Why we should get rid of generational labels in the workplace | Ladders

They are open for misinterpretation and ignore individual differences.
age at work

Why we should get rid of generational labels in the workplace

Many people seem determined to group all millennials into a single box, which seems a little unimaginative at best, considering demographers can’t even unilaterally agree on what exactly constitutes a millennial.

Whatever you call this group, there’s no denying the fact that millennials have a tremendous effect on the way we all work — but then again, so do the generations that came before and after. The real challenge is to find meaningful lessons beyond descriptors based on age.

Here’s why generational labels can cause problems in the workplace and how we should think about age at work instead.

Labels are open for misinterpretation

“People have long lumped members of generations together,” said Phyllis Weiss Haserot, president of Practice Development Counsel, who specializes in intergenerational work relationships. “It makes for good media stories with a lot of misinterpretations and misunderstanding.”

A fascinating article on NPR on the naming of generations credits historian William Strauss and his co-author the late Neil Howe for naming and referencing the group starting with those who graduated high school in 2000 in their books The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 and Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

“One problem with this (in addition to the fact that everyone is an individual) is that the older and younger halves of each generation are different from each other because of different formative economic, political, social and cultural influences,” Haserot said.

This means you might have micro-groups within groups. Some younger Boomers even created their own name, “Generation Jones” (a reference to the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”), Haserot said.

They are self-fulfilling

“If you assume millennials have no work ethic, you won’t give them meaningful responsibilities and hence you’ll never be impressed by any one individual, thus confirming the label,” said Wes Higbee, President, Full City Tech Co.

How can we go beyond labels on a daily basis? Higbee said he evaluates his own biases.

“I might assume that millennials don’t take notes and don’t listen well in meetings, and so I spend half an hour typing up notes after every meeting,” he said. “Maybe the reality is I have a few lackadaisical employees, and I can work with them to be more responsible — or just get rid of them —instead of labeling all young people as lazy and wasting hours every week typing up notes.”  

They ignore individual differences 

Tim Elmore, president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit global leadership training and development organization, refers to those born since 1990 as “Generation iY” and describes them as having a plugged-in lifestyle and wanting immediate gratification. 

He said that the generations who came before can help teach them how to build “a healthy sense of interdependence—not a narcissistic independence or needy co-dependence.”

“Help them to develop personal values,” he said. “They must see themselves as individuals who possess a set of values, but who collaborate with other generations.”

That may include helping them to make and keep short-term commitments, working with them to simplify their lives beyond the pursuit of perfection, and enabling them to set realistic goals.

“You will find they often possess lofty dreams, and they need help turning them into bite-size objectives with deadlines,” he said. “Don’t rain on their parade—just help them take realistic steps, one at a time, toward their target. Encourage them to set short-term goals that are achievable and keep momentum toward the long-term goal.”

They isolate employees

Helene Cruz, Director of Career Counseling at Pace University Career Services, said she is proud that her team is multi-generational.

“We have established a culture that cultivates learning from one another across seven generations,” she said. “We appreciate our millennial colleagues and rely on the fact that they are technically-savvy and creative, ready to bring new ideas to the table and not afraid to embark on new initiatives.”

All employees, no matter their age, contribute to the organization, Cruz said. 

“We glean a tremendous amount of insight from our millennial teammates because they are closer in age to the students and can more fully express the student perspective/experience,” she said. “In turn, because employer representatives are also our clients, many Baby Boomers and Gen X staff have previously worked in various industries, have hired employees, and therefore can speak to the needs of the employers, which we share with our millennial teammates.”   

The focus should not be on how generations differ, but on how they can work together, Cruz said.

“Establish environments where they interact with multiple generations,” she said. “Highlight the strengths of people at different ages in life, and how each person adds value. Find or create situations where different generations can interact meaningfully.”

Rachel Weingarten is a marketing & brand strategist and president of 729.marketing. She's a pop culture and trends analyst who frequently writes about business and style and the business of style. Rachel's a sometimes professor, teaching personal branding on the graduate and undergraduate levels. She leads corporate seminars on topics including evolving communication and spirituality in the workplace. Rachel is also the author of three award winning non-fiction books.