Why Most of What You’ve Been Told About Millennials and Gen Z Is Dead Wrong
Buying into a false generational narrative undermines our organizations and our society.
Among our greatest enemies, as individuals, as organizations, and as a society are the false biases that justify an attitude of “us and them” –in a word, discrimination. Fortunately it’s one of the areas where we’ve made the most progress over the past 100 years.
Yet, there is one area where even the most tolerant among us feels it’s totally justified to discriminate with utter abandon; millennials and Gen Z.
So, tell me if this is familiar: you’re having a conversation with a co-worker when the topic turns to generational differences. Suddenly he or she launches into a tirade about millennials and how they are entitled, lazy, self centered, kids who lack interpersonal skills and have a warped sense of the world in general. And all the while, within earshot or perhaps in the same room, there’s a millennial hearing every word!
It amazes me how we would shudder at any other form of discrimination based on religion, gender, race, national origin, sexual preference, or older workers and yet we think nothing of slamming what will soon be the single largest demographic in the global workforce, millennials and Gen Z.
The Cost Of Generational Bias
We pay a steep price for this not only for the friction it creates in our society and organizations, but also in how it undermines the productivity of workers. I’ve witnessed it first hand in my consulting and in a course I teach on understanding and managing generational friction in organizations. I’m consistently amazed at how much this bias (in some cases outright antipathy) is simply baked into our organizations and the high cost we pay for not challenging it.
A recent Harvard study showed that leaders who discriminated just by showing a bias in how they treated a certain class of employees created a productivity difference of nearly 30%. In other words, workers who were treated with a bias were 30% less productive than those who were not!
Do you see something wrong with this picture?
We’ve constructed, bought into, and cornered ourselves into a collective societal narrative that is not only false, but incredibly damaging to our relationships, organizations, and society. It undermines productivity, creativity, and ultimately the one thing that gains the most from diversity, innovation!.
Here is how to get out of the corner.
In research my co author Dan Keldsen and I did for our book, The Gen Z Effect, we have by now surveyed and interviewed nearly 1,000 individuals and collected 500,000 data points across all age demographics. What we found was startling.
There were really only three statistically significant differences between knowledge workers born before 1980 (1982 is when most people start the Millennial generation) and those born after. The differences were their attitudes towards retirement, intellectual property, and their volume of digital communications.
Yet, even here, the difference is not as dramatic as you might think, and it’s closing fast.
First, while 50% of those born before 1980 expected to retire at some point, only 20% of those born after 1980 said that they would ever retire.
Second, the younger demographic was twice as likely to shun intellectual property rights, such as copyright and patents.
Third, the total number of overall individual communications (texts, messages, pictures, posts, phone, face to face) where significantly higher among the post 1980 group. By the way, what’s really interesting is that the number of phone and face to face communications where not significantly less for this group, but their digital communications where significantly higher! Technology is most often additive to human experience not subtractive, as we make it out to be.
Based on responses over time, however, we predict that within 10-15 years there will be virtually no difference even in these attitudes.
Every other category along which you might expect differences, from the use of technology, to cell phone usage, to work habits showed a fairly equal distribution of responses across all age groups! Yes, you read that right, we’re much more alike than we are different, and the differences are no where near as dramatic as we make them out to be.
Stop and think about it.
- Grandparents who had sworn off of technology are now using tablets to video Skype with their grandkids.
- If you’re a knowledge worker age is irrelevant, there are few ways to avoid using a mobile device, text, or messaging in communicating with colleagues. You’re staring at the little screen much more than you want to admit.
- Over 70% of all age groups are never more than three feet from their mobile device throughout the day and night. And at least two third of the people reading this checked their mobile device for email, text, messages, Facebook posts, before even getting out of bed today. You did, right?
I can hear you now, “Come on! There must be some differences!” Yes, but most are subtle and they are all diminishing quickly in their variability, because we are becoming Gen Z!
The Post-Generational Future
Simply put, we are converging into, what we call, in The Gen Z Effect, a post-generational world. We are all starting to adopt a single relatively unified set of behaviors because we are all using a single unified set of technologies to live, work, and play together–we have to if we don’t want to miss out.
The notion of vast Generational differences may have once made sense when Margaret Mead first popularized the term 50 years ago; back when the workforce was composed of two generations at best and when retirement really did mean detaching from the workforce. Neither is true any longer.
Generational bias has become a fiction that only serves, like every other bias, to separate us into opposing tribes, each of which is supposed to confine you to one given set of behaviors. In fact towards the end of her career, even Mead voiced her displeasure with the way the term had come to be used as a segregator and wedge between people.
Now ask yourself, honestly, would you tolerate discrimination across any other categorization that wasn’t based on a person’s actual competency and ability to do the work?
It’s Not A Birthright
So, why discriminate using the arbitrary category of Generational labels? Clearly because we take some sort of undeserved pride in our own label. You might as well take credit for the color of your eyes or your height or any thing else you had no choice in. It’s your birth date not your birthright!
When you where born doesn’t guarantee a certain set of behaviors any more, and increasingly it doesn’t even predispose you to them. What we most often call generational behavior is not a birthright nor a genetic defect; it’s context and choice. The context is changing because we are all working side by side using the same tools and technologies. So, what’s left is choice; the choice to divide and discriminate by age or to integrate and collaborate across it.
The fact is that organizations which adopt a culture that eschews generational labels, put in place programs–such as reverse mentoring–to bridge the perception of generation gaps, and align behavior with culture rather than age, are the ones who stand the greatest likelihood of success connecting with employees, partners, and the marketplace.
So, the next time you find yourself–or anyone else–bashing a millennial, or for that matter a boomer or some other arbitrary generational label that creates an ‘Us versus Them” mentality, stop and challenge yourself to think different and envision the benefits of a post-generational world.
Welcome to Gen Z!
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.