Article (October-2019)


Understanding the misunderstood millennials

Pragnya Acharya

Designation : -   Senior Executive-HR

Organization : -  Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, Chennai

Other Writers : -  Dr. Lalatendu Kesari Jena - Assistant Professor (OB & HR), Xavier School of HRM (XaHR), Xavier University, Bhubaneswar


159089 Total View        

Age has become merely a number and what really matters now is knowledge, skill and attitude backed by experience, but, maybe not always. The never - ending debate on experience Vs. performance is still in a deadlock and sees no horizon. Considerable research needs to be carried out in the area of "evolution of HR policies and practices across generational cohorts". Studies show a significant difference in the organizational expectations and needs of the four age groups that constitute workforces of the modern-day economy.

Organizations are learning how to tap this largely diverse workforce by co-creating systems for better inclusion. Inclusion, on the contrary holds different meaning to the different age groups co-existing within these systems. Ranging from beards, piercings to clean shaven, tucked-in formals; the face of workplaces has completely changed. What is normalcy for millennials (born after 1980) could be a bit alarming for Baby Boomers (born after 1944). These so-called labels at workplaces are what hinder the unity in this diversity. Retention of the younger generational cohorts tagged as the "high performing knowledge workers", has become a crucial area of concern for many organizations. Stereotypes among these cohorts are bound to exist but need not bound to be affecting the work environment and the knowledge management of the organizations. Enough hype has polarized the millennial popularity, which needs to be ignored rather than popularized. "Gig Economy", "Netizens", "Digital generations" are the infamous buzz words in the corridors. But do these labels fuel the fire of stereotyping or propagate inclusion is still an unanswered question.

Some experts claim that "Gig Economy" or freelancers will revolutionize workplaces, while some claim that the knowledge drain leading to talent loss is due to the work hopping tendency of these workers. This is merely an example of a stereotype that exists at workplaces and has a significant impact on the way policies, retention and engagement strategies are designed. An in-depth analysis of these cohorts can answer some of the major questions inherited over generations in these organizations. Worth pondering is the question of work centrality or the concept of hard work. Gen X employees who may not have been equipped with cutting edge technology had lot of manual work and hence had to struggle more than the millennial workers now.

But this does not imply that millennial workers do not have their set of struggles. Similarly, there are areas such has work centrality, organizational loyalty, work ethics which hold very different meanings to different age groups. This difference in mindsets can be due to various factors such as upbringing, social exposure, ethnicity, education, life experiences and many more. Incorporating all of these and maintain cohesive work culture is the real challenge. The social identity theory clearly explains the traits exhibited by groups of people in social or work settings as a result of the various factors impacting their lives. Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to, are an important source of pride and self-esteem.

Another school of thought highlights the fact that these generational stereotypes are driven by the training fads, workforce management consultants, and the vast literature which talks so impassively about generation gap and so on. Reality reflects a rather different scenario. Most psychologists who have studied workplace behaviors have observed minimal differences among these generational cohorts. The stereotypes that blanket these assumptions are often wrong. Rather embracing these differences and addressing them has led to driving wedges between these cohorts.

The myth uncovered

A stark reality that can be seen in a lot of organizations is the myth that Baby Boomers are not as tech savvy as the millennials. On the contrary, they are much more gadget freaks as, one, they can afford it, two, they always try to compete or keep up with these millennials, so as not to be left out in the race. Millennials of the other hand, known to be loyal to their skills rather than organizations, exhibit a much higher density of organizational citizenship behavior and tend to get attached to workplaces that value them.

Stereotypes surrounding these cohorts are rather concealing the truth, than helping organizations to mitigate their impacts. Managers with these stereotypes tend to create a bubble as to what their employees are going to be rather than seeing what their employees really are. Whether right or wrong everyone carries some kind of stereotypes when it comes to age groups at work. For example :

  • Millennials got recognized for even their smallest achievements as their generation had the concept of participation prize, medals and awards. They have less interpersonal skills as they live and communicate in a digital world.
  • Baby Boomers having lived in the pre-technology era know very less about the latest technology and hence are backward and slower.
  • Gen Xers are torn between family responsibilities and their hunger for growth. They are more independent and do not like to be micromanaged. They are in the phase of so called "mid-life crisis".

Professionals' views however narrate a very different imagery. The only differences that really exist among these generational cohorts, is their work styles and not the age-based mindsets about each other. Practices like reverse mentoring and performance-based growth have changed the scenarios of workplaces. Often a younger person is found to be leading a team of older employees and they do actually work in harmony. All the big giants like Google, Facebook, IBM, Oracle have a very diverse top management and equally diverse workforce and their success in the markets speak for themselves.

In a recent interview with the Head of recruitment with Siemens Gamesa Renewable Power Pvt. Ltd. - India, Mr. Jeyandran Chandrasekaran highlighted the fact that bringing in new blood to the organization is critical and this new blood helps to bring in a new perspective to a given situation and therefore energizes the eco system. Whereas the Senior Management consisting of the millennials help channelize this new blood towards achieving and exceeding organizational growth and goals.

Another perspective was brought in by the GM HR Partner of IBM India, Mr. Soumya Acharya, who is a millennial himself and has a very different picture to paint. He says that in his 10 years of experience, age has never been a factor that would shadow his quality of work, neither affect his growth in the organization. He has been extremely comfortable working with the senior members (I would further avoid using the generational tags) and has had a mutual learning and growing environment. He brings in a global flavor to this aspect by highlighting that IBM overseas has a much similar pattern where multiple positions, senior and well as junior, are held by people of diverse age groups and they all work in harmony.

The retired Chairman of NLCIL, Dr. Sarat, a stalwart in leadership and innovation, expressed that, the tags surrounding the employees at workforce is the reflection of poor workforce integration. The millennials are the future, the Gen Xers are the designers of the future and the Baby boomers are the value inculcators. Each is incomplete without the other. There is no age which defines leaders, and a leader cannot discriminate on the basis of age.

Ex. Senior HR manager turned entrepreneur Mrs. Sanghmitra Sathpathy who is now a freelancer and a gig worker with 8 years of experience in Infosys was one of the youngest employees to head the deadliest of projects and emphasized on the much-needed guidance of her experienced colleagues, which beelined her to succeed. The above instances bring us the clarity that these so-called stereotypes are pseudo and what really matters is the skill currency of the employees rather than their age. Organizations which practice an inclusive co-existence often are devoid of these stereotypes. Pioneers in organizational research have claimed that even if these stereotypes do exist, they can be managed by tinkering the work climate and culture and does not need to be over-hyped and exaggerated.

Young and smarter or old and wiser : employees need to be both

Rather than tagging younger employees as technology snobs, over sensitive and needy, the middle aged as always tired and irritated and critical about everything, and the older employees as cranky, micro managing, slow and outdated; there are ways to integrate all the crankiness, neediness and irritability in a productive way.

The first and foremost step would be to forget all of those! The rest are as follows :
  • There are similar values across these age groups - family, integrity, self-respect, love, zeal for learning, work life balance ("the me time"). These can be utilized effectively for harnessing the potentials of all these cohorts.
  • Concentrating on the high and aggressive performers is not enough, the "Steady Eddies" are the horses of the long and tiring run and are equally essential for the organization. These are often the senior and mature workers who are steady and help stabilize the aggressive young workers.
  • Looking at individual expectations would be better than generalizing them according to their generational expectations. Not every Gen Xer needs job security and so too not every millennial need promotion. Failing to look at these individual expectations may lead to low engagement and poor alignment.
Up-scaling them rather than "weeding out the outdated" would work wonders in integrating the diverse age groups. This can be done through reverse mentoring, diversity and inclusion training.

The best managers are like musicians who combine the chords of various types to make a melody. No one chord is the same as the other but together they can either be a pleasure to the ears or a distorted cacophony. Similarly, blending cohorts and over-coming these generational stereotypes is the roadmap towards a sustainable organizational harmony and success.