Is the Millennial generation “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow?” That’s what Joel Stein wrote last year in a cover story for Time Magazine. While each generation has its own characteristics, as many pointed out, Stein’s argument sounded like something old people have been saying about younger generations forever. As longevity extends, managing conflict between generations will be important and perhaps not as difficult as it might appear.
The first thing worth acknowledging is that young people have always been more likely to be self-focused. The boomer generation was dubbed the ‘me’ generation whereas Stein called the Millennials the “me, me, me” generation. Debunking some of the ‘facts’ that Stein discussed in his article, The Wire’s Elspeth Reeve wrote, “it's not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it's that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It's like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences.”
The point here is that people are capable of change, and one of the things that changes them is time. But what if generations really are different in some sort of way? It’s true, as Stein points out that “the average middle-class American family today walks amid 85 pictures of themselves and their pets. Millennials have come of age in the era of the quantified self, recording their daily steps on FitBit, their whereabouts every hour of every day on PlaceMe and their genetic data on 23 and Me.” Having that kind of connectivity does change the way one thinks and acts upon the world. This kind of generational difference shows up in leadership studies.
According to Donna Haeger, an instructor at Cornell University’s school of applied economics and management, different cohorts have different strengths, and that is a good thing. In a research study co-authored with Case Western’s Dr. Tony Lingham, she interviewed leaders under the age of 36 and their direct reports who were at least 20 years older. The study found that Millennials have initiated “a paradigm shift in the way young people lead in an intergenerational setting.”
Today, younger leaders tend to emphasize task accomplishment and multi-tasking rather than focusing on coaching their employees or listening to their personal issues. In other words, handholding is out; results are in.
Kelly Hall, a 25-year-old banking associate told Canada’s Financial Post how she sees this playing out in her generation. “Because of our active lifestyles, we have learned how to maintain a certain work-life balance that is not wrong or lazy, but different from generations before us,” she says. But that different style doesn’t always sit well with those who are expecting something more traditional.
“Congruence between leader and direct report depends on shared perceptions,” Haeger and Lingham write. “When the perceptions are not shared, researchers find perceptual collisions that lead to strained interactions.” No surprise there. When expectations don’t match reality, problems inevitably arise. So what’s the secret to managing different generations who will come to the table with different assumptions?
David Maxfield, author of three New York Times bestselling leadership books, says it is important to start with the facts. Once everyone can agree on the facts, then the next step is to engage in a real dialog (not a diatribe). This kind of advice seems like a no-brainer, but it is in contrast to typical behaviors that are often laced with emotions and informed by stereotypes.
He wisely notes that, “generational labels become self-fulfilling prophecies: people think bad behavior is the result of someone’s age, so they don’t confront it, and as a result, things don’t change, which further proves the behavior is in fact the result of an age difference.”
Good communication is the key to solving intergenerational issues in the workplace. As longevity continues to extend, those who excel at communication will be even more sought after than they are today and negative labeling of the sort employed by Joel Stein will not only be useless, but will be disparaged.