Generational categories are popular but is there any truth to generational differences? We talk to Dr Steven Hitchcock about the myths surrounding generational categories and what organisations and leaders can and should be doing about it.

Show notes and links for this episode:

Millenials at work don’t see themselves as millenials

Gen Y and millennial ‘myths’ busted

Two types of millenials

Generations at work

Sandra Peter Introduction: Gen X is more addicted to social media than millennials. Baby boomers are the entitled generation and millennials are the most open generation. Generational categories are popular, but is there any truth to generational differences?

Introduction: From the University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights - the podcast that explores the future of business.

Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter and today we're talking to Dr. Steven Hitchcock about how generational categories hold little more truth than horoscopes, the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies, and what organisations and leaders can and should be doing about it. Dr. Stephen Hitchcock completed his PhD at Arizona State and here at the University of Sydney Business School he researches the perspectives of young professionals whose voices often go unattended in organisations, the popular press and in scholarship. Welcome Stephen thank you for talking to us today. 

Stephen: Thank you for inviting me. It's a great opportunity. 

Sandra: Your work looks at how people of different ages work together. Could you summarise your thinking around this? 

Stephen: I think like a lot of us where I'm coming from is born out of personal experience. I finished university in 2008 2009 and I got a fantastic job. It was a great opportunity. But what I found was that there were all of these ideas about who I was because of my age. It started out as little jokes but over time it came up more and more and it was brought up more often and I found that people started changing the way they thought of me that I stopped being this young guy who maybe had some ideas about Facebook or making an app and instead I was this millennial that was struggling to think outside of these things. And I think that's where I'm coming from - looking at the way that these narratives and these attitudes that were written and talked about in the paper can shape the lives and experience for young people who really just want to do a great job. So what I look to do from there is really dig into the research and I had this really clear sense of understanding that even though everyone was calling me a millennial, everyone was calling me Gen Y, I didn't feel like I related or identified to those categories at all. So this is how I ended up to my masters. This is how I ended up doing my PhD on this topic and asking people "Do you feel that you are connected to these categories?" "Do you identify with these categories?" "How do you relate to them?". And a lot of my research by and large found that people didn't. People knew of them, people knew that they were categorised in that space but they would say things like I've never thought of myself in those lines. In fact often when I hear it I get really annoyed because I think that's not who I am. And that was what has really spurred me on to pursue this research you know the way that society kind of thrusts these identities onto people that people feel no connection with whatsoever.

Sandra: But why do we like these categories millennials Gen X or even baby boomers? Why are we attracted to these labels?

Stephen: I like to think of them as kind of the modern day Zodiac. Here's a test you can do: if you jump in the paper and there's a story about baby boomers, just imagine for a second you're a baby boomer. And listen to what it tells you about being a baby boomer and I can guarantee you'll pick things and you say oh yeah I'm like that. I like to work really hard. I like to do this and that and the reason that they work is because they kind of function - there are these huge broad general categories that serve as an identity, as a way of thinking about ourselves and they connect us to other people in the workplace and they explain why we do the things that we do. And in that sense they serve as any other identity. There's another element of that as well. And what it is is that when you say young people these days are like this and back when we came through we had to do it like this. What it tells you and what it tells others is the way that you did it was the right way, the normal way, the default way and the new way's different and weird. And that does some amount of work in terms of telling you and others who you are. But it has some really negative effects. For example it makes those young people who are listening to those things feel like the way they're doing it isn't as valuable or as hard or as useful. And that way it devalues their work which as you can probably understand over time has some really negative outcomes for those young people. 

Sandra: So what are the risks if we keep using these categories and keep enforcing these categories not only on our employers but on our larger social circles?

Stephen: Well if we look at identity research it tells us pretty clearly that if you treat a group of people a certain way for long enough they'll start acting in accordance with that. And think about this for a second, if you took the millennial stereotype or the baby boomer stereotype be it the best one or the worst one, would you really want an employee that acted like that? And we have this opportunity to not we can just choose to not use those categories. We have this ability to say rather than opening up the Herald or reading a piece in Time about millennials or baby boomers instead put that magazine, put the newspaper down. Call up your new employee and ask them to go for coffee with you, sit down and ask them questions like "What makes you happy?", "Where do you want to be in five years?", "How can I help you?", "What are the skills you need to learn?" and in having that conversation you'll get a really clear sense of who they are and they'll feel more connected to you and the organization and ultimately all that is is treating people like people instead of treating people like they are a category you read about that are this weird alien thing. Just get to know them, it's something we've done throughout our lives, it's a skill we all have. And just to embrace and engage with those skills.

I think there are a number of specific risks that we can focus on and I speak mainly to millennials here because they are the ones in the organisation when we're talking about hiring and retaining at the moment I mean they're kind of the hot topic right. So the first thing that I want to touch on is this narrative that exists about job hopping for millennials. Now this is certainly a risk that if you impose the identity upon young people in your organisation, you say to them things like oh well you're just going to move on to your next role in two years. Then they probably will. Not because they're a Millennial but because that's the expectation that's being put on them, that's what they're thinking they should be doing. But there are a whole lot of negative side effects of that that often aren't thought about. So, for example, imagine you go into work one day and you say to your boss I'm thinking about doing this. And he says oh well you would because you're a millennial and you know I don't really want to support that because you're going to be out of here in a year anyway. What do you do? You say OK well my boss isn't interested in helping me. I'm going to go look for another job and find someone who will help me. And in that sense it's kind of the self-fulfilling prophecy that you force those identities, you assume those things and they'll end up acting in accordance with those ways. So job hopping is one thing but there are a number of other problematic things. In my research one of the big findings that came out was that my participants, who were mainly millennials, didn't have any particular interest or affinity with technology. 

Now this is really super interesting right because what happens in a lot of companies is they assume those young people are going to have that digital literacy, that digital nativity. It's not the same. I mean being able to jump on and use Facebook or figure out how to get this YouTube video working when your internet connection is a bit patchy is one thing but knowing how to put together a social media campaign is a completely different skill set. Just because someone knows how to use a thing doesn't mean they know how to design or develop something within that system. So it can actually potentially damage your organisation. If you assume that someone has a skill set like being digitally literate just because they're a millennial you could put yourself in a really bad place in terms of resourcing. 

Sandra: So what should organisations be doing and what could they be doing better?

Stephen: I think the main thing is just treating those young people like people. Don't look to draw on that generational literature. And to give you a little bit of insight - generational literature doesn't really speak to the one and a half or two billion people that are in any given category. So the research that's done is often looking to find the common denominators across countries. I mean to put this into perspective you have people in Australia using research from the UK, from America, from India in their research about forming an idea about who these people are and in doing so in creating this generalised form you actually lose all of the nuance you lose all of the culture. And that's incredibly problematic because often when you're in a given space that culture is one of the most defining things. I mean everyone listening to this podcast will know right now that if you have a 21 year old starting out and you're working in China versus India versus Australia versus the UK you need to manage and work with that person very differently because of that cultural space. So first and foremost I think it's a matter of really thinking about what is the culture of your organisation? and who is that person as an individual? Something I always come back to is that sense of empathy. So rather than thinking you know who they are because of what you've read ask them to tell you who they are. Give them that opportunity to have that voice and speak their mind. And that's absolutely one of the best things that I think people can do especially if we're talking about hiring and retaining young people in organisations. 

Stephen: So one of the things that came out of my research and something that's becoming increasingly apparent is that young people in organisations work in these big bullpens and their bosses are deeply invested in this topline thinking. And what that means is they're working from planes, they're working from cars, and they’re working offsite. And what that means to a lot of these people is their bosses, their leaders aren't really accessible. What a lot of young people really want are those opportunities to learn and develop. So what leaders can do in organisations is really intentionally create space for connecting with those young employees and thinking about leadership and development opportunities. Now there are two ways of going about this. The first way is making sure those top line staff are available. There's actually an organisation in Sydney that does this. Every Thursday morning the CEO, the CFO, and COO go downstairs to the cafe and they to all of the employees if you want come down at 7.30 we'll buy you breakfast and you can talk to us about anything - you can talk to us about your kids, you can talk about the decisions, the strategy we're making. Just get to know us, chat about the organisation. It does wonders, I mean these employees really feel connected to their organisations. But at the same time I do understand that you don't always have those resources available, time is short. Something that I found in my research was that the 20 year olds, 21 year olds what they were doing was they were reaching out to the 24 and 25 year olds for mentoring because those were the ones who they saw available. 

So something organisations can do if those top line leaders aren't available all the time or just in addition to that is setting up a kind of levelled mentoring system. So if you're just starting out pair them up with someone who is a little bit their senior. Someone who is on the next level that can help them and develop those skills. And it's easy enough to implement. You can do it in Excel. You can pull up a spreadsheet and match people at different levels up and say to them you need to work with this person to help develop your skills and move to the next level. And people love that in organisations, they love the feeling that they are connected to someone and there's someone who is helping them develop their skills and mentor them. So those would be two things that I think leaders really need to be thinking about - is providing those development opportunities for young people through mentoring whether it's with the top line or whether it's through the lower levels. It's still equally valuable. Mentoring doesn't need to be between the fastest rising star and the CEO. Mentoring is something that can happen amongst everyone at any level and especially the people that don't ask for it. I think one of the final things I really want to touch on today is when we talk about millennials we talk about the same office group this big general group and something to keep in mind is that they're not. They've broken up but diverse. Think about the differences that exist we know for example in gender. The way that a male would approach the workplace is very different to the way that a female would. 

We know from research that women are far less likely to ask for pay rises to negotiate or ask for opportunities. We know for the most part women are much more likely to be of the opinion that if they work hard they'll be recognised for it. In contrast we know that men are more likely to flag their successes and ask for things. Now this creates biases within organisations where you tend to see the men rising because they are the ones putting themselves forward. So I would think one of the really important things to do is look along those points of diversity. Gender is a really obvious and simple one, really look for opportunities look for people who aren't putting themselves forward and figure out why. It may not be that they just don't care. It's probably more the fact that their attitudes and opinions about work. And so that would be something I would say is important to really look for as well.

Sandra: Steven thank you so much for talking to us today.

Stephen: Thank you very much. It's been great. 

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