Employers, Stop Labeling Millennials

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By Alison Green

If you've read a newspaper or business magazine in the last decade, you've likely been bombarded with articles about how millennials require different treatment at work from everyone who has come before them.

In fact, entire consulting businesses have been built on the idea that employers need to learn special techniques to effectively manage millennial employees, who allegedly have different needs, motivations and weaknesses than anyone else. Confounding matters further, millennial workers are alternately accused of being both lazy and driven, highly focused and unfocused, independent and overly dependent and in need of structure and adverse to structure.But contradictory descriptions aside, most of the stereotypes people attribute to millennials aren't about what generation they happen to belong to. They're about being young and inexperienced in the work world. This generation is far from the first group of 20-somethings to find entry-level work boring, not understand the concept of paying their professional dues, bridle at dress codes and office norms or yearn to have more of a voice in office decision-making.

It's not that generational differences don't exist – of course they do. The influence of trends in things like parenting, pop culture and education do create common value systems that broadly distinguish people growing up in a various times. And of course it's interesting to examine how changing social norms have created different values and approaches in particular demographics.

The bigger factor at play in the millennials' work style is about age and experience level. While it's certainly true that millennials are less likely to have a skillful command of office politics within a hierarchical structure than people in their 40s, for example, that was true of 20-somethings 30 years ago as well. The traits and behaviors commonly attributed to millennials are about being inexperienced – not about being born between 1982 and 2004.

Moreover, if anything, much of this generation is precisely the opposite of entitled when it comes to their workplace expectations. They graduated into one of the worst job markets in recent history, they're often saddled with crippling student loan debt for educations that they were assured would help them pay off that debt quickly and they had to quickly adjust their expectations to a fairly devastating new economic reality. Many studies show that they'll never catch up, given that graduating into that market will permanently depress their lifetime wages.

The millennials I talk to are painfully aware of this, not blithely oblivious to such a sobering career reality. Contrary to being entitled, many of them – particularly new grads – are willing to work multiple jobs, long hours and for any employer who will have them. They don't expect senior level jobs to be handed to them – they'd just like any job, please.

And as if that weren't enough, consider that the popular conception of "millennials" is largely confined to a particular socioeconomic demographic, leaving out huge swaths of people who don't fit the narrative. What of the millennial blue-collar workers, veterans and first generation college students? What of the millennial single parents? There are plenty of them, and they're generally ignored by the pop culture mythology about their generation.

So where does this leave the employers who are struggling to make sense of the enormous quantity of advice on how best to manage millennials?

Managers who buy into generation-based strategies for managing workers are making a significant stumble. Good managers adapt their management according to the needs of the role and the individual employee. They shouldn't adopt "millennial management strategies" any more than they should make broad generalizations about managing based on sex, race or astrological sign.

Millennials don't need or want to be managed as millennials, but rather as relatively inexperienced workers who have similar needs to junior-level workers at any time in the last several decades: clear expectations, a reasonable amount of training, meaningful feedback and employers who treat them as individuals – not representatives of a generation.

It's time to retire the "millennial" label – and maybe in the process, our whole compulsion to label and define generations at all.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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