“Who are millennials? What are they like? What do they like? How do they work?” Over the last few years, a veritable industry of scholars, journalists and business leaders have pumped out studies and opinions about what makes the generation born between 1980 and 2000 tick.
The truth is, you already know us. We are your sons, your daughters, and the kids who once played at the end of your cul-de-sac. You don’t need an expert to understand us or our desires; you already know the good and bad of who we are, what we care about, and how we work. You raised us.
The trouble with characterizations of millennials is that they tend to paint the entire generation with an identical brush. At the same time they are intellectually insulting to older generations who have educated, mentored, and worked alongside millennials for years, learning first-hand what we are like. While there are some genuine differences between millennials and older generations, it is important to not become bogged down in the superfluous, or let ourselves imagine other generations as incomprehensible and alien. To do so, would be to forfeit the chance to benefit from each others’ experience and expertise.
Nowhere is the sharing of multigenerational skills and ideas more apparent than in the modern workforce. Millennials in the Canadian workplace now number more than 7 million; a figure which is set to rise over the next decade. A common requirement for almost all young employees today is inevitably some level of technological proficiency, and indeed many millennials are more than willing to put their in-depth knowledge of computers, networks, and social media to work for a company. But too often technology becomes a generational stumbling block, creating enmity between older employees who still view new technologies with a degree of suspicion and younger employees who have wholeheartedly embraced them.
Web design, photo editing, and coding are valuable tools for any employee, and it is unreasonable to assume that these workplace skills can only be taught to employees of a certain generational standing, or age. Pitting older generations against technology is unfair to the countless Generation Xers and Baby Boomers who are every bit as comfortable with technology as their millennial counterparts. Millennials do not have a monopoly on technological saviness.
This characterization sells millennials short too. We have more to contribute to a company than a social media strategy.
It is not only our skill-sets which are misunderstood by most descriptions of millennials, but also what we want from the workplace. For many university students, snagging an entry level position, even an unpaid internship, at one of the major accounting, consulting, or law firms is a deep source of personal pride, and something of a status symbol among peers.
Most millennials are no more (or less) persuaded to choose their employers based on factors like work-life balance, or the renown of a company, than any previous generation. Even when it comes to tech companies, my friends are more likely to join the team of a now-household name like Facebook or Google, than to sign on with an unknown start-up. For millennials who are deliberating on multiple employment offers, it is most often the reputation, salary, or prestige of an organization, that matter.
Perhaps rejecting blanket descriptions of millennials as an identical group only reinforces stereotypes about my generation’s fascination with individualism, but the truth is, millennials are hopelessly different from one another. While we may share the same technology, we were not all raised the in same way, nor do we hold indistinguishable values, and we certainly do not imagine our identities as being forged by our mutual enjoyment of the latest iPhone.
In fact, it is increasingly difficult to define what exactly the identity of a millennial is. As a recent Pew Forum study revealed, millennials are politically divided, economically uncertain, and less likely than ever before to be affiliated with a particular religion or political party. We have different identities, careers, and ideas about how the world should work. Despite many depictions to the contrary, we are not a homogeneous, techno-crazed, gratification-obsessed mass. We don’t need to be satisfied by cursory definitions which try to demystify the pysche of the millennial and play up generational differences.
We only need to recognize what we already know, that millennials, Generation-Xers, and Baby Boomers all want similar things from our relationships, careers and personal lives, even if our methods differ.
Brody McDonald is a student at the University of Victoria, and a Junior Research Fellow of the Atlantic Council of Canada.