You’ve likely heard it before, “How do you work with those people?” You hear it from us experienced (over age 35) people that feel frustrated trying to understand the young generation entering our businesses. But, you’ll hear the same question and annoyance from this young generation, wondering how to succeed with people who don’t seem to understand them at all.  

Stereotypes. You just can’t think about generational differences without stereotyping.  

So what’s the definition of a stereotype? Merriam-Webster says it’s a “Standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion.”

Reality – Stereotyping can be Helpful

There are obvious issues with stereotyping. Generalizations bring difficulties too. But you may remember that the principal of all science is based on evaluating concepts and approaches versus a hypothesis. And, if you study the most successful leaders, a common attribute is their ability to explore complex options and convert them to simple and disciplined strategies that result in superior implementation. I call it, “Thinking chess – but communicating checkers.”

The reality is that we naturally use stereotypes as a hypothesis until we actually evaluate and attempt to understand specific individuals. So my conclusion is that despite their problems, stereotypes are very useful. They provide a generalized working hypothesis that we can use as a benchmark to compare and contrast our perceptions of different individuals we actually deal with. As a result, we can form superior leadership and relationship enhancing capabilities.

Many of my clients (mostly contractors from around the U.S.) ask, “How do I deal with this new generation?” Some of the questioning involves some derogatory stereotypes about the “millennial generation.” These perceptions include: overly ambitious, lazy, entitled, spoiled, lacking humility and annoying.

Beyond my consulting, I teach over 1,000 students each year at one of the top-rated business schools, and I believe that while these descriptions seemed somewhat familiar on the surface, they weren’t helpful in improving results in business leadership. With such simplistic information, I couldn’t help coach this younger generation on how to succeed and I couldn’t coach the more mature generations on how to improve their leadership and resulting company results.

Finding Answers – The Start of a Journey

I talked about the issue of the younger and over age 35 generations with both Tracey Donels, a very successful younger executive at KPOST in Dallas and leader in the Midwest Roofing Contractors Association (MRCA), and RC publisher Jill Bloom.

We agreed on a three-step process. First, conduct a large panel session at the MRCA conference last November to gain more insight into generational perceptions and challenges, especially in the roofing industry. Second, develop quantitative market data using the experts at BNP Market Research, the research wing of BNP Media, RC’s parent company. And then combine the learning into the article you’re reading.

Phase One — The Panel Session

The panel session at MRCA drew a large crowd of professional roofing contractors who peppered the eight person panel with questions. The take-away was clear: There are big gaps in perceptions. 

However, everybody seemed to agree on a few key things. First, there’s a huge difference in the perception of acceptable work time. The younger generation has a much more flexible view. For example, if they have something personal to do at 2 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, that’s no problem; take the time off and get it done later that night or the next day. Non-millennials tend to view an appropriate workday as starting early and not leaving before 5 p.m.; not complying reflects an employee that’s not as committed to the success of the team. 

Second, life values are often dissimilar. Millennials are much more conscious of their personal and work life balance. They believe that prior generations placed far too much emphasis on their careers and as a consequence, missed out on some of the best things life has to offer. Interestingly, the more experienced generations tended to agree, and they believe their younger peers have it right.

Third, there is a divergence in beliefs about career advancement. Millennials place much lower value on long-term loyalty and “paying your dues.” Simply, they believe that financial rewards and increasing responsibility should be based almost entirely on personal accomplishments. And millennials admit that their generation is more impatient in relation to their careers and feel less loyal to their organizations than the preceding generations. 

Fourth, this younger generation feels more comfortable using the most advanced technologies. They prefer texting and emailing to phone calls. They find personal interaction as a potentially poor and inefficient use of time. Conversely, generations before them fear that technology can result in reduced opportunities for forging client relationships that are the foundation of an excellent business.

Fifth, millennials want more input, collaboration and discussion in decision making. Simply, they want to know why things are being done, not just what, how and when things need to be accomplished. This younger group wants their opinions heard. Remember that there are huge differences in their experiences through high school; they learned in teams while prior generations experienced more of a solo educational experience.

Phase Two — A Chasm of Misperceptions

The primary objective of our study was to gain insight into the differences in perceptions of millennials versus non-millennials about each other.

To say that this younger generation’s perceptions of themselves versus what those aged 35 and over think varied would be a colossal understatement. 

What’s the biggest difference? A sense of entitlement. Fifty percent of those under age 35 think of their generation as “feeling entitled,” while 83 percent of those aged 35 and up frown on this perception of the younger generation. Additionally, the more experienced generational groups have very low opinions of the younger generation in several other areas like inflexibility (76 percent); not action oriented (68 percent); and don’t want training (63 percent) or feedback (57 percent). Millennials have a huge difference in opinions about themselves. They want training and feedback (both 72 percent), and are action oriented (67 percent). However, there’s a general consensus among both groups: Millennials are not cost conscious and they also seek recognition. 

Conclusion:  A Bad Stereotype

The stereotype of millennials is written about extensively, with words including overly ambitious, lazy, entitled, spoiled, lacking humility and annoying. Frankly, based on this journey, the stereotype is wrong. They’re certainly not lazy, they see work time differently, they multi-task and they’re incredibly efficient and effective as a result of technology. They’re ambitious, but honestly, aren’t we all? They ask ‘why’ which may seem annoying at times, but it’s the smart thing to do. Looking back, I didn’t understand folks with much more experience than me when I began my career – and they didn’t totally understand me. But, in the end, we all really do care about each other, we just have different experiences from which we define normal.