“They expect a medal for showing up to work,” said one participant at our table when the subject of millennials come up at a Workforce Development Exchange held during CONNECT 2017, the PHCC’s annual conference held last October.
Maybe you’ve heard this before about the 80 million people — the nation’s largest age group — born between 1980 and 2004. Is she right? I think we all crave recognition for our hard work no matter our age. And from time to time, we actually do receive medals, plaques and other honorifics as testaments to a job well done.
For example, later during the meeting, another contractor described an “Atta Boy” bulletin board hung in the break room used to routinely recognize techs for the jobs they do day in, day out.
Whether you hire and work with millennials or sell products and services to them, you’ve certainly heard plenty of other unpleasantries about them.
However, I suggest that millennials are just like you and me — only younger. Many of the attitudes and habits that are widely thought to be millennial-specific may be actually quite widespread among the general population.
You say, these entitled, cocky and coddled job-hopping narcissists are allergic to manual labor; so addicted to social media that they sleep with their smartphones next to their pillows; turn up their noses at anything other than pour-over coffee and microbrews and would prefer to work “flex-time” hours rather than 9-5? That sounds a lot like 58-year-old me.
Too disruptive, too focused on social do-gooding? Put some millennials in the Wayback Machine, set the dial for “1968” and they’d fit right in with the baby boomers, marching lock step in the same protests. (Not so sure which facial hair for the guys would be better, though.)
Most generational differences are just generalities, often vague, random and contradictory. For example, millennials are selfish, but they also find the time to be altruistic; they’re greedy and yet a curious bunch; they’re lazy and, somehow, also ambitious.
It’s just what you’d hear from carny fortune-tellers to imply they know more about you than they do: “I would say you are mostly shy and quiet, but when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the center of attention.”
You don’t say.
We’re all Venn diagrams with plenty of overlapping characteristics. Whatever differences there are can be chalked up to youth and what we brought along with us from the crib to adulthood.
So let’s stop drawing strong lines between decades. To say millennials are so-and-so is no different from saying that a person of a given gender or nationality is so-and-so. This type of thinking is not just politically incorrect, it is actually just incorrect.
Instead of putting people into different age groups, how about if we make it one group? One defined less by age and more by mindset and purpose that might be more universal than we think.
So let’s forget the millennials and focus on the perennials.
Meet the perennials
What’s a perennial? Enduring, perpetual, ever-lasting, recurrent. In other words, they keep up with the times and remain relevant throughout life.
I heard this concept from a tech entrepreneur named Gina Pell, who wrote about this last year and had her blog post ricochet through Twitter and the rest of social media.
“We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers who continue to push up against our growing edge and know how to hustle,” Pell adds. “We comprise an inclusive, enduring mindset, not a diverse demographic.”
Her alternative surpasses generational boundaries, which she doesn’t think are reliable guides to traits or behaviors in the first place.
“The days of targeting media and products at people based on their age is over,” Pell adds. “By identifying ourselves as perennials, we supply our constricting label with something that better reflects our reality.”
Perennials are any one of us who understands that age is not a limiting factor. Millennials can be perennials. Octogenarians can be perennials. In other words, many values, attitudes and behaviors are ageless.
While Pell talks mostly about perennials in terms of marketing, it’s not difficult to see how her idea also applies to the workforce. Any focus on an age group, for example, naturally excludes everybody else. Worse, we think they “have to be put up with.”
But generational values are more alike than not. And plenty of consistency can also be found across workplace attitudes. For example, a lot of workers are interested in retaining some flexibility in how and when they work. I’ve been reading “work-life balance” articles ever since I started working in 1982.
As for one direction to move forward, Pell suggests looking at algorithms and recommendation engines, which are increasingly getting better and better at targeting people based on behavioral data.
When Netflix recommends my next movie or when Amazon recommends my next book, they both do it based, in large part, on what I’ve actually done.
This approach makes it pretty fruitless to fall back on group-level categories and characteristics.
More to the point, if you’re interested in predicting and understanding what people do at work, focus on the individual. Decoding and explaining what makes each person tick is what we should really be focusing on.
We can blame this malarkey on the baby boomers who got us fixated on age groups in the first place. Pre-boomer, “generations” meant little more than “parents” and “children.” But boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, changed all that. And with good reason. Never had history such a clear punctuation mark as it did at the end WWII and at the start of not just boom in babies, but an economic boom to post-war America.
Interestingly enough, baby boomers are the first and remain the only demographic recognized by U.S. Census Bureau.
The buzz about the next generations, however, got muddled after the boomers started having kids themselves. Does anyone, for example, even talk about Generation X? And what happened to the echo boomers? The millennials actually started out life as Generation Y before Madison Avenue latched on to the idea that some of these kids would be the first high school graduates of the 21st century.
The impact of 80 million people entering the workforce can’t be ignored, particularly with so many boomers currently exiting the workforce. But the ruckus ignores what’s going on for everyone else.
For example, the number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to more than double to more than 98 million by 2060 from 46 million today, grabbing a 24 percent market share of the country up from the current 15 percent. And the fastest-growing population segment in the country is aged 85 and older – projected to rise to 19 million in 2050 from 5.8 million today.
Meanwhile, there’s another age cohort out there with the unfortunate tag of Generation Z. (Do we go back to the letter “A” next?) The oldest of this group is already 21. Which means they could be working in the next office right now, and we don’t even know it. Let’s spare this generation the same fate as the millennials and not check IDs at the door.