Who are the Millennials?

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If you’re like me, you’ve been seeing a lot written about the Millenials lately. It’s understandable, since by most accounts they are the biggest generation in U.S. history. So while Gen X got some attention back in the early 90s when they were entering the workforce, the attention on the Millennials is likely going to follow them their whole career. Given their importance, then, here’s a simple question: Who are the Millennials?

In terms of birth years, is it:

  1. 1976 to 2001 (25 years)
  2. 1982 to 2004 (22 years)
  3. 1982 to 1995 (13 years)
  4. 1980 to 2009 (29 years)
  5. 1978 to 2000 (22 years)
  6. All of the above

The answer based on what I’ve found on the internet, unfortunately, is 6. All of the above. These all come from seemingly reputable sources too. And they all are completely comfortable in issuing declarations of what Millennials believe and how they are going to operate as managers and how they are going to shape the workplace, yet none of them (except number 2) can actually explain WHY they chose the birth years that they chose.

That concerns me. If we’re going to continue the generations conversation, then I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. Remember, we’re talking about generalizations about groups of people that number in the tens of millions. So in that sense, there’s nothing stopping anyone from defining the generations completely randomly. Just pick a start year and an end year, and I can compile enough demographic data and survey results to demonstrate the uniqueness of that “generation.”

But if we do it that way, we are missing an opportunity for genuine insight. The conclusions that we are drawing today based on these random demarcations are not nearly as powerful as they would be if we could match our generational research with the actual social, political, and economic trends that shape our values. Generational research is bigger than what the latest survey of what 20- to 30-year-olds say about the role of “meaning” in work. At least it should be. Generational research should be tied to the larger forces that are shaping our entire society.

That’s why social media is more than just a marketing trend. In Humanize we talked about how social media is changing the way we work, but when you step out a bit farther, you see that social media is part of what is shaping the entire Millennial generation–a generation that is not only bigger than the previous ones, but is more infused with power, because they can do things themselves (via social media), they are comfortable with diversity, they’ve always had access to resources, and they’ve been showered with attention their whole lives. It’s a unique combination of social and historical trends that has created this generation.

I think the social media trends, the generational trends, and the recent management innovation trends are all coming together in the next decade in a very powerful way. I think it’s critical to take advantage of what’s happening. And I’m not sure the infographics based on randomly defined generational research are going to help us connect the dots. We need generational research backed in theory, and we need insights that connect the dots rather than spit out random conclusions. I just don’t care that 80% of Millennials (defined using the first set of years above, which includes 25% of Generation X, by the way) would rather receive feedback in real time. I suppose it’s good if it helps you to change your awful performance management system, but it misses a more important point.

They want feedback real time, because they demand speed. They expect things to be fast. They don’t understand the value or the justification for waiting, because they really never had to. This need for speed as deeper implications than just performance reviews or the need to congratulate Millennials constantly in the workplace because they always got trophies as kids. Our generational research needs to go beyond that and uncover the deeper  insights, and then help us translate them into actions that improve our situation today.

That’s where Maddie and I are heading this year. And it starts with being more disciplined about our generational conversations.

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