Analysis of millennials has provided a lot of insight, and a lot more opportunities for sloppy analysis and lazy stereotyping.
The millennial generation has come of age under a microscope—the subject of polling, data analysis, and dissection, propelled by the explosion of the Internet and the rapid dissemination of consumable hot takes through social media. Countless op-eds and breathless lectures in university classrooms and corporate meeting spaces have been devoted to explaining this cohort of young-ish adults—their sense of entitlement, their bucking against social and class norms, and a rabid, feverish love for avocado toast.
Who belongs to this cohort is not universally agreed upon. As such, the irony is never lost when an ambitious, self-praising young professional positions themselves as rejecting puerile self-obsession and frivolous spending without realizing they are, in fact, sitting right in the middle of the millennial age range. Millennials insisting they are not millennials (or at least "not like the other Millennials") while older generations insist they are drives at a conflict of interpretive biases: while data science is becoming more sophisticated and nuanced with regard to generations, the way generational profiles are ultimately used by the public remains imprecise, sloppy, and self-serving.
Pew Research, which recently established the 1981 to 1996 range as the Millennial generation for their analytical purposes, points to a lack of robust definitive thresholds for Gen X, Y, et al compared to Baby Boomers, who are broadly defined by the post-World War II surge in the birth rate. Millennials and Generation X are also in ranges three years shorter than Baby Boomers under these definitions. Pew's leadership rightfully points to the inexact science of establishing cutoffs for generational demarcation, particularly when there isn't a consensus on where to do so.
So why examine ourselves through the lens of generations in the first place? Ultimately, even an imprecise generational cohort offers a level of insight that gets us closer to the granular exact truth. It is often impossible to achieve significant statistical modeling on any group outside of a total vacuum or simulated data set, so generational trends are not extraordinarily useless if used sparingly and realistically. The problem is that statistical insights trickle down through layers of interpretive filters, from research institutions to media outlets and into the population at large, where they frequently morph into something akin to a horoscope or Myers-Briggs personality type.
Our own natural tendencies toward confirmation bias then leave us discussing workplace culture with a vocabulary of stereotypes, assuming the information as we've received it is accurate enough to apply to everyone we encounter within a certain age group. Anyone would be stunned to hear their boss describe their employees' behavior as "such a Gemini thing to do" in a professional setting, yet we're often left frustratingly unempowered to disprove generational personas when the way they're used is just as inaccurate.
So why do we peddle in stereotypes about younger generations? For one, it fulfills a trend as old as the written word: older adults love to whine about the younger generation. Our attitudes and beliefs can change as a result of major life events, and the impact of cultural shifts on our belief systems varies depending on our age, among other factors. Leaders in business and academia also struggle with the challenge of scalable leadership; at a certain point, it simply becomes too difficult or completely impossible to know everyone we work with on the same scale we might be expected to know one or two close team members.
It's a tough problem that has given birth to an entire industry offering seductively simple solutions: personality types borne by age cohort, gender, or quiz results to give leadership the comfort in knowing that they really understand their people without the time-consuming effort of actually trying. I have been described as a millennial, INTJ, gay, Type 5, Guru, Pisces, Earth Snake, yet none of these lay neatly enough over my personal experience to be wholly accurate. Even more confusingly, I can always find something in any of the other generations, Myers-Briggs types, etc. that I identify with, so none of these are ever truly satisfying ways to describe myself, yet I see people hew to the types they favor in everything from office work to dating. Why be so reductive?
In reality, the answers are messy. If anything should guide an understanding of millennials from the broadest available facts, it's our generation's diversity compared to Boomers and Gen Xers—our cohort necessitates complex understanding. More pronounced than ever, too, is the availability of the data itself and not just canned analyses: if you want to understand millennials, look deeper into the data yourself (and poll your own people!). Above all, it's important that we admit across generations that understanding each other is a complex problem, and there will never be shortcuts that give you clarity without any legwork. To be blunt: it is, ironically, extremely lazy and entitled to accuse millennials of being lazy and entitled themselves. The data simply does not justify the conclusions, and putting the onus on millennials to constantly defend themselves does everyone a disservice.
Most millennials still don't have everything figured out, but this is far from uniquely generational (nor is it their own fault). This is part-generational circumstance and part-reality—everyone has questions, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is prone to selfish behaviors. Buck the trend of the old criticizing the young and instead make understanding and compassion your goal. You can find millennials who work harder than anyone you've ever met and 20-somethings with humility and independence beyond what you'd ever expected. We're all trying to make it in the world and feel seen and respected; if we all step up, the world, the workplace, and the classroom will be better for it.
Try the avocado toast, too. It's good, I promise.