Countdown to #DevLearn: Exploring Millennial Stereotypes with Jessica Kriegel

At this year’s DevLearn Conference and Expo, we’re excited to host Jessica Kriegel who will close out the conference with her keynote: Unfair Labels: Your Guide to Generational Dynamics in the Workplace.

Jessica is a senior organizational development consultant for Oracle Corporation and is the author of the book Unfairly Labelled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica and exploring how generational stereotypes can hurt our organizations and our efforts as L&D professionals.

Here’s our conversation.

DK: Jessica thanks so much for joining me today. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what drives your interest in generational stereotypes?

Jessica Kriegel: I did a doctoral degree in generational stereotyping with my dissertation topic and when I delved into it, I originally held all of the typical views of millennials and baby boomers as being different. And so my thesis, when I started the research, was that I would find out how millennials are different from baby boomers and how best to engage and retain them and attract them to various companies.

I was thinking that I would then become some kind of expert in millennials. I was thinking I was positioning myself to gain instant credibility in a field where I was usually one of the youngest people.

The problem was, I started doing this literature review for the dissertation and one of the roles in doing the literature reviews is you have to synthesize the data. I had a really hard time synthesizing the data because I noticed that all of the books were contradicting each other. There was very little hard data supporting what the authors were saying about each generation; it was mostly anecdotal evidence.

Looking at it through that academic lens, I started to realize that this was a complete falsity. There was just no reality in most of these perceptions of how each generation is, and then it kind of led me down a path of unconscious bias which I think is gaining a lot of traction in corporate America today, about how we have bias about various groups, generations being one example.

I felt like it became my mission to help people notice what their blind spots were about how we are pigeonholing people, putting them in buckets and how we can overcome that.

DK: So, as you’ve done this research, are there other things that you have discovered that you feel are driving the belief in these stereotypes?

Jessica Kriegel: I believe that the world is chaotic and volatile and uncertain, and people are being greatly affected by technology, so we’re looking for a way to explain the change because it feels so severe. One way to explain the change is to blame the younger generations for changing things in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily have done it. However, I don’t think that that’s why generations are stereotyped.

If you look at ancient texts from 2,000 years ago, there’s a quote commonly attributed to Socrates in which he was complaining about the younger generation saying that they all chattered too much, that they did not value exercise and that they indulged too much in Hellenic tastes. Those are literally the exact same complaints that people have about millennials today. Instead of chattering as a word for talking, I could picture it being some app called chatter that the adults are uncomfortable with, because the millennials are on it so much and they’re not wanting to go out and play anymore; that they’re lazy.

I mean, these are the exact same complaints and it is 2,000 years later.

I think that there is something that naturally occurs in us that makes us want to put down the younger generations. If you look at Henri Tajfel, he talked about this concept called, ‘in-group out-group dynamics’ in which, once we become a part of a group – whatever group that is – it’s natural that we end up thinking that that group is the best group. It’s part of self-esteem building.

It starts in high school; the theater geeks think being the theater geeks are the best group to be in; the jocks think the jocks are the best group to be in. Likewise, with generations, millennials think millennials are the best generation and baby boomers think baby boomers are the best generation.

No one’s wishing they were in a different generation and so there’s this natural tendency that now that we’ve been identified as part of a group, we need to think that that group is the best. People often believe stereotypes about their own generation, because it’s so pervasive. Right now in culture, we have to realize that well, maybe I’m even applying stereotypes to my group, which can be challenging.

DK: The narrative around generational differences is packaged very well from a commercial standpoint too. I can see how some organizations buy into the belief that we have to cater to the uniqueness of the millennial generation in order for our businesses to thrive. You actually believe the opposite to be true. How do you see belief in these stereotypes hurting our businesses?

Jessica Kriegel: Think about a marketing campaign. It could be a recruiting campaign because recruitment is marketing to some extent – you’re marketing your business for potential candidates. In the campaign, you say, “we’re a millennial-friendly company and we embrace having young, innovative talent joining our team”.

What you’re also doing in that message is saying “we’re not friendly to baby boomers”. There’s a divisiveness to saying that we are ‘pro’ one thing in terms of who we want to hire that is unnecessary. It may be that your most innovative candidate is going to be a baby boomer. It’s not that because someone is young, they’re going to be more creative or innovative or energetic or whatever; those are all unfair labels and stereotypes.

It’s also incredibly off-putting. I think people are starting to get fairly annoyed with the generational stereotypes. I have spoken to many millennials who roll their eyes when they hear the word millennial because it’s so overly talked about. There could also be this kind of inauthentic nature to these campaigns in which it feels like, “okay, you’re just using buzzwords to try and get me to be interested, but what I want to know as a candidate is, what is your culture? And what are your business objectives? And what kind of strategy you have? And how will I add value?”

That is not just a millennial thing; honestly, it’s an every person thing. I don’t think that there’s one generation that doesn’t want to know how they’re adding value. I think that we have to just be very careful about the way that we talk about it because it can be really off-putting.

Even if you’re making compliments about people, people don’t like to be told the way they think or what they’re feeling. Doing that and talking about generations is often a way of telling people, “this is what I know about you” when you haven’t even met them.

DK: I work in the education and training field. For many people like me, it’s like you’re preaching to the choir. We’ve seen the research and we understand that these stereotypes hurt people and orgainzations. But many of us work in an environment where the executive team buys into this stuff; they hear about how we have to cater to millennial needs or our business isn’t going to thrive, so they expect us to go down this path to stay competitive. How do HR and training professionals promote positive practices that avoid these stereotypes, when working in that sort of environment?

Jessica Kriegel: The first step is that we need to get rid of all of these training programs that we’re doing that talk about the differences between each generation. Those are pervasive in corporate America and what they do is they label these wide age ranges because remember, some millennials are 18 years old and some millennials are 36.

There is a huge range of experience when you’re talking about an 18-year-old who hasn’t even gone to college and you’re also talking about someone who’s more than 10 years into their career. You can’t necessarily say that they are the same kind of employee. So the first thing is, we need to get rid of all of those training programs.

The second thing is we need to show leaders the data. If you look at the data without this kind of hyperbole that’s usually spinning around it, there really is very little evidence that there are differences. I will give you some examples.

The first example is about loyalty. Employers are always talking about how millennials are less loyal than older generations and that’s why we have to cater to what they want. Well, the Employee Benefits Research Institute measured tenure within an organization by age and they have found – and this is an often quoted study when we’re talking about generations – that people who are 25 to 35 years old have an average tenure of three years long, and people who are 55 to 65 years old have an average tenure of 10 years.

If you look at that disparity, you think, ‘okay, clearly millennials are less loyal’. But the thing is that this group has been doing that study since the beginning of time. Well, not really since the beginning of time, but since about 1980. So since about 1980 they’ve been doing this study and the numbers have not changed.

That means that the young people who were joining the workforce in 1980 were just as likely to leave after three years as millennials are today. What often happens is people talk about, ‘oh well, you know, it’s because of technology and now they have ADD and they want instant gratification, and because of that they’re less loyal’.

But really, maybe it’s just that I’m at a different life stage when I’m beginning in the workforce and I thought that I wanted to do sales and it turns out I want to be a programmer. Now I’m going to change that up, whereas when I’m older in my career, maybe I’ve tried a few things and I figured out what works. Who knows, but it’s more of a life stage issue than a generational issue. We need to be really careful about how we just make these assumptions.

Another really great example: people will often say that because traditionalists (the greatest generation) grew up in difficult financial times that’s why they’re so frugal. Well, those same people who are very frugal right now, when you look at the statistics about spending in that age category, they were the same young adults post-World War II, who were keeping up with the Joneses. It was a very materialistic time in American history and they were spending money like crazy at that time. Those are the same people that are now being frugal.

So the storyline of ‘oh because they lived through a down economy; they were traumatized and now they’re frugal’ is missing the key element that during their peak spending years, there were not frugal whatsoever and maybe they’re frugal now because they’re on a budget because they’re retired.

There’s the correlation/causation issue and we get confused about that and we end up thinking that it sounds right. It sounds right that maybe millennials are more patriotic because of 9/11 but also I’ve heard that millennials are less patriotic than previous generations. We want to spin stories to make sense of the world but sometimes, the world cannot be that sensible in black and white and it’s very grey.

Ultimately the reality is there are 80 million millennials today; they are an incredibly diverse group and for leadership it really is important to understand what’s true for the people that are on my team; not what some author says about generations in the article that I saw this morning; because that is most of the time not accurate.

Want to learn more about how you can avoid generational stereotypes and the practices that reinforce those beliefs? Be sure to join us for Jessica’s closing keynote at DevLearn this fall! 

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