What Is a Millennial?

View original publication on Lindsay Pollack

When I talk to people about my work with the multigenerational workplace, I hear a lot of preconceived notions about millennials. Unfortunately, most of it is negative and based more on cliché than fact.

Today I want to provide a peek behind that millennial mask. Although it’s impossible to “define” a group of 80 million unique individuals, here are some general descriptors I feel comfortable applying to the largest generation in the United States today.

FIRST, DON’T CALL THEM MILLENNIALS

Wait, what? Let me explain.

A study from Pew Research found that only 40 percent of millennials even identify with the word “millennial,” compared to nearly 80 percent of those aged 51 to 69 who consider themselves part of the Baby Boomer generation.

I was actually surprised that almost half of millennials claimed to be comfortable with their generational moniker, since I find that most of the young people I meet prefer that their generation not have a title at all.

It makes sense that millennials would want to avoid the term, when you consider the negative generalizations that are frequently applied to this generation in the media, like “entitled,” “narcissistic” and “lazy.” (And it might also be because they are weary of being blamed for just about everything.)

I also find this generation to be more focused on describing themselves as individuals (hence the rise in “personal branding” as a career skill) than as members of a massive group.

This begs the question: what should we call this cohort if not the M-word? Clearly I do use the term millennial because it’s helpful to have some sort of terminology, but I use it in a respectful fashion, realizing that most millennials don’t care for any group name at all.

The bottom line is that it’s important for managers, marketers and recruiters to understand that using the word as a descriptor (as in “millennial-focused office”) will rarely come off positively. Young professionals tell me they prefer terms like “emerging professionals” or “next generation” when referring to their age group in the workplace.

SO, WHAT IS A MILLENNIAL (IF WE CAN USE THAT WORD)?

Let’s move on to some actual data points about this cohort.

P.S. Don’t worry if this is all news to you — no, you didn’t miss “generations day” in school. It’s all somewhat nebulous…and ever-changing. And being “millennial” is, in many ways, a state of mind. Pew Research even has a fun quiz, How millennial are you?” that shows where you fit on the scale.

  1.      How old are millennials?

Demographers disagree, but the date range I use comes from Pew Research Center, because I find them to be most reputable. They peg millennials as those who were born between 1981 and 1996.

But other sources offer other time frames: The thing about generations is that there is no set “date.” It’s not like the hospitals made a declaration that “This is the last Gen Xer. The next baby born will be a millennial!”

Now, if you were born between 1981 and 1996  and are thinking you don’t really feel like a millennial, you are not alone.  In fact, a new micro-cohort has recently been named — the Xennial, which refers to those born between 1977 and 1983. Often described as having neither the cynicism of Xers or the optimism of millennials, a key difference is that they grew up before technology became ubiquitous.

  1.      How did millennials get their name?

Credit for the moniker “millennial” goes to Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, who first used the term in the mid-90s and wrote Millennials Rising in 2000. It was an outgrowth of work they had done for a book called Generations, which was among the first to explore the idea that groups share qualities such as beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors because of the time period when they grew up.

Other names applied to millennials include:

  • Generation Y: Yes, “millennial” and “Gen Y” are the same thing.
  • Echo boomers: As children of Boomers, millennials make up the largest generation since their parents.
  • Digital natives: They are the first generation who don’t know adult life without the internet and personal tech devices.

By the way, my personal pet peeve surrounding the name is when it is couched in the phrase “so-called millennials.” We don’t say “so-called Gen X-ers,” do we? Can’t we just call them millennials at this point?

  1.      Are millennials really that different from other generations?

We’re all human beings and I believe that a lot of what is considered to be “millennial behavior” is more about age and life stage, rather than generation. After all, it’s not hard to remember when Gen X was known as the “Slacker Generation” because we changed jobs a lot and got married later than our parents.

  1. What are millennials like in the workplace?

As of 2015, Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, and I find there are three main areas where today’s leaders need to shift their mindset to work more effectively with millennial employees:

  1. When it comes to desired leadership style, “command and control” management has become “coaching.”
  2. “Uniformity” of work experience has moved to a desire for “customization.”
  3. Employees’ being on a “need-to-know basis” has morphed into a desire for “access and transparency.”

If you want to know more about these styles, I encourage you to read my white paper, 3 Things Every Employer Needs To Know About Millennials or check out my TEDx Talk, It’s About Time We Stop Shaming Millennials.

It’s also important to note that millennials are no longer your fresh-faced newbies. Today they are scattered up and down the professional ladder. In fact, an EY survey found that 62 percent of millennials already manage the work of others.

And it’s increasingly common for a manager to have direct reports who are older than they are: One survey found that almost 40 percent of Americans report to a boss who is younger than they are.

WHAT GENERATION COMES NEXT?

And now that you’ve gotten almost comfortable with millennials, here comes the next generation, known most commonly as Gen Z or iGen.

Keep in mind that Gen Zs are going to be a smaller generation than the millennials, much like Gen Xers (the parents of most Zs) were a significantly smaller cohort than the Boomers. And the first Gen Zs are just reaching the age of 21 and joining the full-time workforce so we don’t have a lot of data yet about them. But my clients are curious about characteristics that set Gen Z apart.

Characteristics that separate Generation Z from millennials:

And of course, now that Gen Z is reaching the workforce, speculation has already begun on the generation after that, many of whom haven’t even been born yet. Since we are now out of letters, one expert has stepped forward to call these yet-to-be-conceived kids Generation Alpha.

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