Don’t Judge People By Their Generation

Photo cred: Ian Atwater

I read this the other day: “[Millennials] are relatively laid back—until they feel they have been wronged… and then may quickly apply pressure to make big changes fast. They expect transparency and accountability, just as it is expected of them in the marketplace.”

I read generalizations of Millennials like this one pretty much every day.  Millennials are lazy…inspired…entitled…tech savvy…etc etc…

I have yet to read a description of the Millennial generation that was based on any sort of reliable statistics.  EVERY one of these generalizations are based on a limited point of view based on biased research or on personal experience and fail to take into account a number of aspects, namely socioeconomic status.

When marketers talk about millenials with these unfounded generalizations, they’re contributing to a highly inaccurate conception of an entire generation.

Even wikipedia makes unfounded generalizations, and describes Millennials based on studies performed solely in colleges.

My high school featured a very diverse range of lifestyles and socioeconomic statuses. A majority of the Millennials that I grew up with, do not fall under any of the stereotypes that marketers constantly apply to them.  With that personal experience, I’ve seen first hand how inaccurate the typical millennial classification really is.  I won’t base my argument on personal experience though…

Here are some stats from 2008 pulled from the United States Department of Labor:

  • 68.6 percent of 2008 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities
  • 56.8 percent of the nation’s 16- to 24-year-olds, or 21.3 million young people, were either enrolled in high school (9.7 million) or in college (11.7 million).
  • “…about 6 in 10 recent high school graduates who were enrolled in college attended 4-year institutions.”

My class year (2005) had some similar stats, with 68.6% of high school grads enrolling in college. Many high school graduates go right into the labor force.

The false generalizations we hear about all the time are based on the Millennials that get their college degree or are in the process of doing so.  The fact is, by basing your characterization of Millennials on this segment of the larger population, you’re making highly inaccurate assumptions.

Generations are too vast and diverse to justifiably apply characteristics to the entire population.

Tell a millennial that works 50-60 hour work weeks doing construction in the winter that he’s entitled.  Or maybe tell the millennial facing jail time for selling drugs that they were “pampered” by their parents.  I know a people in both situations.  Do they represent the millennial generation? No, but they’re certainly a part of it, and shouldn’t be neglected when discussing the traits of our generation.

Thanks to Lisa Grimm, Dave Folkens and Chuck Hemann for their help in refining this post.

26 thoughts on “Don’t Judge People By Their Generation

  1. David – thanks for the shout. Glad to have been able to help in anyway I can.

    As I said to you when you were fleshing out this post, our “model” needs to shift from judging people as part of a generation to judging a person as an individual person. Stereotypes get us nowhere, as you know, and often don’t prove to be accurate.

  2. Good beginning David. Generalizations are the easy way out for most. It avoids real data, real people and any real form of intimacy. What I mean by that is when we embrace generalizations is absolves us from any responsibility to know individuals, as people, not statistics. Knowing “people” makes us less inclined to objectify them or impact them negatively. Even the worst of individuals, when gotten to know them, makes one more empathetic toward their plight. And when you have empathy, you have intimacy. Intimacy allows interdependence, and positive progress.

    As long as we continue to objectify, generalize or in any other simplistic way, evaluate people it will allow us to incorrectly label them into an anonymous group and “use” the data to meet our needs.

    I like your beginning. I look forward to reading the comments and see the impact on paradigms we all embrace. Can we make a change? Individually, yes. In the masses? I’m not sure.

    1. Robyn,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. From an individual perspective, one should NEVER let stereotypes guide their judgments (although this is probably impossible to eliminate completely). From a business perspective, it’s important to be able to understand the characteristics of a population by generalizing. The way the millennials have been characterized however, is highly inaccurate.

  3. Everyone gets judged. And everyone judges. Even people who say they’re not judgmental can be the most judgmental people on the planet. People make generalizations out of ignorance, but also bliss, as the saying goes.

    I agree with you that some people have it all wrong about millennials, but as with anything, there are always outliers (the construction worker and the jail bird).

    Good post.

    1. Right, but my two examples may be extreme…but the stats that I provided show that the amount of millennials that didn’t attend college is almost half. OVER half of 2008 graduates did not go on to attend a 4-year college. This is a huge portion of a generation (a majority) that is being neglected.

      I understand, for business it’s important to generalize sometimes. I’m just saying, we’re doing it wrong.

  4. Spot on David!

    I came from the 2005 class as well and I have a great many friends that wouldn’t fit into the general Millennial description. They fit more of a Boomer description than anything; “hard-working” “family-oriented” etc. I think the reason marketers use samplings of college kids is because we’re already isolated, but that’s also what makes the stats unreliable. Kids who aren’t in an academic environment might not even know what our generation is called (I’ve experienced this on many occasions).

    That being said, I can’t totally agree that “generations are too vast and diverse to justifiably apply characteristics to the entire population.” I think that over time experiential similarities will develop that identify members of a generation, such as our experience with being of a certain age when 9/11 happened. But I think it is still far too early in our development for these similarities to be identified.

    Great post guy!

    1. True, those in the same generation will have many of the same experiences. That doesn’t mean that you can properly characterize an entire generation with the same traits. Millennials come from different backgrounds, even their parents are from different generations, they come from different levels of income and different privileges and disadvantages. I think that you’ll find, when generalizing people, socioeconomic class will show you a much more accurate representation of characteristics than a generation.

    2. Evan –

      Sociologists and people who study generations would tell you that the reason why Millenials appear to have the same values as Boomers is because traits tend to cycle generations. The Silent Generation and Gen X have many common traits, and those generations are more similar than their counterparts in Millenials and Booomers.
      Hope that sheds a little more light on the subject, David. I appreciate the point of this article being to not judge others by their generation. I think it is important to be informed initially about possible charactersitics and traits especially in regards to communication issues in the workplace. However, one aspect of this conversation that I always appreciate is to dig a little deeper into the reason as to why a generation is shaped the way it is, and where the “generalities” are coming from. Maybe another post?

  5. I agree David. However, you’re speaking of Millennials only. It’s not just your generation. I am part of an age segment that is “generalized” spectacularly by the business world. To my peers, I’m an anomaly. To those younger than me, I’m a dinosaur. To the employers I seek, I’m just plain ‘too old’; Even though I’m actually keeping up pretty well.

    We’re all subject to those generalizations. That’s why I wish we could all keep it personal. Because when we do, everyone wins. I tire of hearing “It’s not you, it’s business. Don’t take it personally.” Well, how else am I supposed to take it? I am a person. Just as you are. I appreciate your contributions and wouldn’t want to make you feel less than because of your age.

    It’s one of the reasons I love the internet. I can participate, contribute, and share without anyone looking at me (at face value) and saying I’m too old or any other number of generalizations, to be a part of the dialogue.

    1. True I am focusing on millennials in this post, because that is what I know. The concepts that I am discussing is the same for all generations though.

      You’re absolutely right. When I meant “from a business perspective” I meant in terms of marketing, and being able to understand your target market in an efficient manner.

      Thanks for your contribution. For what it’s worth, I’d respect your thoughts regardless of what your picture looked like.

  6. Thank you, David.

    I guess that’s why I jumped into the discussion. Generalizations happen to all of us. I was either a hippie, a capitalist or a draft dodger.

    I like what you said to Evan. Socio-economic is a better place to begin.

  7. David – this post is sending my head in a whirl! The ideas you bring up are very interesting.

    What’s hitting me is the examples you use. How do these people not represent our generation even though they are a part of it?

    Who’s to say that the drug dealer going to jail wasn’t pampered by his parents and he turned to selling for the thrill? Or the hard-working construction worker is only making $5OK a year but fights his boss daily for a double increase because he feels he deserves $100K for the work he does?

    Just as we can’t judge a generation, we can’t judge individuals based on their roles in this generation. How can we judge when don’t know the details that could shatter our stereotypes, regardless of whether they be positive or negative?

    1. Kate,

      You are absolutely 100% correct, on an individual level.

      I didn’t want to get into too much detail, but I can tell you that in the specific examples that I am referencing, those people aren’t entitled/pampered by their parents. For someone just looking at a construction worker and a drug dealer at face value however, you’re spot on that those wouldn’t be fair assumptions on an individual level.

      On a business/marketing level (which is what I’m talking about), you have to judge large groups of people based on something in order to better understand your market. My point is that you’ll be much more accurate in your characterization of groups based on socioeconomic status, or their “role in society”, than on their generation. Will it be 100%? Never…but it’s better than <50% (like generational assumptions).

  8. Glad to see you wrote this up David. I agree with a lot of the comments thus far that really look at the economic side of this versus strictly age. I think factors like environment, access to education, and community are more likely to give you an idea of what shapes a particular person’s view of the world more than years.

    The challenge for businesses is that these types of helpful data is harder to collect than a simple, albeit potentially misleading, number. I think the next step is for marketers, researchers, and communicators to look at identifying new ways to find the right data that will ultimately help the company and actually provide a better likelihood that whomever you’re speaking to with actually care about your work.

    Thanks for the discussion and keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Dave.

      That really is the issue isn’t it? It’s harder (and potentially more expensive) to gather more accurate information.

      Would be interesting to hear the opinions of some market research experts here.

  9. I hear you on this one, mate. Anyone with common sense knows that EVERY generation has great, good, okay and just plain old shit pokers within their ranks.

    Show me someone who says that all millennials have a feeling of entitlement and I’ll show that person 100 examples of whiners from every other generation.

    Some of the smartest and hardest-working folk I know are millennials. Some of the greediest and most bitter are actually from my generation (X).

    So yeah. Go poke some shit and quit bitching on the easy targets.

    1. haha. You have a way with words sir (=

      But seriously…every generation has their share of pretty much any characteristic you can apply to them. Whichever one is more prevalent in the public eye is the one that is assigned to the generation…

  10. I’m still amazed at how often people talk about “Gen Y” and “Millenials.” Really, before I got into marketing a couple years ago and even more so social media, I’d never heard talk about generations so much. Especially in the work place, I really don’t see the point in putting everyone under certain labels according to their generation. It’s even more amazing that some people deem themselves “Gen Y experts.” Really? An expert on an entire generation of people?

    Maybe I’m a little too indifferent to the generation categories, but it just baffles me to a certain extent.

    1. haha I have the same reaction to “gen-y” experts. A gen-y expert, would have to understand all the different types of people in the gen-y population, which would then simple be a “people” expert, because there are different people like that in EVERY generation.

      I think the issue with marketers, is they’re asked to find out how to market products to a specific age group. When they look at our age group, they try to think about what makes us unique, where they could market differently to our age group than to other age groups. They look for a unique approach to reaching the population. Looking at generational characteristics, is the worst, but easiest way to do that.

  11. Right. As with any stereotype, it exists as a type of shortcut to make it easier to generalize a group of people. Inherently, in generalizing, you’re going to get it wrong for a large % of the people. Great thoughts, David!

  12. David – You rock. You know this. Thanks for the post and the shout out. I enjoyed talking about this issue with you and others (enjoy all the comments above and share similar sentiment to many of you).

    I feel that the whole classification system is a bunch of hokey pokey. I supsect there are more than a few constructive and well rounded reports of Millennials out there. Those responsible for them however, don’t share data because they are likely smart marketers who actually do their jobs well and market to us successfully with the well constructed research they’ve done:)

    As for the rest who don’t, I can’t help but think it’s emotional or something – like they had a bad experience with a millennial, then base findings on a generation from the one or multiple interactions, not thinking about the greater good. It’s pretty lazy if you think about it, which ironically is a common claim made on Millennials. It’s very frustrating when misinformation is perpetuated and forms a general layer of stupidity among the masses because they don’t question anything and then make assumptions based on the information. This extends far beyond generations. We are a culture fixated on difference, so I’ve kind of come to expect it:) Awesome topic David. Obviously gets me all fired up.

  13. Great post David. We are humans and do jump to conclusions right or wrong. Heck, as an executive recruiter I do all the time. As a speaker I do too as I scan a room of faces. But here is the thing. We see all generations and both sexes actively complaining about being judged and stats all over the place from compensation to all forms of discrimination.

    Here is what I know as fact. People will hire people who get it done. Those who wear their values on the sleeve and are effective in promoting potential with great vision and prove understanding of a culture and brand.

    I work with college students who are not ready for what they are asked to do to those who “should” be retired. They prove they are not lazy by, hold on to your hat, not being lazy…entitled, etc. Anyone who does not see it this way is welcome to take control and change their network.

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