Think twice before criticizing other generations at work

At work, there’s a tendency to make fun comments based on our ages.


It’s normal to feel frustrated with other generations, or even your own. Many people feel the same way, because generational labels often just don’t fit. In a story in Science of Us, “Don’t Call Me a Millennial — I’m an Old Millennial” by Jesse Singal, he owns the fact that he has trouble identifying with his younger peers.

“Technically speaking, I’m definitely a millennial. I was born in 1983, which means I’m part of the generation, whether one uses the Census Bureau’s definition (born 1982–2000) or Pew’s (about 1981–1997). But the more I hear about millennials, the less I recognize myself,” Singal writes.

He also references a New York Times story, “Wait, What? I’m a Millennial?” by Juliet Lapidos and writes that “Old Millennials” and “Young Millennials” have had very different life experiences because of “two epochal events” that happened when one group was in young adulthood and the other group was made up of “mostly early adolescents: the financial crisis and smartphones’ profound takeover of society.”

This is fine to discuss with your friends. At work, it just creates divisions that no one needs.

Generational labels don’t fit most people

Singal points to differences in his usage of social media, and popular narratives about millennials’ lifestyles as ways he differs from his generation, later writing that these older and younger groupings “aren’t carved in stone, and there is certainly some overlap (especially for those who were influenced by older siblings)…” but that nothing is gained from lumping them together.

No surprise there: the generational labels we all cling to — whether Gen X or millennial or Gen Z — are primarily useful for marketing. They’re broad, and they leave a lot of people out.

And at work, while comparing generational influences may be fun, we have to be especially careful: ageism isn’t cool, and an offhand comment on someone’s youth or age can, unintentionally, get managers and colleagues into trouble with human resources.

How some millennials feel about their title

While Singal writes about differences he feels set him apart from younger people in his generation, he isn’t the only one bristling at the term “millennial.”

A national 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center of 3,147 adults on the American Trends Panel highlighted the group’s attitudes toward the term.

“Despite the size and influence of the Millennial generation, however, most of those in this age cohort do not identify with the term ‘Millennial.’ Just 40% of adults ages 18 to 34 consider themselves part of the ‘Millennial generation,’ while another 33% – mostly older Millennials – consider themselves part of the next older cohort, Generation X,” the report said.

Every generation is put down by the ones before

What supposedly sets generations apart often informs the dialogue surrounding each one. Millennials get lumped together as the  “The Me Me Me Generation.”

But guess what? Other generations also heard the exact same putdowns when they were young. Baby Boomers were called the “Me” Generation by none other than novelist Tom Wolfe in 1976. Newsweek wrote a piece on Generation X as the “Whiny Generation” in 1993.

“That’s the essence of the Generation X problem,” sniffed Newsweek 24 years ago. “We have a generation (or at least part of a generation) whose every need has been catered to since birth. Now, when they finally face adulthood, they expect the gift-giving to continue. I’m 28 and I’ll never own a house, whines the Generation Xer. I’m 25 and I don’t have a high-paying job, says another.”

Does that sound familiar? It should. It sounds exactly like what’s been said of nearly every living generation when it was young. Maybe our “generational differences” aren’t so big after all. The “me”ness of generations traces back to the 1930s and before, amplified by the technology of more people to create their own images.

“With each generation of media technology, ‘ME’ gets bigger,” wrote Smithsonian.

What different generations have in common at work

While all millennials certainly don’t relate to each other in the same ways — and shouldn’t be treated as a monolithic category — it’s important to also think about what unites members within the group, as well as what links the group to other generations.

Ladders/SurveyMonkey online poll of 4,711 adults ages 18 and up sheds light on how flexible hours are important to everyone.

“From the Silent Generation to Generation X and millennials, every single generation in our study prioritized flexible hours as the top perk they sought when seeking a job. When asked to pick between a game room, a gym membership discount, a nap area, unlimited snacks, free meals, casual Fridays, flexible hours, and the option to work remotely, 39% of millennials said flexible hours was the most important perk with the ability to work from home a close second at 25%,” we found.

The same poll also found that meaning is important to careers — “across generations,” 67% of all participants reported valuing an organization’s mission over the salary it could offer them.

While definitely there’s reason to feel like every popular “millennial” label doesn’t apply to you, consider thinking about what you share with younger co-workers of your generation to feel better at work.