I do not like stereotypes.
They’re simplistic and occasionally – maybe more than occasionally – stupid. And while there is some truth to them – in the same way people who share an astrological sign also share some personality traits – large group assumptions are so easy to disprove it’s ridiculous. There’s always one or two standouts in the group who are so fabulous. Then, if you’re reasonable, you have to question everything.
For instance, popular generational comparisons posit that most millennials are entitled and lazy. It’s just not true. You know why the older generations are so quick to poo poo millennial ideas and work habits? Fear. Fear and faulty memories.
Gen X or Boomer leaders see all of that energy, that certainty not yet terribly shaken by life’s turbulence, and they forget that they were once like that. We forget that we too wanted information and opportunity sooner rather than later, and that we didn’t – we don’t – necessarily want to wait until someone else is ready to give it to us.
Take my former direct report Kate, for instance. Tall, white, perennially cute with short, spiky brown hair and an excellent earring aesthetic, she’s upper middle class, funny, smart and one of the hardest workers I’ve met of any age. Girl is a rock star, and I miss her every day. She asked questions, yes, lots of them; but she was respectful, she always took the initiative, pitched in when our backs were to the deadline wall, never shirked a task – no matter how small – and she listened, very well.
She saw the value in my old lady wisdom – my words, not hers – and she soaked it up like a sponge. She also skipped off to a better job after less than two years, and I wasn’t mad at her. It was an opportunity, and one should never turn one’s nose up at a great opportunity.
You know what else? Millennials have much better attitudes about diversity and inclusion than other generations. This is my personal observation as well as the dominant message from some new research I was briefed on this week. The Institute for Public Relations partnered with Weber Shandwick to survey more than 1,000 U.S. adults this past August, then they analyzed the data to determine various perceptions about diversity and inclusion by generation. The result was Millennials@Work: Perspectives on Diversity & Inclusion, and one of the standout findings was that 47 percent of the millennials surveyed believe that diversity and inclusion is important criteria they actively look for in potential employers.
Sarab Kochhar, director of research for the Institute for Public Relations, told me the idea that millennials are the least engaged of other generations, that they’re primarily seen as job hoppers, is faulty. Then she reiterated that D&I is an important factor in millennials’ job search. She didn’t say it explicitly, but I’m comfortable making a connection between those two pieces of information: Diversity and inclusion is important for working millennials. Maybe it’s so important, when they don’t get it on a job, they bounce.
The survey data also showed only 44 percent of millennials agree that their employers do a good job communicating their diversity and inclusion goals. That’s not good. Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick, said diversity and inclusion has to be mandated and discussed at the top to cascade throughout an organization. If it isn’t, and it’s important to you as an employee, that lack is a pretty good reason to leave a gig, no?
The survey also asked respondents to what extent do they hear or see any form of discrimination at work. Gaines-Ross said across the board the numbers were pretty high, but some 69 percent of employed millennials have seen or heard something related to discrimination at work; racial discrimination is a leading topic among millennials and Gen Xers. For Boomers it’s age discrimination.
Not only are they good at spotting it, according to the data, millennials are also more comfortable talking about workplace diversity and inclusion than other generations. I’ve seen that at play many times. Older adults are more likely to change the subject when D&I topics come up. They’re eager to defend themselves and are far more interested in reducing any semblance of taint than they are in listening.
Kate, for instance, is great at listening with the purpose of understanding, not waiting for her turn to talk. Even when I can see that what I’m saying is making her uncomfortable or confusing her, she doesn’t shy away from the discussion. She just listens and asks questions. That’s what we should all do when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There’s no shame in not knowing, only in refusing to learn.
I’m not saying my former direct report is the poster child for millennials. Kate’s a special person, period. But she proves my point neatly: when it comes to generational stereotypes – any stereotypes – there’s an exception to every rule.