As a Millennial, I have felt at times turned off by the over-generalizations often presented about my generation. In my view, most of the changes in the workplace that we often say are coming from Millennials are actually larger shifts happening across all generations. It may be tempting for an organization to focus its L&D efforts on catering to the perceived “new characteristics” of Millennials, but I think doing so ignores the bigger picture.
Who Are The Millennials Anyway?
One of the tricky challenges about talking about any generation is deciding when to make the cut-off.
Depending on what research study or news article you read, the Millennial generation began with people born from 1977 – 1982 and ended with birthdays from 1992 – 2004. That is a pretty wide range of variation!
In “Here is When Generation Begins and Ends, According to Facts,” The Atlantic’s Philip Bump interviewed Tom DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University about this challenge. According to Diprete, “…the boundaries end up getting drawn to some extent by the media.” And while it made sense to define the Baby Boomers as a specific timeframe because of the powerful societal changes happening after World War II, he points out that “…history is not always so punctuated.”
When I read articles or hear talks about the millennial generation, the difference between millennials is portrayed as very punctuated. Older generations only wanted to work for a paycheck… but Millennials want meaning. Boomers and Gen X’ers don’t care as much about mobile devices and social media… but Millennials do.
I think that a bit of “moral panic” happens when we talk about Millennials in the workplace. Stanley Cohen coined this term in 1973 in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. He says:
Another feature of this “academic moral panic” is its structure as a series of strongly bounded divides: between a new generation and all previous generations; between the technically adept and those who are not; and between learners and teachers. … Thus, the language of moral panic and the divides established by commentators serve to close down debate, and in doing so allow unevidenced claims to proliferate.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
Reframing the Conversation
If we accept the fact that 1) the divide between generations is fuzzy at best and 2) the characteristics we pin to Millennials are not exclusive to Millennials because of the year they were born, we are prepared to have a more productive conversation about how to better position our organizations for multi-generational success.
Here are some thoughts to consider:
1. Mobile Impacts All Generations
The common rhetoric is that because Millennials are “digital natives” who grew up with technology, that they are intrinsically different from other generations. When I am at a conference or some other event where I see individuals from all generations staring at their phones, I am reminded that it is not just Millennials who are dependent on technology.
This is why a mobile learning strategy should be designed based on the needs of your entire workforce and not just cater to younger employees. For example, outside sales reps who are rarely at a desktop computer will benefit from a mobile learning solution regardless of what generation they happen to be. It’s about what type of job they have, not how old they are.
2. Social Media Comes Down to Personal Preference
It’s true: social media came to the forefront when many Millennials were in high school or college. But while Millennials may have been the first users of social networking sites, the people who choose to share their lives on social media come from all generations. My own circle of friends shares very little on social media, while my parents and older relatives are frequent users of both Facebook and Twitter.
It seems to me that one’s usage of social media is defined less by their generation and more by their personality and, when it comes to Twitter and LinkedIn, their professional goals. It would be a mistake to launch a “social learning initiative” targeted at Millennials just because they are supposed to like social media. It is important to observe the habits and preferences of your actual employees rather than trying to follow generational trends.
3. Of Course Young People Need Skill Development
Articles often say that Millennials lack the necessary skills they need to succeed in the workplace. They are said to need lots of professional development and that they seek feedback from managers to help them improve.
I would argue that any generation just entering the workforce is going to need plenty of skill development! Likewise, professionals who are farther into their careers may also need development to keep their skill sets current. Employee training and development should focus on the needs of employees based on designations such as years of professional experience or tenure at the company rather than trying to focus on a generational divide.
What Do You Think?
I am by no means a sociologist or researcher who focuses on generations. My goal is simply to spark some discussion and encourage learning & development professionals to focus on how culture shifts and new technology impact all of us, rather than zeroing in on a specific generation. What has your experience been when it comes to generational differences in the workplace? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.