The malignant myth of the Millennial

Picture a Millennial.

What do you see?

Whatever comes to your mind’s eye is a reduction, a distilled stereotype of people of different genders, races, religions, regions, sexual orientations, class and education whose only common characteristic is having been born during an arbitrarily defined time range of anywhere from 13 to more than 20 years, depending on who you ask.

Nonetheless, the name has stuck and the term pervades our news media and popular culture. We appear to be obsessed with figuring out what makes these young Americans — the first generation of "digital natives" — tick. Marketers want their dollars, media organizations want their attention and employers want to know how to make them happy and productive.

But what happens when you lump young Americans together into one monolithic label? While there's nothing inherently wrong with using Millennials as shorthand for young Americans, we can get into trouble when we attach characterizations and assumptions to it. Critics like Siva Vaidhyanathana, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, question the social science behind the claims made by generational experts and argue generational labels can propagate prejudice and stereotypes.

“I don’t think generations exist," said Vaidhyanathan. "They are at best the equivalent of astrology and at worst a source of bigotry. Most of the references to generations that we see are based on muddy categories created by marketers who have zero social science credibility.”

Imprecise definitions 

For one thing, it is not clear what defines a Millennial. Some generational experts say Millennials — which some refer to as Generation Y — are anyone born between 1980 and 1995 while others say it is between 1982 and 2000. Here are some examples:

  • Neil Howe and William Strauss, who are credited with coining the term Millennial in their 1991 book Generations, define the group as those born between 1982 and 2000. 
  • The Pew Research Center defines Millennials as those born after 1980. The group's cutoff for the youngest Millennials varies from 1992 to 1999, depending on the study. 
  • In his book, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials, Bruce Tulgan defines two "waves" of Millennials: first wave (Generation Y) born 1978 to 1989, and second wave (Generation Z) born 1990 to 2000.  
  • Author David Stillman defines Millennials as people born between 1980 and 1994. He defines Generation Z as those born from 1995 to 2012. 

That sort of inexactitude is part of what troubles Vaidhyanathan.

“I have been teaching at the university level for more than 20 years,” he said. “And ever since I started teaching, I’ve been told that I teach this strange creature called the Millennial. But nobody has been able to tell me when those Millennials arrived on Earth; no one has been able to tell me when those Millennials will be displaced and get out into the world so I am no longer teaching them; and every time I venture such a question I get a completely different set of answers, which is suspicious.”

Generational stereotypes 

Despite the fuzzy definition, "our culture is currently obsessed with generational labels and the stereotypes that go with them," said Jessica Kriegel, author of Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit from Ditching Generational Stereotypes. "Although I would say that this trend of thinking differently about the younger people in our world has been prevalent for thousands of years," she added.

Kriegel said her research found most books, articles and consultants focused on Millennials rely on "an oversimplification of human behavior." She also found that they frequently contradict each other.

Those contradictions are inevitable because of the diversity within the demographic group, she said.

"There’s about 80 million Millennials right now and some of those Millennials are CEOs in Silicon Valley, and some of them are illegal immigrants in the Midwest who are waitressing somewhere," Kriegel said. "You really can’t put them all in a box. And what we do is, we put them all in a box, and that box is really based on a middle-income, white, American person and then we just say that’s the only kind of Millennial that exists right now."

Take, tor example, the stereotype that Millennials feel entitled because they were given participation trophies in Little League, "even if they didn’t even necessarily achieve anything special," Kriegel said. "Well, you have to have been privileged enough to have been able to afford Little League when you were growing up in order to get that participation trophy." That stereotype also ignores the roughly 7.6 million foreign-born Millennials, many of whom never played in Little League, she said.

Kriegel also points out the short-sightedness in one of the principal assumptions about Millennials: "Tech savviness is much more related to socio-economic status than it is to generation," she said.

In her book, Kriegel describes a workshop she conducted on Millennials for a "small non-profit organization." In one exercise she asked people to spend three to four minutes describing their perception of different generations. Here are some of the results:

  • Silent Generation (born before 1945): Work hard, stubborn, tech-averse, conservative, patriotic, traditional, respect authority, prefer face to face 
  • Baby Boomers (1945 to 1963): Workaholic, loyal to employer, optimistic, family-oriented, independent, money motivated, prefer face to face 
  • Generation X (1964 to 1979): MTV generation, latchkey kids, cynical, money-driven, fun, prefer email 
  • Millennials (1980 to 2000): Collaborative, need collaboration, entitled, need praise, lazy, spoiled, tech savvy, prefer texting

"Now how would you feel if I did this?" she asked, crossing out Millennial and replacing it with the words "black people."

"Now that I have changed the labels, is it not immediately obvious how inappropriate this exercise has been?" she asked them.

'It's lazy thinking' 

"This is media nonsense," said Todd Gitlin, the chair of the Ph.D. program at Columbia University's school of journalism. "It’s lazy thinking," he said of the obsession with generational labels. "It also reflects an aversion to that dirty little five-letter word: class. This aversion goes back to the '60s if not earlier. It goes back to the beginning of generational categorization."

Generational generalizations were no more useful when applied to Baby Boomers than Millennials, Gitlin said. "The notion that an 18-year-old in East Kentucky growing up in a coal-mining hollow has a great deal in common with somebody growing up on the Upper East Side of New York, enrolling in an Ivy League school is ridiculous. It doesn’t pass the laugh test. Nonetheless, the notion of Baby Boomers became shorthand for those slovenly, dirty hippy types on elite, college campuses."

The Baby Boom refers to a large spike in birth rates between the years 1946 and 1964. But even with a generation clearly defined by a specific demographic event, it is absurd to assume commonalities between members of that generation, Gitlin said.

"Can we say much about people who were one-year-old in 1965 and what they have in common with people who were 17-years-old?" he asked.

Vaidhyanathan agrees. "I think we made a terrible mistake at some point in assuming that people born 1946 and 1964 had anything in common," he said. "There’s this leap from an actual demographic move into the assumption of a cultural phenomenon."

Life cycle vs. generation 

"Generational analysis is an important tool used by Pew Research Center and other researchers," Pew said in a 2015 report titled "The Whys and Hows of Generations Research." "An individual’s age is one of the most common predictors of differences in attitudes and behaviors."

But Pew acknowledges that the differences can be born out of an individual's place "in the life cycle — whether a young adult, middle-aged parent or retiree" rather than anything unique about that person's generation.

Take, for example, studies saying Millennials dine out more than non-Millennials. Some leap to the conclusion that this is the result of the latest foodie apps or the popularity of social media "food porn." But young people have typically eaten out more than their older counterparts (especially when you count carry out) because they are less likely to have family constraints on their free time and finances.

Pew also points out that generations can be influenced by what it calls a "period effect." Pew defines period effect as "events and circumstances (for instance, wars, social movements, economic booms or busts, scientific or technological breakthroughs) as well as broader social forces (such as the growing visibility of gays and lesbians in society) simultaneously impact everyone, regardless of age."

It is a "cohort effect" that defines generations, Pew says. Common historical experiences, especially those that affect people "during a key point in the life cycle, such as adolescence and young adulthood, when awareness of the wider world deepens and personal identities and value systems are being strongly shaped."

From data to assumptions 

There are definite demographic trends that can be identified by the type of data gathered in studies like those conducted by Pew or the Census Bureau. For example, it is clear that more young people are putting off marriage, continuing to live with their parents, and are more racially diverse than the young Americans who came before them.

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Those are hard numbers that can be further filtered by religion, gender and sexual orientation to gain useful insights into the direction that different demographic groups are heading.

The trouble often begins with the conclusions drawn from the data and the way those conclusions are applied in everyday life, experts say.

"We look at trends, and that’s OK," said Kriegel, an organization and talent development consultant at Oracle. "But the problem is that too often we identify trends and then apply those trends to the people that we work with, either our employees or our colleagues. And that’s when we start to make assumptions about people that may or may not be true. It creates disconnects in communications and then, ultimately, it’s not beneficial to interpersonal workplace dynamic."

"Organizations need to research their own employees, understand what’s going on with their own colleagues," she said.

The rise of the consultants

Along with the increase in data and the accompanying assumptions about Millennials, there has been an explosion in the number of experts out there who are ready to tell employers how to recruit and keep Millennials. U.S. companies spent $60 to $70 million on "intergenerational consulting" in 2015, with some experts making as much as $20,000 an hour, The Wall Street Journal reported.

"It’s pseudo-expertise that plays to the anxiety that corporate and university and other bureaucrats feel that they don’t have their fingers on the pulse," said Gitlin who called the rise of generational experts "a racket."

Vaidhyanathan agreed. "It’s a cheap and easy way to make a lot of money," he said. "Marketing consultants that deal with generations are modern day P.T. Barnums, essentially."

Kriegel said selling generational stereotypes under the auspices of consulting services has become a "cottage industry."

But, Kriegel added she doesn't believe "it’s a hoax across the board."  Many of the authors and consultants who focus on generational differences are "genuinely convinced that there’s a difference and they‘re trying to be helpful," she said.

David Stillman — author of When Generations CollideThe M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace and Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation is Transforming the Workplace (which he co-wrote with his son) — said his work pays off for companies.

"My goal is not to put people in a box. My goal is to take the lid off the box and say, ‘here’s the person that you might be talking to and here’s the way they think,’" said Stillman. "Does it apply to absolutely everybody? No, I don’t think it describes every single Gen Zer or every single Xer or Millennial, but we do find that there’s enough similarities that we’ve been able to help companies get a leg up when it comes to recruiting and retaining."

It can lead to legal trouble

Whether or not consultants and experts like Stillman mean well, companies that follow their advice and bend over backward to meet the perceived needs of Millennials could find themselves facing litigation, cautions Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation.

"If they're touting everything they're doing to favor Millennials it suggests they're favoring younger employees," McCann said. "They do so at their own peril," McCann said, because they could be seen as violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

McCann is acting as co-counsel in a lawsuit brought against PricewaterhouseCoopers, which bills itself as "the place to work for Millennials," alleging age discrimination in its hiring practices. The complaint cites "a focus on attracting and retaining" Millennials and the company's "extensive research on maintaining a workforce of Millennials," including "the largest, most comprehensive global generational study ever conducted of Millennial employees and how to retain them."

PwC had said Millennials would make up 80% of its workforce by 2016, and the lawsuit alleges the company deterred and excluded job applicants over 40 in order to reach that target.

The law requires that companies ignore age and speaking in terms of generations doesn't change that, McCann said. In fact, the characteristics often assigned to different generations by the experts are just another form of age-based stereotypes, she said.

"You can't hide behind those labels," McCann said. "You have to look at an individual as an individual."