Millennial-bashing is ageist. 5 reasons why it must stop.

Last week a headline popped up on my Twitter feed, advising businesses to “Stop Millennials using phones at work” in the hope of increasing employee engagement. Full disclosure, the article is behind a paywall so there may be a more nuanced argument underlying this clickbait, but sadly these types of headlines are all too common. And I find it so dispiriting. This is why.

Photo by Daniel Salcius on Unsplash
  1. It’s ridiculously ageist. Imagine replacing the word Millennials with that of an under-represented or commonly discriminated-against group and see how it reads. “Stop Women using phones at work”; yes, silly little women, can’t possible concentrate on more than one thing at once. . . Not feeling so comfortable with this sentiment now, right?
  2. It’s patronizing beyond belief. As website Kasasa points out, “ If you think of all Millennials as college kids (18–22), then you are thinking of a stage in life and not a generation.” Millennials — generally taken to mean those born between the early 80s and the early 2000s — are not children who need to be policed; those born in the early 80s are now in their late 30s… how, then, is talking to them like they are naughty children acceptable?
  3. It treats the symptom, not the cause. So often in the workplace (and elsewhere in life) we see these knee-jerk solutions to a perceived problem, without a true understanding of what the issues might really be. If — and it’s a big if — employees are being distracted by smartphone use at work, surely it makes more sense to try to understand why your employees are not engaged at work. Also why you don’t trust them to do a good job. This advice is the worst kind of presenteeism, where just turning up and looking busy are presumed to be markers of commitment. PSA — it’s equally possible to be disengaged and unproductive if you are sitting in meetings all day, or staring at a computer screen.
  4. There is no evidence that Millennials are distinct from any other age group in their expectations of working life. In fact, quite the opposite; analyst Amanda Kreun has written that “young people today tend to see themselves and their work environments in a similar way as did young people from previous generations,” and academic research takes a similar view. Professor Emma Parry, with whom I was fortunate enough to study during my MBA, has argued that “given the multitude of problems inherent in the evidence on generational differences in work values, it is not clear what value the notion of generations has for practitioners.”
  5. Smartphone use is now a norm. The implication of this type of advice is that all people are doing on their smartphones is checking social media and messaging friends. But yet we all rely on our phones for work; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t, no matter what their age. This assumption that smartphones are somehow toys reflects the disconnect that I so often see in my work between leaders and the people they lead; the future of work is remote, technology-enabled, meaningful, supports a work/life balance. Smartphones have a critical role to play in all of these things, and organizations get the benefits of them; it’s only in the past 10 years or so that there is an expectation that staff are contactable any time of the day or night. Many bosses I know take advantage of this, but conveniently ignore it when it suits them.

Ageism is a genuine problem in the workplace, at both ends of the spectrum, and I by no means under-estimate the challenges of being an older worker. But this millennial-bashing is so unhealthy, and it somehow encapsulates so much of what is wrong with the modern workplace. So let’s put a stop to it, for good.

Nancy Roberts is CEO of Umbrella, providing tools and services to help businesses in improve diversity and inclusion. Sign up to our newsletter here.