? It looks that way. In fact, Kriegel’s research shows that embracing these labels causes division and division leads to less collaboration, less meaningful work and it's killing our creativity!
What if our pervasive labeling is a self fulfilling prophecy? When we label a millennial as entitled, do we only see entitlement? Could our internalization of generational stereotypes be a giant blockade in our companies quest for more innovation? The answer is yes.
Just like those two demographic representatives mentioned earlier believed the other did not want to collaborate, simply due to the labels they had internalized, we are priming the pump for even more misunderstanding and disconnection. Perhaps your companies next innovative product is stuck in two separate departments, mislabeled and misunderstood.
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