A reader writes:
My boss seems to be hung up on the idea of me being a “Millennial.”
A few months ago my boss, who is in her upper 50’s, told me she purchased a few books about “Millennials” so she could understand how I think and communicate. We’re an office of three and I’m 25 and the youngest person she has ever managed, besides the occasional intern. At first I was flattered, I thought it seemed like a nice effort to help bridge our differences. Then a few weeks ago I accidentally caught an email on the printer where she was discussing the problem of “leading one of her employees who is a classic millennial.”
It seems to be something she is bringing up in conversation more and more often, and I get the sense that she is using it to categorize me and judge me in ways that aren’t positive. We’ve had our differences and I’ve struggled personally to work with her. I don’t see her as a very capable or competent leader, although I keep those thoughts to myself.
Personally, I don’t appreciate being labeled this way. Should I approach her and ask her to stop referring to me that way or should I just let it drop? What do you think about “Millennials?” Is the concept of generalizing an entire generation based on perceived stereotypes effective?
It’s true that the influence of trends in things like parenting, pop culture, and education create common value systems that broadly distinguish people growing up in a particular time from people who grew up at different times. And it’s also true that some things are more commonly true of particular age groups than of others (for instance, 22-year-olds are less likely to have a skillful command of office politics than 48-year-olds; that’s true of today’s 22-year-olds, and it was true of 22-year-olds 30 years ago). But these are generalizations. As with any generalization, you can’t just assume that they’re true at the individual level. That’s the whole thing about generalizations. Assuming they apply at the individual level is wrong-headed, obnoxious, and ineffective.
So … taking an interest in how changing social norms have created different values and orientations in particular demographics is fine. It’s interesting and useful in some contexts. But deciding to see one particular person through the lens of their generation and tailoring all your interactions with them accordingly is ridiculous.
Which means that your boss is being inane here. It’s really not that different than if she told you that she purchased some books on astrology so that she could understand how to manage Scorpios.
As for what to do about it … Is she someone who reacts reasonably well to feedback? If so, you could consider saying something like this: “Jane, I’ve noticed you’ve mentioned Millennials a lot in reference to me. I’ve done a lot of reading about generational differences, and my sense is that while there are some interesting broad trends about my generation, much of it doesn’t apply to me or plenty of my peers. I’m a little unnerved to think that I’m being related to as a particular generational type, when I’d so much rather be related to based on what I actually show you of my skills and work habits. I’m sure you would feel the same way if I were seeing you as a baby boomer first and foremost and filtering our interactions through that lens.”
However, you mentioned that you’ve had differences with her before, so it’s possible that this will just add to the tensions between you.
If that seems likely to be the case, a different way to go about this would be to simply present a counterpoint to her thinking the next time she brings Millennials up. For instance:
Her: “I know that as a Millennial, you don’t like to do any work that’s boring.”
You: “Actually, I’ve read that about Millennials too, but I’ve never felt that way. I’m actually eager to take on whatever I can do to help, and I know that at this stage in my career, there will plenty of work that isn’t glamorous. I welcome it. In fact, I’ve found a lot of what I’ve read about Millennials doesn’t really hold true at the individual level. I know you’re reading about this and finding it interesting — what else have you found?”
From there, see if you can’t get into a deeper conversation with her about this stuff. By delving into this area that she clearly finds fascinating and relating your own experiences versus what’s supposed to be true of your generation, you might broaden her perspective a bit. If nothing else, you’ll have at least signaled that the very person she’s applying all this theory to doesn’t think it fits.