Article | 9 min read

The generational divide

By Sara Lighthall

Last updated January 10, 2017

As Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation, we’ve becomes a hot topic—everyone is writing about Generation Y, and it oftentimes isn’t too cheery. Over the past few months I’ve stumbled across headlines like “Millennials don’t know what fabric softener is for” (who cares?), or “Millennials are killing the napkin industry.” Heck, we were even charged with ruining the Olympics.

“I don’t like reading articles about Millennials,” my Millennial sister, Rachel, said as we chatted over a holiday dinner. “I find stereotypes about the generation to be overwhelmingly negative and narrow-minded.” I don’t blame her. I’ve been writing about Millennials for a while now—how we dress, how we socialize, and where we live. But in covering these topics,

Here’s what makes Millennials “Millennials”

In the 1920’s, sociologist Karl Mannheim suggested that people are significantly impacted by the socio-economic environment during their childhood. Events such as World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and September 11th define demographic cohorts and their characteristics. Enter generations.

As Millennials, we have certain characteristics projected upon us just because we were born between the years of 1981 and 1997.

We often hear that Millennials are confident, entitled, team-oriented, adventurous, feedback-seeking, and disloyal to employers. Supposing this is true, what made us this way? Between December 2007 and June 2009, America experienced a little something called The Great Recession. Just as the oldest Millennials were graduating from college and kickstarting their careers they faced a labor market with high unemployment and low wages. The younger end of the generation saw their parents trudging through the instability of a poor economy, understandably creating anxiety and insecurity about money.

The Millennial disadvantage: differences explained

When I asked my mother, a baby boomer, about the differences between our generations she immediately brought up job-hopping. “There is definitely a lot less job turnover in my age group,” she said. “People tended to start in a job and stay in a job. I was in my first job after school for ten and a half years.” My father, too, has been in his job since I was in diapers and I know the same is true for many of my peers’ parents. Millennials, on the other hand, may switch jobs as often as every couple of years, and will have more employers over their lifetime than their parents.

What makes us move around so much? Looking at the backdrop of our youth may, indeed, reveal why. Coming of age in a volatile economy with limited job opportunities and depressed income means that we are looking for stability, for a job with an income that can both support us and help us chip away at our student loans. Perhaps it’s not that we just get fed up and quit, but that we take opportunities when they present themselves in hopes of being successful… and having a roof over our heads. What’s more, in their “Generational differences reexamined” report, Deloitte argues that Millennials may move from job to job because they work as independent contractors or seasonal employees, roles that involve truncated tours of duty that leave employees searching for new jobs every couple of years. While Millennials enjoy these gigs for their flexibility and work-life balance, many see contracts more as opportunities to “test drive” positions at different companies rather than as long-term plans.

Coming of age in a volatile economy with limited job opportunities and depressed income means that we are looking for stability, for a job with an income that can both support us and help us chip away at our student loans.

Let’s get back to those student loans. We have debt. Lots of it. While Millennials are believed to be the most educated generation to date, In fact, 58 percent of Millennials have student loan debt, compared to 17 percent of the prior generation. When asked who is responsible for rising student loans, 42 percent of Millennials placed the blame on universities. Both private and public universities have been increasing the price of tuition at a rate significantly higher than that of inflation.

College affordability is additionally threatened thanks to financial aid’s inability to keep pace with tuition hikes, the College Board reports. “Poor job prospects, as well as high levels of student debt, mean that a sizable portion of the Millennial generation has started out with distinct disadvantages,” writes Dr. Patricia Buckley in a Deloitte report.

The entitlement title

Another word that is commonly placed alongside Millennial is entitled. When I asked my mother about whether her generation was labeled similarly she replied, “I think it’s more of a Millennial thing. I don’t think my generation entering the workforce had that association.” In a 2016 Relate article, Laura Shear writes, “The Gen Y cohort was the first generation awarded trophies just for showing up. They grew up in an increasingly competitive and fast-changing society raised by parents determined to produce winners.” All of these participation awards are believed to leave Millennials under the assumption that we deserve praise for everything we do, especially in the workplace.

As someone who never played sports as a child, I don’t completely understand the phenomena. But I do think there are other motivators behind the desire for attention— Millennial writer Bridget Hamilton chronicles her struggles finding an entry-level job post-graduation, something I can identify with as a soon-to-be college graduate. With companies getting hundred of applications per entry-level position, you need a strong resume and personality, to stand out.

And it doesn’t stop once we have a signature or an offer letter, it continues once we’re on board. Sure, we like our managers noticing when we’ve done a good job (and telling us so), but I think our thirst for praise is oftentimes a need for feedback in disguise. Growing up with so much financial instability has left us feeling insecure. It’s not just that we want a pat on the back, but that we want somebody to tell us we’re doing something wrong so we can do it right. Without feedback from our managers (both negative and positive), we have no way of knowing how we are performing or if our jobs are stable.

Sure, we like our managers noticing when we’ve done a good job (and telling us so), but I think our thirst for praise is oftentimes a need for feedback in disguise.

In some respects, Mannheim was right, the socio-economic environment of our childhood does impact our behavior. It is not, however, an all-encompassing system of classifying people. The Millennial identity is more complex than a set of characteristics defined by an arbitrary line drawn around a group of us. While we do share experiences, we also have many more that are unique to us as individuals.

Generational classifications—illuminating, but limited

I wouldn’t call myself overly confident or entitled, in fact, I believe myself to be quite the opposite. And I can assure you that all I want is to find a secure job at a company that I can work at for years to come. Job-hopping just isn’t for me. When I chatted with a friend a couple of months back, she shared similar sentiments. I asked her whether or not she saw herself staying in her current job, or fleeing for the next best opportunity. She said that while she was currently “roughing it to gain experience,” she hoped to stay at the company for years to come, with hopes of advancing her career by staying put. My point? Not all Millennials are job-hoppers, or entitled. But we are all assumed to be so.

While the definition of our generation may help explain why some Millennials are the way they are, the simplistic generational label can’t be used as the only way to characterize Millennials, or any generation for that matter. “It’s hard to to define culture and the characteristics of a subculture because of all the individual differences within one,” said my sister in our recent conversation, “which I think is true for our generation.”

And the research agrees with her. In a review of theory and evidence about generational distinctions, Emma Perry and Peter Urwin found that there is as much evidence supporting generational differences as there is contradicting the popular stereotypes.

As much as we do have similarities that connect us, the individual differences from person-to-person are not to be overlooked. Age, race, and culture all affect us just as much as the socio-economic events of our childhood. Take age, for example. While you might still see photos of twenty-somethings starting at smartphones on the cover of your local newspaper, remember that the upper boundaries of the generation are now in their mid-thirties. We don’t think of these individuals—many of whom are married with families—the same way we do eighteen-year-old Instagram addicts, do we? I wouldn’t be surprised if those of us currently in our twenties shake the “entitled” label fifteen years from now.

We don’t think of these individuals [older Millennials]—many of whom are married with families—the same way we do eighteen-year-old Instagram addicts, do we?

A tool for greater understanding

The way I see it, generalizations, while limiting, happen with good reason. But with all the time and effort we spend reading and writing about Millennials, we should be approaching them with a more optimistic viewpoint. In the workplace, 38 percent of Millennials believe that senior management do not relate to younger workers. So, instead of using generational categories as means of labeling, use them to improve your understanding of your teammates. That’s why we started the Millennial view series in the first place—to help other generations better understand, and thereby, better lead.

Approach your relationships with Millennials the same way. Listen and learn from all generations—Millennial or not—and try to understand who they are and why. You may find that we all want the same things, but have different ways of expressing it.

Our Millennial series is not just for Millennials. Everyone can gain insight on these important workplace and life issues. Topics such as finding a friend in feedback, moving up while dressing down, and sweatworking impact us all, regardless of generation.