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The Overuse of "Millennial" and Its Impact

A Google News search of the term “millennials” produced a result of 6,880 news articles…written in the 24 hours prior to starting this article. If we assume constant rate and extrapolate that number, that means that there would be 2.48 million news articles written on Millennials annually. This number does not even include individual pieces of content such as opinion pieces or those written by subject matter experts on the Generational Gap. Every day, you’ll see content flash across your screen which will tell you about how you can best approach Millennials, how you can talk with Millennials, what drives Millennials, which industries Millennials favor, which industries Millennials are “killing”, how Millennials have no work ethic, how Millennials are “snowflakes”, and so on. This begs the question…are you sick of the world Millennials yet in this article?


Because I am.

In entirety.

The word Millennial is used far too often, and we need to recognize that we’re over attending it. As a society, we have dissected nearly every conceivable notion of what it means to be a Millennial. This is a problem because, quite frankly, we don’t actually know who they are yet. We are defining an entire generation of individuals by how they have acted while in their twenties. I think it’s safe to say that virtually no one, in our entire society, wants to be defined by how they acted in their twenties. It is a decade which I would safely wager 90% of us wish we could go back to and do over or avoid the mistakes we had made.

From this point on in this article, I will start referring to this generation, my generation, as Gen Y. My thesis, as you will soon come to find, is that we should all start naming this generation as such. Millennial is becoming a pejorative word, and, if we’re going to be in the business of labeling people as a society, let’s at least do so in a manner that doesn’t conjure negative stereotypes.

How We Got to This Point (A Theory)

A helpful point to visit before we dive into the real meat of why I believe we need to stop using this term is to visit how this all began. Who better to help tell this story than, naturally, a Baby Boomer.

For that reason, I spoke with Jessica Ollenburg, President/CEO here at HRS.

“As a forefront behavioral researcher, we’ve served as keynote speakers on generational shaping since 2002, arguably 1983. Stereotyping and blame-shifting were never on our agenda. The purpose of our analysis was to understand impacts to trust and motivation. One symptom that arose due to Millennial labeling by others is that I was too young for my job until the day I became too old… I’m thankful I’m no longer considered too old. The two words that have been most abused in today’s lingo are ‘Millennial’ and ‘disrupt’… Please don’t disrupt centuries of sacrifice without respecting and keeping what works. Progress is critical. Making the same mistakes your elders made is not progress, but youth has to experience some feeling of change, as empowerment relies upon it.”

Jessica makes an important distinction here – there is a difference between “progress for the sake of progress” and progress by not repeating your elders’ learned mistakes. I’d hope that we can all agree that the latter should always be a goal for our society. After all, “respect your elders” is one of mankind’s oldest mantras.

As for the sake of “disrupting” and having Gen Y come in and seek change, hasn’t that been something that all generations have struggled with? Haven’t all new adults grappled with their elder generations about how things are done?

“To an extent, absolutely! My era of youth specifically discussed amongst ourselves that perceived ‘need’ for change was absolutely the fuel that gave us the bravery to push and create change. I consider this essential to progress. … [however] the ‘disruptor’ language implies some value of disruption for the sake of disruption. Shouldn't we limit that to disruption for the sake of progress?

Boomers take pride in having changed the landscape away from traditionalists fist-pounding quotes [such as] ‘We've done it this way for 50 years!’ … I see Gen Y doing the same. The difference sometimes is lack of diplomacy and protection of greater good. … When I hear the word ‘disrupt,’ I hear ‘it's so bad, we're just going to implode it and start over.’ It's demotivating and angering.”

So we do see some distinction here in how Gen Y is perceptively handling their entrance to the workforce compared with their predecessors; it’s an issue of perception and, at the risk of sounding too trite, possibly semantics. This is just one of many topics we can dive into regarding how this generation is so different than everyone before them.

Here's an excerpt from Jessica’s quote which really stuck with me, “I was too young for my job until the day I became too old…” This is a really important mantra which could explain how some of the infighting began. There are many Baby Boomers who truly feel that it was never “their time” and they had to fight for relevance. Baby Boomers hold a great distinction by being the only generation named by what their parents did (return from war to start a family) as opposed to what defined their “coming-of-age” tale (Millennials, Traditionalists, etc). Boomers were too young, as all generations were at one point, until the recession happened. At this point, companies were pinched for capital and we saw a number of companies make the decision to hire young, developable talent in lieu of older, established talent. It was at this moment that Boomers started to feel “too old,” and it seemingly happened over night. (For more on this topic, you can view my other article here.)

At this point, Boomers felt as though they had to fight for their relevance. They were about to enter the period of their lives where their dues had been paid and they were to inherit their rightful place in society as leaders and mentors. It wasn’t just financial security that they lost at this time, it was pride and a sense of purpose. They were no longer ahead of where their children were (at least to the degree they had hoped), and they found themselves fighting for the same open jobs. Thinking of us all as human, I believe that anyone would have responded negatively to such circumstances.

Yes, We Are Approaching the Business of Labelling Here

A Millennial is defined as an individual approximately born between the years of 1980 – 1995…that’s it. There is no other true defining factor. There are major life events which have affected all individuals born in this time frame, namely September 11th and the Great Recession, but they also effected all other generations, as well. The only question here is at which age did you witness these catastrophic events occur? Of course, age does plays an impact here, as it’s no secret that we perceive and react to events differently at different points of our lives – that’s one of the bases of studying human behavior.

What we need to recognize, however, is that since there is only one way to define who is a Millennial, that an individual is always going to be a Millennial. An individual will never grow out of being a Millennial – I will be 80 years old and I will still be a Millennial. When we start stating that somebody has A characteristics because they are part of B generation, we are offering no room for them to grow as a human being or, more importantly, for them to ever be perceived differently than what we have labeled that generation to be. This would be true of all generations.

Personally, I have already felt the effects of this. One of the reasons I am growing tired of the term “Millennial” is that I feel as though I have no hope of connecting with someone quickly if they call me by that term. For example, in a Networking room, my thought process immediately goes to, “That’s a lot of pre-conceived notions about me that I have to break down in the next 90 seconds before I can get this individual to buy-in to my value.” Professionals such as myself who entered the workforce with vigor and enthusiasm are often given no credit for their work, but rather judged simply on their age. Would you ever guess by my age that I was 12 years old when I started working at HRS?

Admittedly, I must pause from the thesis of this article to state that these arguments sound a lot like arguments that one would make in favor of equality amongst various protected classes. I am not trying to state that Generational differences are equitable to other such issues. Rather, my argument here is that someone should not be able to approach such a strong conclusion on Generational issues because it is so far and away not the same type of issue; the fact that we are approaching this territory as a society is exactly what’s wrong with this picture.

Jessica furthered on this point, “Far too many are confusing youth with generational stereotyping, perhaps forgetting their own youth. Will Millennials be the next EEOC protected class? Why is it ok to stereotype by birth year but not by culture, religion, race, geography? Aren't we shaped by both nature and nurture? As an example of how random the generational labeling is, I was classified as Gen X until much later in life. If we're forbidden to generalize based upon real nature and nurture characteristics, why are we allowed to generalize based upon random datelines upon which we can't even agree?”

This is another thing that’s dangerous about labeling an individual by generational attributes; we can’t even agree upon which years define which generation. For example, I’ve seen certain sources state that Gen Y starts in the mid-1970s…which, amongst other things, makes me wonder exactly what room is left for Gen X. I’m sure some of you born between 1975 and 1980 are saying to yourself, “There is no way that’s correct. I have nothing in common with the younger people in my workplace.” You should think this. This is exactly the point.

Can We All Agree to Move Forward?

Each generation has been raised with its own set of values. One generation was raised a certain way by their parents, which lead them to raise the next generation a little differently, which will lead them to raise their next generation a little differently, and so it goes on. Let me be clear – generational differences are a helpful tool. This research allows us to make an educated guess on what might constitute an individual’s psyche so that it might actually be easier to understand them. This is NOT a tool for us to assume that we already know who an individual is.

Yes – Gen Y is different. Gen Y did grow up with the advent of personal technology; Gen Y was raised with its own set of national and cultural issues; Gen Y is certainly not perfect. What we need now is to move forward constructively. If Boomers or Gen X don’t like the way that Gen Y does things – correct it constructively; please don’t criticize. Gen Y has many lessons to learn; after all, the oldest we are is, based upon whom you ask, mid-30s. To Gen Y – please be willing to listen. Constructive criticism is helpful for everyone, and let’s trust that the older generations are here to help. We don’t need to be know-it-alls. The next time I’m out in public, I’d prefer to not be thought of as a “Millennial,” I want to be thought of as a young professional who still has a lot to learn and is willing to do so. I’d like to think that this is no different than other young professionals who came before me. Where we are as a society is not the fault of anyone – it’s not the fault of the Boomers, and it’s not the fault of Gen Y. I’m sure both sides feel that “the war” was started by the other, but let’s please try not to worry about that and move forward constructively.

As our article’s Boomer states, “In all areas of our society, we're seeing push and push-back. The harder one pushes, the harder the equal and opposite reaction. I have no intention of insulting our youth, and I caution others to rethink their insults. It's our purpose to support the next generations. I recognize that my generation has helped shape the next generations, and I simply want them to respect the work, findings, accomplishments, endurance and sacrifices of my generation... and then to make them matter [in turn] by building upon them.”

After all, all that each of us wants is to provide value and to gain respect.


Matthew Bare operates as a Chief Officer and Stakeholder at HRS. Delivering 15 years of dedicated contribution at HRS, Matt brings client service excellence, relentless research and product development planning. Matt works with key HRS clients locally, nationally and abroad to understand pressing concerns and deliver timely solutions. He pursues an extraordinary knowledge base in employee engagement, talent development and HRIS/payroll solutions. You can learn more about Matt in his bio, including links to some of his other articles.

Matthew Bare - Friday, September 08, 2017