Your Generation’s Workplace Brand—Fair or Foul? |Taking Issue

Isn’t it actually stereotyping? A kind of “when you were born” profiling? I’m talking about those labels—Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y (aka the Millenials, Generation Next, Net Generation, Echo Boomers).

These labels, initially designating our birth era, have become cultural brands, creating either positive or negative perceptions, depending on who’s watching, especially at work. We even use them to categorize ourselves. 

Stories can spawn truth or myth. 

On her morning talk show this week, NBC’s Hoda Kotb and guest co-host, Willie Geist, an MSNBC TV commentator, swapped stories about interns they’d hired. 

Hoda needed to locate a J. Smith in NJ for a segment, so she said to her intern, “I’ll start calling this half of the names in the phone book and you can take the other half.” 

The intern replied, “Oh, I don’t make cold calls.” 

Geist’s story was similar. When given a weekend assignment, his intern informed him, “I don’t work Saturdays.” 

Both Kotb and Geist called these reactions signs of “narcissism,” reflective of that generation nineteen-year-olds. Fair or foul? 

I suspect that you know plenty of entry level professionals who would have walked through fire for KotB and Geist. But stories like these feed the brands of whole generations. 

The perils of painting with a broad brush 

Why do we find it unacceptable to attach sweeping labels to the styles of our coworkers by ethnicity or race but find it acceptable to use the era in which we’re born? 

We’ve become pidgeon-holed: 

  • Baby Boomer—a person born during the Post-World War II baby boom
  • Generation X—a person born after the Western post-World War II baby boom, from the 1960s to the early 1980s  
  • Generation Y (Millenials, et al)—a person born after the Gen Xers, from about the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.   

(Some people refer to Millenials as their own generational group.) 

These labels have been allowed to represent our work ethic and the ways we interact. For some reason, as managers and employees, we’ve become comfortable categorizing each other and ourselves using these labels. 

Here’s what several career-minded professionals posted on a site I follow: 

  • “Generation X and Baby Boomer managers complain about poor performance.
  • Generation Y whines about a lack of responsibility and/or high demands in the workplace.
  • Millenials pick up important cues because they are native technology users; Boomers sometimes miss those cues because they’re not.” 

People write statements like these and everyone nods. But are they true about everyone in these groups? About you? They sure aren’t true about me. 

Why aren’t we angry about this? 

I’ve been frustrated by these labels for a long time. There’s a danger in them when they’re perceived as truths.

Every time we refer to ourselves as a Boomer, a Gen Xer, or a Millenial, we agree to be defined in the context of others we don’t even know. We accept the stories that went with them, rather than creating stories that showcase ourselves  and what we have to offer.

When we accept those labels, we foster division. Each person, not generation, brings something important to the party. It’s our job to figure out what that is and grow from it. 

Please stay out of the boxes!

Success is about YOU. There’s no value thinking in labels. Instead, find people where you work you who are considered the best contributors, the standout leaders, and the examples to follow. 

Find mentors with varied experiences and knowledge. Don’t just hang around with your own clan. Bridge every generation and engage all the talent you can. Defy the labels. Be your own person. Then see how your career takes off!

Try this: List the people in your company who have distinguished themselves. Find a way to talk to them about something related to your work in the next 30 days. See what happens. You’ll be amazed.