Oh, those millennials and their generational differences in the workplace! We continue to tear out our hair about their horrible qualities — the laziness! the impatience! the entitlement! The list goes on and on. A colleague of mine recently send me a video of speaker Simon Sinek talking about the awful millennials — first, about how useless they are, and second, about how they’re really just helpless victims of their upbringing and their environment.
I have written before about my frustration with these generational stereotypes. I don’t get it. We know it’s inappropriate to stereotype women, or African Americans, or gay people. Yet it still seems to be socially acceptable to trash a group of people on the basis of their age. And as I have said before, when we examine those generational stereotypes using rigorous research techniques, they just don’t hold up to scrutiny.
There are many generational differences between young people and older people, certainly. But the notion that this generation is somehow uniquely immature and incompetent is nonsense. So how come we keep hearing these myths?
Why we’re so obsessed with generational differences in the workplace
I think the roots lie in generational envy. The psychological truth is that most of us never really think of ourselves as old. We look in the mirror and we’re either shocked by the wrinkles or we just don’t see them. We tell ourselves that if we comb our hair over our bald spots or wear a man bun or cover the gray, people will think we’re still 39 — which is about how old most of us feel.
And then reality hits us in the face in the form of vibrant, energetic young people who are full of ideas and enthusiasm, who have a long future ahead of them, who are beautiful and fascinating and sexy. And in our hearts, we know we aren’t like them anymore. Sure, we have our own energy and our own beauty and our own sexiness — but let’s face it, in many people’s eyes, they have us beat.
So we resent these young people, and we find all sorts of ways to convince ourselves that our generational traits are superior. We patronize and belittle our younger coworkers, but the truth is, deep down they terrify us. They remind us of our mortality.
Understanding generational differences in the workplace, and learning to get over them
I shared this perspective with a younger colleague of mine. He was quiet for a moment and then said, “You know, it goes both ways. We stereotype older colleagues. We talk about how they hoard the authority and block us from achieving our goals and making things happen. We laugh at them for being old-fashioned and inept with technology. You know how older people say, ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ Well, we might as well say, ‘Power is wasted on the old.’”
I laughed — his remark was clever and funny and true. Conflict arising from intergenerational differences in the workplace will always be there, rooted in our deep emotions about our own parents and children. But in the workplace, we serve our companies and our stakeholders best by rising above this petty, irrational divide. There is so much we can learn from each other and accomplish when we quit seeing each other through biased lenses and start respecting everyone for what they bring to the table.
The next time you feel like bashing the millennials, knock it off. First, because it’s just wrong to negatively stereotype a diverse group of people. And second, because there’s no better way to make yourself sound like an old fuddy-duddy.