“Kids these days” assertions and the stereotypes that arise from those observations have existed from the beginning of society. The trend of coining a term for each generation dates back to the mid-19th century. Generational theory was cemented and legitimized in 1991 by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their 1991 book, Generations, outlining four recurring generational phases throughout American history.
According to generational theory, certain historical events affect cohorts of people born around the same time in similar ways, and it makes sense at face value. It’s a palatable assumption that marketers, journalists, analysts, and sociologists have made millions touting.
The reality is that my life, needs, and preferences are very different from those of people five years older than me who graduated college during the 2008 economic recession. I'm different from people with kids, those with different levels of education, and those in different professional networks. And I'm not the same as someone from a different location. The same holds true for any combination of factors that affect our lives.
While we might all be around the same age, it would be a big mistake for an employer or marketer to approach us all in the same manner. We have different priorities, different work ethics and styles, different communication strategies and goals, and different skill sets.
As comedian Adam Conover so aptly asserted: Strauss and Howe made millions coining the term, but Millennials don’t exist. Don’t get me wrong — 20-year-olds are definitely a thing. But this persona of the lazy, entitled, tech-obsessed 20-something mooching off his or her parents is offensive.
Where Generational Theory Fails
Generations, as a concept, are arbitrary categorizations. Generational categories, which vary in their definitions, generally encompass 10 to 20 years of birthdates and don’t provide enough information or context to inform us of how we can expect a particular individual or even a group of individuals to act or feel.
There are certainly trends that can be attached to today’s young people that differ from older people. Millennials are the most diverse generation ever, and they tend to be more socially liberal, marry later in life, and be less enamored with traditional political and religious institutions than their older counterparts. Perhaps most importantly, young people grew up with technology and have low tolerance for poor tech experiences. But, then again, it’s 2016. At this point, doesn’t everyone?
Globalization and the interconnectedness of everything have contributed to these trends, but that leaves a lot of room for individual differences that are glossed over and ignored entirely when throwing around generational terms that address 20 years of individuals as a monolith.
According to Google’s head of human resources, “What we’ve seen is that every single generation enters the workforce and feels like they’re a unique generation, and the generation that’s one or two ahead of them looks back and says, ‘Who are these weird, strange kids coming into the workforce with their attitudes of entitlement and not wanting to fit in? It’s a cycle that’s been repeated every 10 to 15 years for the last 50 years.”
And — shocker — companies that address this group through this lens will alienate it completely. Millennials hate the stereotypes they have to work against.
It's Time to Get Personal
In 2016, personalization is your most valuable tool in both marketing and employee engagement. Tools exist to create accurate personas that extend way beyond basic demographics, rendering generational categorizations irrelevant in informing policies and marketing approaches.
Instead of making assumptions of the people you target, work with, hire, sell to, or serve based on cohorts encompassing millions of people, try actually asking them what resonates with them. Survey your users and employees. Build out personas that are as specific as possible based on the data you collect, and tailor your communications as precisely as you can. Crystal is a great example of a tool that specializes in personal communication for hiring and sales, and there are tons of other resources like it available.
Companies that address their audiences as amorphous wholes will find their messages written off and relegated to spam folders, and companies that address their employees and prospects as individuals will reap massive rewards.
Meg Murphy runs communications and business development at Maxwell Health, a technology platform and marketplace that makes HR and employee benefits simple for small- and medium-sized businesses. She graduated from Bates College in 2013 and is passionate about marketing and transforming the healthcare industry for the better. Connect with her on LinkedIn or find her on Twitter @megalegamurph.