Generational Quicksand – Dr. Jessica Kriegel

Stereotypes, well we all use them their way in which we have a type of shorthand, where we’ve clustered people together by common characteristic and then give them a label. The stereotype we’re going after this week is generational in nature. This is where we classified people on the basis of the year they were born. There is much research that has going on to define these generations and to give them certain attributes that leaders use in the engagement of these people at work, or in the marketing that is used to target certain populations. The “Silent Generation” represents those people born before 1945. There is considered to be very hard workers, they respect authority. They’re stubborn, patriotic, traditional and conservative; they do prefer face to face interaction. “Baby Boomers” are those born between 1945 and 1963. They’re deemed to be workaholics but very loyal to their employer, they want to save the world. They prefer face to face interaction; they’re independent and money-motivated, family-oriented. “Generation X” is that category of people born between 1964 and 79. They’re considered to be the MTV generation, latchkey kids, entrepreneurial in nature, they prefer email. They’re money-driven, skeptical and cynical. “Millennials” born between 1980 and 2000 are collaborative, but also want to be collaborative –they need that. They seek work-life balance; they’re here to save the world, they’re very tech-savvy. They’re spoiled, entitled “me-praise” and lazy. Whoa, you can see how easy it is to fall into the trap of using such characteristics for what can be millions of people in each one of these generational age groups. And that’s exactly the point that is raised by my guest this week Dr. Jessica Kriegel. Jessica is putting out her new book at the end of this month which is available on Amazon right now entitled “Unfairly Labeled.” She is an organizational development consultant at Oracle, and also the CEO of Engage Incorporated and Organizational Development Consulting Firm. In 2013, she completed her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Management, where she specializes in Human Resources Development. She also has an MBA in International Business with Hult International Business School. There is no question that Jessica has done an enormous amount of research that is well described in her book, and that is where we are going to talk about today. What do we mean by generational stereotyping and what perils does it bring? Let’s join Dr. Kriegel and see what she has to say.

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Lesley:  Well welcome, Jessica, and I’m going to start right from the inside of your argument. What is dangerous about generational stereotyping?

 

Dr. Jessica: The generational labels that have been created and now associated with each generation are already associated with baggage. So when we hear millennial, technically, all millennial means is the people born between this year and that year. But really, in our minds, we now already have associated with that so many other stereotypes, any other thoughts, any other judgments about what people in that gauge range do or what they value, or what they love, or what they would buy. So with millenialls, typically people will think of energetic, perhaps innovative, entitled “maybe lazy” people who are changing the world, who are addicted to their phones, who are very tech-savvy. And so the word “millennial,” the label itself has now all of these associations that are not necessarily truth that the people in that generation. And so, for example, there are millennials that are illegal immigrants that are waitresses in the Midwest, who are not at all what we would picture as this kind of Silicon Valley, why entitled millennial that is typically associated with that label. And so when we associate people in that age group with those stereotypes we stop seeing the person in front of us, and we start seeing this image in our mind of what we can construed to be a millennial. And so it prevents understanding of even getting to know each other.

 

Lesley:  Okay, so let’s just break it down a little bit. One of the things is, is that stereotypes are what we do. It’s the brain does it for us in terms of your heuristics which are the software programs that our lazy brains use to categorize information. So, you know, typical stereotype is the guys in marketing are creative and innovative, and the guys in the counting are conservative and dull. I mean, those are stereotypes that as human beings we create shortcuts to allow us to interact in the world and classify people. So whether it’s generational or its other, this is a standard issue about stereotypes, is it none?

 

Dr. Jessica: Yes, I would agree completely. I think that the issue with many of the stereotypes that exist though is that we’ve already accepted is socially that many of them are inappropriate. So for example, racial stereotypes, they’re no longer socially accepted. We can’t talk about different races and attribute personality treats them and have that be generally accept in truth anymore. We’ve discussed it at length, we’ve figured out we’re not okay with it and we don’t accept it anymore. With generational stereotypes though, it feels different somehow because labels are sexy and people are talking about them, but they’re really no different than age discrimination. If I were to say, you know, “60-year-olds need to be managed a certain way,” that feels very uncomfortable. But saying, “millennials need to be managed a certain way,” feels less uncomfortable because the word “millennial” hides the fact that we’re talking about an age group.

 

Lesley:  So it’s a form of ageism that is inappropriate and not appropriate in any kind of workplace. But, in many ways, sociologists had done the generational research to understand that socio-economic realities have in fact impacted a generation growing up. So for example on the “baby boomer” and what that means for me is that when I started working, there were very few women in the workplace, there definitely was no maternity leaves. There were very different realities about being a woman in a workplace and that was a “baby boomer” reality. The socio-economic trends that were in play at that time shaped the type of situations that I face, as well as the types of elements of my personality that would have been developed. So there are sociological implications that create generations to be different from one to another, would you agree or disagree with that?

 

Dr. Jessica: But I think it was true with the time that things were different and “baby boomers” did experience something that is not how it is today. But if you now fast-forward to the present moment, you as a “baby boomer” have a podcast, and the stereotype with “baby boomers” is that they’re not tech-savvy. So, even though back when you started working, you may not have been tech-savvy because technology didn’t exist or whenever the reason was, now you are. You’ve evolved with the time. So, there’s this common misconception that millennials are more tech-savvy, more interested in using technology than any other generation, and now consumer expectations are changing. Thanks to millennials’ need for everything now. I argue that it’s not the millennials that need everything now; it’s all of us who are all using technology now. You have adopted the use of technology despite the fact that it doesn’t sit stereotype of your generation, and now you probably expect things to happen work quickly because of your ease and comfort with technology as well. So it’s not a millennial thing, it’s a technology thing and we’re all subject who are using it. And if you look at the use of technology by generation, it is technically true that millennials use technology more than older generations. However if you break it down by socio-economic class, it’s absolutely not the case. So, Hispanic millennials don’t use technology more than white Gen Xers . In fact, white Gen Xers needs it more because there’s probably an issue around access to technology there. And so, to just classify this massive group evading lane people as the tech-savvy ones and their changing consumer expectations, I just don’t think that it’s fair, I don’t think it make sense.

 

Lesley:  So, your book “Unfairly Labeled” which is coming out at the end of this month, February, focuses on the issue of generational labeling but zeros in on the millennial labeling in particular. What do you think is so required for use to understand this generational labeling, let’s say more than others? I mean, because you focus large portion of your book about the fact that there’s myths about this millennial type casting and there’s ways of getting around it. Why focus on millennials?

 

Dr. Jessica: I focused on millennials because the media focuses on millennials, not because I think that millennials are special or need more defending. But because there are not nearly as many articles, or podcasts or books about traditionalist and baby boomers because there are about millennials right now, because as things change people are blaming the millennials for it. There are some examples I give in my book however that demonstrate that stereotyping is unfair regardless of the generation. That’s really not only focused on millennials, I only use millennials as an example because it seems to be less discussed generation. But for example and this kind goes to your last point about when you started in a workforce, things were different and that somehow shaped you. The traditionalists are often considered the most frugal generation, and traditionalists are the generation after baby boomers. The reason is often described as deemed because they grew up around the time of the great oppression. And because they were exposed to so much lack of resources and that kind of hunger as a result developed this habit of being very careful with their money. In fact, if you look in the 1950s when post-world war II there was this keeping up with the Jones mentality and the United States was going to this major materialistic era, the young adults at that time were the traditionalists. So, while they may have been frugal during the great depression and they may be frugal now, there was a moment where they were the opposite of frugal. And the reason they’re frugal now is because they were tired, right? So, people evolve and they change, and it’s not a generational thing where as you grow you won’t be able to evolve and change. It’s that’s the thing that’s so uncomfortable about generational stereotypes for me, is that it puts someone in the bucket and it sense that for the rest of their life they’re not going to change, and that just doesn’t make sense.

 

Lesley:  Right. So that’s an extremely good example of where it’s more about “where one is in one’s lifetime.” And what one’s doing in that lifetime and what stage in their lifetime they are, is supposed to what generation they were actually born into and how that affects them. So, what are some common, and I guess this is a program about leadership from a leadership point of view, what are some common examples or things to look for that a leader needs to become aware of to realize that general stereotyping is occurring in their organization?

 

Dr. Jessica: I don’t think it’s too subtle. I think that people talk about generation stereotyping by the water cooler, and with lapse and without being embarrassed. It’s not something that is discreet. I think that if you hear people talking about “Oh, those millennials are these young kids,” and that is a really common one in the corporate world today is to call college graduates, who are in the workplace of the youngest people in your team— kids. I heard that a lot from a lot of different millennials, and it feels very offensive to millenials because these young kids are actually adults, they have college degrees, some of them have mortgages, some of them have kids. And so to call them kids or children makes them feel devalued in the workplace.

 

Lesley:  So what you’re saying is, is that some of the ways in which we work with these stereotypes, some of the ways in which human beings allow ourselves to articulate them are offensive to other people. And yet because it’s masked in this notion of generational stereotyping, we feel we can get away with it.

 

Dr. Jessica: Yeah, I think anytime someone uses the label “millennial,” it is often associated with some kind of judgment that are positive or negative. So for example, if we say we are designing this one to be millennial friendly, what does that mean millennial-friendly website? Does that mean that it is easy to use, and then is there an implication saying that the baby boomers don’t appreciate easy to use websites? Or Gen-Xers don’t appreciate easy to use websites? Why is that a millennial website, wouldn’t it just be a user-friendly website? Or we say, “This interior design is very millennial.” What is that mean to baby boomers not like to have time off, do they not like to whatever it is that’s implied in that interior design? I think the labels in itself places people into buckets that they probably either do or don’t want to be, and then that’s just a dangerous game.

 

Lesley:  So, whenever we use a shorthand to actually deal with a marketing target description or an employee engagement program for example, when we use these shortcuts to classify the people with whom we want to have influence, there’s danger as you put it in the buckets that we put them in and ascribing generalizations about them that are easy but not appropriate or necessarily accurate.

 

Dr. Jessica: Absolutely. So if you think about tips on managing millennials, some millennials are brand new to the workforce and the article might be geared towards how to manage people who are brand new to the workforce. And in that case, I agree that there probably is some extra handholding that needs to be done, because these people have no exposure to the corporate world and they need some guidance. But I am 35-year-old or 32-year-old person, and if I were 35 I’d still be a millennial. I’m also a millennial. So many year into my career, I feel like I’ve got a certain level of seniority in which I wouldn’t need to be handheld to the degree that I would if I were brand new to the corporate world. And so managing millennials puts me in the same bucket as the people who are recent college graduates, and so does that makes sense even though I’ve been working for 15 years now? Probably not.

 

Lesley:  Right. I thought it was fascinating; your article in Forbes is terrific. But I thought it was really interesting the first article that they have a link to when you finish it is about connecting to millennials, and should they go into sales and marketing? There’s your argument position about “don’t use the term,” and the very first link is using that term. And so what’s our way around it? What’s your prescription for how do we— and I’m not going to zero in on leaders again—how do we as leaders start to deal with this type of over class vacation and stereotyping that’s not healthy?

 

Dr. Jessica: I think step one is to stop using the labels. If I could remove the word “millennial,” and “baby boomer” and “gen xer” from the vocabulary for even just a short period of time. I think that will do us all a great good, because the label as I said is already associated with so much baggage. And so, even though it’s really not a bad term, it just needs a particular period of time to which people were born. With associated so much social baggage with it but it’s now gotten out of control. So I would—as leader—stop using any terms around generational issues. And that right there will save you but I think a lot of heartache in terms of…you know, if you make a generalization about someone on your team, if you say, “The millennials on my team are really innovative and they’re really tech-savvy” those are compliments. And yet, that might make people who are non-millennials feel like they’re less innovative or less tech-savvy. Or it may make people who are millennials that are not tech-savvy very uncomfortable on that team, because they feel there’s this expectation of them that otherwise wouldn’t be there. An example is that a very common tool that is offered as a suggestion for managing intergenerational dynamics in the workplace is just that a co-mentoring programs, or baby boomers and millennials are paired in co-mentorships, in which the baby boomer will mentor the millennial around how to act in the workplace. And then the millennial will mentor the baby boomer on how to use technology more effectively in their work that would create this kind of give and take. But there’s an assumption there that the millennials know how to use technology better than the baby boomers. And I can tell you as a millennial myself, I’m very uncomfortable with technology. I’ve never used Facebook in my life before. And there are baby boomers on my team at Oracle, who would blow me out of the water in the realm of technology. And so, if I were paired with them with this expectation I could teach them, I’d be putting everyone that would be very on fair position that I would be in and that the baby boomer would be in.

 

Lesley:  So, you did mention intergenerational conflict. I mean, I’ve done a number of workshops where it has been eye-opening for the people involved, to recognize that there are in fact differences between the age groups. I mean there’s something about that that is sociologically there. Are you suggesting that there’s no difference between the age groups or the way that we stereotype them is the problem?

 

Dr. Jessica: I’m suggesting that there are certainly trends, and as a leader, those trends are not helpful. So, is there a trend away from the need for privacy? Yes, that is a trend. Should I then use that trend to make an assumption about the people that work with? Absolutely not. So, that’s where it becomes dangerous. It’s these statistics about sociological trends then creates problems for us interpersonally when we’re working one-on-one. So for example, there is a trend that people like to be connected to technology now more than they used to. There was a story of a baby boomer that I knew in a workplace that had a colleague, who is a millennial who always had headphones in his ears –ear pods. And he would go to the Xerox copy machine with those headphones, and he’d comeback he’d always have the headphones in. And the baby boomer, knowing this trend about always being connected, kind of associated that what he saw as part of that, right? So this person who always has his headphones in who is asked to be connected, and he kind of considered it anti-social that he couldn’t handle face-to-face, because he always needed to be connected to technology and it bothered them. And they really have a friendship in the workplace because of this judgment that the baby boomer had about millennial. When this person gave an example at a talk that I gave, “once another millennial raised their hand, it was not the person that worked with the baby boomer but it was someone else.” And say, “No, it’s funny. I have headphones in all the time, but it’s because I grew up in the projects and moved in a really chaotic home. And when I listen to music, it allows me to be more focused and I’m just trying to do my best work.” And it never occurred to him that elder people might consider that anti-social. So, I think there is the trends create the opportunity for us to make judgments and assumptions about people, that maybe completely off-based. And so the way to overcome that is to communicate. Note that baby boomer when they go out to the millennial, and say, “Hey, you know, I notice that you have your headphones all the time. That kind of makes me feel like you don’t want me to talk to you. What’s going on? You mind if I take you out to coffee?” That kind of communication and understanding would overcome all of the judgments and assumptions we make about people, because we’ve read about these trends that are happening.

 

Lesley:  So what underlies all of this is the need for us to stop in our own tracks and ask question, “What assumptions am I making about this person that is inhibiting our relationship? And if it’s the fact that I see him wearing ear pods and I’m not able to converse with him, then I have a responsibility to start the conversation about, ‘I’d like to have a conversation with you, and is it possible for us to talk about how I interact best with you?’” So, it’s not dealing with the fact that I’m generationally linking that person to connected private-seeking individual; I’m just simply wanting to create a relationship initiative around that individual.

 

Dr. Jessica: Yeah absolutely.

 

Lesley:  So, what is your thought because in this conversation you’ve even used the generational labels? So, how do we just get it out of our vocabulary because when you’re talking about it, it’s a code? I get to understand that you’re talking about somebody who’s in their 60s, talking to somebody who’s in their 20s to 30s. So even in this conversation we’ve used it as shorthand, how do we get away from even using it in the kind of interaction that we’re having?

 

Dr. Jessica: Yeah. Actually removing the labels from conversations seems like a battle that would be long fought, I don’t know that that’s not necessarily realistic although in an ideal world it would be perfect. I think that the labels will remain. The key is to ensure that we’re using the labels appropriately. So to say, millennials are buying houses at a greater rate than five years ago. That’s a statistic, that’s a fact, that’s something that is interesting that might be something worth knowing. But then, what we do with that information is where we get into the danger zone, right? And so, in terms of leadership and what I would recommend is not necessarily abolishing generational labels, although that would be a good start just in your own life to stop using those terms. I think what would be more helpful is to ensure that when you’re interacting with people, that if someone does bring up the generational stereotype to sweetly, calmly question whether there’s validity there or to point out an example of someone that you know that it’s not in that stereotype. So if someone says, “Well millennials are all really impatient.” Then you might say, “Oh really? I have a couple of millennials at my workplace, they’re very patient.” “I have an experience that.” And then that right there begins a conversation about, “Really, are we classifying 80 million people into a bucket or were you making an observation about one or two people, because there are certainly millennials that are entitled an impatient, and lazy and want to change the world in all of the stereotypes that we associate with them, but is it everyone?” No. So, how do we just shift our language away from the word “millennial” in towards the people that we’re working with? It’s that concept of being comfortable with gray in a world of black and white. It’s black and white. We understand it, it’s labeled, it’s simple. Having these black and white terms don’t allow for the diversity of the 80 million people in that generation, and that can be uncomfortable but it allows for much more rich relationships and interactions when we do sit there.

 

Lesley:  Well, I think you’ve done a really good job of underlying the premise of your book “Unfairly Labeled” and some of the implications that has for us unconsciously, you know. So I think that that’s part of what you’re saying as that we’re not conscious about the fact that we are making these stereotype conclusions, and yet we are through the way in which we plan our engagement strategies with people, the way in which we think about markets. Although you do say in your book that marketing has had some benefit from these labels.

 

Dr. Jessica: Yeah. I think that marketing is an exception to the rule because marketers have always a long history of creating buckets of people, demographics of people, targeting those folks with some kind of campaign that you think will stick, and hoping that you get the majority of them to buy what you want. And so, with millennials, saying, “This is our marketing campaign specifically targeting millennials, it works.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because what we’re doing is we’re saying, “You know, we’re not going to be right a 100 percent of time but we think that most millennials don’t want to buy X, and so here’s that we’re going to market to them.” In my book, the Y argue, there’s probably a more sophisticated way these days, given the amount of technology that’s available to us in the marketing realm to use millennials as the demographic. It’s so brawn that if you will make it more specific—you know, that we have so much technology, for example—there are some millennials like I said that are illegal immigrants in the Midwest that waitressing, and there are other millennials that are CEOs at Silicon Valley. They probably don’t need this marketing campaign. So if you get more specific, so for example, urban affluent millennials, who frequent the following coffee shops, then you could really have a powerful campaign. And so it’s part of marketing. I don’t think it says detrimental, I just think that there’s probably a better way than simply millennials and baby boomers.

 

Lesley:  So, to close out this interview, Jessica, I want to ask you, what is the one myth about millennials that bothers you the most?

Dr. Jessica: I think probably that they are entitled. I think that that myth in itself is probably the one that bothers me the most and that’s probably because I am fairly entitled, and so it hits me to my core.

 

Lesley:  So in other words, it’s not only there, it’s a stereotype that impart sort of hits you as something that you can relate to.

 

Dr. Jessica: It hits me personally, yes. And having said that not all millennials are entitled, I know some of them are not.

 

Lesley:  Well, what a great way to conclude, I thank you a lot for this time together. And I really point the audience to looking into getting your book as soon as it’s out on February 29th. Thanks, Jessica.

 

Dr. Jessica: Thank you. And it’s available for pre-order on Amazon now so they don’t have to wait.

 

Lesley:  Okay, pre-ordered. Let’s go. Thanks, Jessica.

 

Stereotypes are indeed tricky, and yet I don’t think they’re going to go away anytime too soon. Bu I think what Jessica’s really underlying is we have a responsibility to truly understand the people with whom we’re engaging whether that be as colleagues, employees or as markets. Take my father for example; he’s going to listen to this podcast on his ipad or his computer. He will have found out the news for that day by checking all the NewReals using his online screen. He does all of his investment banking using his computer. I will FaceTime with him this week, as I always do every week in order to stay connected across the ocean. My father, Denis George is 95 years old. And yet, if we went with a generational definition he should be tech-adverse, that would be the opposite of who he is. If you want to find out more about Dr. Kriegel’s work then just head over to Amazon and pick up her book “Unfairly Labeled.” You can also find her on her Twitter handle@jessicakriegel J-E-S-S-I-C-A-K-R-I-E-G-E-L and always on LinkedIn. Just before we go, I would like to highlight a research paper that Jessica refers to in her book and which I hunted down, it’s called “Myths, exaggerations and Uncomfortable truths” put out by IBM Institute for Business Value. Here, an enormous research study was undertaken to identify what generational differences existed in the workplace, and what they found out was that there were more myths than facts. But what would truly strike me were the three uncomfortable truths that they identified. All generations feel that they are in the dark as employees, many aren’t sure they understand the organization’s business strategy and their leaders are partly to blame. The second uncomfortable truth is that all three generations think for customer experience is poor, the one that their organization offers. And uncomfortable truth number three, employees of all ages have embraced the technological revolution but organizations are slow to implement new applications. Research is a very amazing way of us understanding the world around us, and hunting down these papers is actually really insightful. To find out more about me just head over to lesleysouthwicktrask.com, womenwholead.co, as well as “women who lead radio show” on Facebook. You can also find me on LinkedIn as Lesley Southwick Trask, and my Twitter handle LSouthT. Well that’s it for this week. Remember, you are the reason this show exist, I am your host Lesley Southwick-Trask. See you next time.

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