What We (Usually) Miss When We Talk About Millennials

Someone far smarter and more technically adept than I created a Google Chrome extension that automatically changes all instances of the word “millennial” on a webpage, to the as useful term…”snake people.”

From Refinery29: What’s the “Snake People” Whoop, and Why Is It In Almost Every Song? 

From the Boston Globe: Navy Seeks to Adapt Training for “Snake People” 

From Buzzfeed: 19 Reasons Why “Snake People” Are Totally Destroying This Country
(although let’s be honest, that’s probably actually a headline on Buzzfeed somewhere.)

With that said, I’ve not yet installed this extension. I prefer to do it manually, via an occasional Twitter hashtag: #ReplaceMillennialWithHuman.

In my experience, most writing about millennials suffers from one of two problems:

(1) It’s too specific. A trait being ascribed to a blanket group of adults within a 16-20 year age range (depending on who you ask), like values, lifestyle, or – my favorite, WORD CHOICE – is one that is by no means out of the reach of the rest of the general population. Who can ascribe the same metric other than age to accurately group myself, Justin Bieber, DeRay McKesson, Laverne Cox, and Mindy Kaling? (Yep, all millennials by the numbers)

Yeah, in this instance someone between the age of 20 and 36 used a curse word on TV. Betty White’s done it too. It’s an extraordinarily common storyline on situation comedy for toddlers to use them. And let’s not talk about the middle-aged football coaches who get caught doing it on TV every week between September and February.

But it’s the second issue, being too general in our assumption of who a millennial is and what it does, that I want to address here at length. Most of us, when we say millennial, are using far too broad a brush to paint a picture of a generation that is significantly more nuanced, and needs several smaller brushes, to be able to see anything of consequence.

(Some of you may be saying, “that’s true of all generations.” I agree. But most other generations aren’t dealing with the needless vitriol of this one, so hang with me here for a minute.)

More often than not, the headlines you see – and the traits they purport to reveal – are negatively oriented. The paint applied to that broad brush includes hues of indifference, entitlement, myopia, defensiveness, and a lack of gratitude or focus. Who’s racing to buy that painting? Few people, which is likely why so millennials are feeling as though managers and supervisors aren’t investing in them or their development. Even as attempts to temper these assumptions popped up (most notably for me, Managing the Millennials by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, and Craig Rusch- some of the wisdom from which I’ve written on previously), it couldn’t be ignored that the traits assumed inherent simply weren’t wholly representative of the differentiated generation that I grew up in.

Thankfully, more nuanced portrayals are starting to crop up. I heaved a sigh and teared up at the first part of awesome human (and my former editor) Nona Willis Aronowitz’s series in Fusion on the millennials we aren’t talking about, which included the crucial passage below, written as she compared the millennials she had just interviewed at a Midwestern startup, with the ones that were rallying for a $15 minimum wage on the block outside, “looked to be under 30, black or Hispanic, and not the least bit concerned with the issues of the white startup kids”:

I understood then just how much talk of “millennials” had been aggressively focused on college-educated, upper-middle-class young people, even though they were hardly in the majority. There was a swath of millennials out there who grew up with entirely different financial baselines and cultural values, and they were being ignored.

Think now about the bill that too many, including those who can play a crucial role in the development and success of millennials, have been sold.

We can’t invest in these “kids” because they’ll just leave. I’ll try to teach them things, but they’ll either choose to not listen or assume they know better. They think they know more than me anyway, so what’s the point?

Before I get to this point, a word from those who insist on conflating “millennials” with “kids” or “twentysomethings”:

Okay, I’m good now. On we go.

Are there millennials who fit that bill? Oh yeah. I’ve met them. Worked with them, too. It was not enjoyable, so I understand the frustration associated with it. But think about what sort of psychological, developmental, and financial safety has to come with an attitude like that in the workplace. That sort of safety – the security of knowing that if you don’t get what you want, that you can jump ship and land safety in a net of some kind – isn’t common. I knew that intrinsically as these headlines kept popping up.

This summer, the Center for Talent Innovation gave me numbers to back up that sinking feeling I’d held reading news headlines for so many years. In their book Misunderstood Millennial Talent: The Other Ninety-One Percent, they revealed the numbers behind the massive miscalculation we’ve made in this up-and-coming generation. How many millennials fit the doomsday thinking we’ve been taught to identify with this age group? Nine percent.

Here’s how they define it:

It turns out that, in our nationally representative sample, Millennials who have a financial safety net – those who have families who could support them indefinitely, were they to quit or lose their jobs, or who receive financial gifts from family members totaling at least $5,000 per year – are more likely than those who do not say they plan to leave their jobs within a year.

[…] But only 9 percent of Millennials, we find, have such a safety net. The vast majority – 91 percent – do not have such financial privilege.

For those curious, the nationally representative sample in question included both “a US survey of 3,298 college-educated men and women working full time in white collar professions in the US, and [a] multimarket survey of 11,396 college-educated men and women working full time in seven critical markets (Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and the UK).” Imagine, by the way, how the numbers would bear out if you included those without the means to go to college!

The “other ninety-one percent,” as the books’ authors Joan Snyder Kuhl and Jennifer Zephirin, falls into a category that we must pay attention to if we are to change this sour perception: millennials without financial privilege.

This distinction matters.

It matters because a large swath of this age group when looked at from an intersectional standpoint (not just socioeconomics, but gender and upbringing based on culture and values) has been discounted unfairly, based on the high-profile ability and behavior of a small cross-section.

It matters because the perception of this large swath of the workforce is affecting how leadership training, advancement, and security measures for organizational prosperity are being executed.

It matters because the animosity that is being fed all too often…is baseless in a large percentage of cases.

And it matters from a representation standpoint: I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up reading parts of the book where they spoke to millennials of color, first generation Americans whose families affected their work, about their experiences- because I’d never seen that before. How many others might you live with, work with, or interact with daily who have never seen themselves in this narrative before? How might that affect how you treat them or what you assume of them?

Are there entitled, spoiled, difficult, and frustrating millennials? Absolutely. I’d argue I’ve also met Gen Xers and Boomers that fit that bill. Those traits are not new. But the fact of the matter is, there are far more millennials who are eager to work in a way that makes a difference- and are willing to do the learning it takes to get there- than those who fit the narrow scope so many have trained on them. These millennials understand what it takes to be successful, and go to great lengths to do so. They do so while raising the next generation of their own families. And they’re far more humble about their accomplishments and potential for growth than they get credit for. For every wunderkind who creates a dazzling prototype for a flashy new platform or service with a net and copious outside funding, there are thousands others who are toiling on a smaller scale in relative obscurity to build new things.

I’ll be honest, I don’t fully know what my point is in sharing all of this, other than to encourage you to think bigger. Be open to adjusting your idea of what millennials look like. Be mindful of the language you use, as it matters. Be mindful of the assumptions that accompany that language, and what we believe about the people we work alongside when we plan outings, seek input, and determine our target audiences. And as you do this, next time you see others hemming and hawing about the legitimacy, attitude, or behavior of millennials colleagues or coworkers? Push back. Learn more about who we’re dealing with, and then share the wealth. We’ll all be better for it.

And finally: get ready to throw all this out. Gen Z is coming. And that is a wholly different ballgame.

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