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The Problem With Generational Stereotypes At Work

Source | FastCompany : By Jared Lindzon

When Jessica Kriegel set out to write her doctoral dissertation on the unique attributes of the millennial generation, she discovered one major problem: There weren’t any.

“As I was reading all of the different books, research articles, and peer-reviewed studies on generational difference, I started to realize how much contradiction there is in the literature,” says Kriegel, who earned a PhD in educational leadership with a specialization in human resources management from Drexel University in 2013. “I realized it’s all kind of made up. There’s not a lot of hard data that supports any of these assumptions. It’s all anecdotal, case studies, research studies with 200 people that they apply to the broader population, and it’s really damaging.”

The results of Kriegel’s research appears in her recently published book, Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes. In it she explores how remarkably similar the generations are, and how damaging labels can be to both employers and employees.

“When we use language about millennials and gen Xers and baby boomers, it can be very off-putting, regardless of what you’re saying, even if you’re saying something complimentary,” says Kriegel. “You may be putting them in a bucket they don’t want to be in.”

For example, Kriegel is the organizational development consultant for Oracle Corporation, where many of her baby boomer colleagues are more technologically savvy than she is. In spite of being an “older millennial,” she has never used Facebook.

“The way it’s most detrimental to managers is they will read all these articles, and they’ll be saying, ‘This is what millennials are, this is what millennials want,” she says. “They’re creating a judgment about what their employee is going to be, and not getting to know the employee in front of them, because they think they’ve already got them figured.”

In spite of the countless news stories, blog posts, and studies that suggest differences in the generations, Kriegel can point to other research documents, such as this one, this one and this one, all of which point to “exaggerations,” “myths,” and “perceived generational differences” as opposed to concrete distinctions.

“People are using the stats to sell whatever it is they’re selling, and journalists are using the stats to tell a compelling story, whether one exists or not,” she says. “It’s way more interesting to say, ‘We figured out millennials, they are X,’ than it is to say, ‘Well, we can’t really label because that’s stereotyping, and so in reality we’re going to just continue to remain vague about what we know.”

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