Every now and then, I get some serious pushback when I write about Millennials or generations in the workplace. People get mad, almost, when I imply that these differences are (a) real and (b) important to running a really good organization. The biggest objection seems to be the fact that I am making generalizations about huge groups of people that, according to my detractors, simply cannot be true. How can you say (they argue) that a group of 50 million or 100 million people all think the same way or value the same things? That seems impossible.
To anyone out there who’s agreeing with that challenge, I have one question for you: are men and women different? And I don’t mean just biologically or physiologically—I mean do men and women, in general, behave differently, have different preferences, think differently? Are they socialized to be different? I hope you’re answering yes, because they are. We even have gender studies departments in universities that can back me up here. And if I suggest that men and women are different, am I somehow suggesting that ALL women are exactly the same? Of course not. Every human being is unique, actually. So please give me that same leeway with generations.
The differences among the generations are very real, backed by theory, and, just like generalizations about gender, were never really intended to apply to specific individuals. It’s okay that your twenty-five-year-old cousin doesn’t seem to think or act like a typical Millennial. That doesn’t negate the whole concept.
Now you may be thinking, okay, but my organization is small, so how do these generalizations apply to us? The answer is simple but powerful: they inform your thinking.
You may only have a handful of any one generation on staff, but knowing the differences among the generations can inform your thinking as you deal with those unique individuals. Has work at your association ever been slowed down due to internal conflict? Perhaps there have been ongoing conversations about the senior level micromanaging too much or maybe a middle manager that was not enough of a team player? Knowing that Baby Boomers (likely your senior level) tend to be group-focused and tend to do things together, while Generation Xers (middle managers maybe) tend to be independent and would rather be left alone to get their work done seems to be some relevant information here.
So does that mean that your Gen X middle manager is complaining about being micromanaged by the senior level BECAUSE she is Gen X? Of course not. She’s a unique individual.
But when I have that generational knowledge on my radar, it helps me shift the conversation.
Since I know about that generational conflict, I might start moving away from judgment-laden terms like “micromanaging” and “team player” that reinforce those differences, and instead break the conversation down into a negotiation around what specific management practices we are going to use based on how they impact our effectiveness.
Knowing about generations is like knowing about gender differences or even the differences among personality types. That knowledge doesn’t give you the answers, but it frequently helps you to reframe the questions or shape the conversations in ways that help you find much better answers.