Buckets of Badly Stereotyped Millennials

Buckets
Buckets.  By Randy Heinitz.

There has been a lot of discussion about the increased importance of Millennials, and their impact on the multi-generational workplace. One of the more influential sources is a book called The 2020 Workplace by Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd, published in 2010.  There’s a generous “look inside” option on their Amazon.com page right here.  It’s a good book, and it’s true that there are a lot of generations in the workforce right now, expressing their perspectives in different ways.

However, I need to express some respectful disagreement.  I think the notion of a multi-generational workforce in 2020 is an anomaly in terms of how labels have an outsized impact on how we treat people.  This is important because labels such as “millennial” could be nonsense to begin with.  Also, we need a sober sense of what current topics are only temporary.  Predicting the future often involves the reading of known short-term trends and envisioning a future where the trend goes to extremes.  I think this will not be the case with the multi-generational workplace.  So, don’t worry about it.

To put things in perspective, I need to provide a clear definition of Millennial.  In my opinion, Baby Boomers are those born from 1946-1964, Generation X (Gen X) are those born from 1965-1974, and Millennials are those born from 1976-1995.  There’s some disagreement about the definitions and that’s your first clue that externally-imposed labels might be a problem.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

A key detail is that Gen X is a 10-year cohort, whereas Baby Boomers and Millennials are 20-year cohorts.  Gen X was born at a time when Baby Boomers were in their child-bearing years but chose to postpone having kids, for about one decade.  Then beginning in 1976 Millennials, who were the children of Baby Boomers, started to arrive.  In all discussions of what matters on a generational basis, the math suggests that Gen X would always be halved in their importance, because of their 10-year cohort.  Also, Gen X is a generation Baby Boomers don’t think about as much because there’s no parent-child dynamic.

A key detail about the labour force is that overwhelmingly it is made up of people age 25-65.  Yes, there are people working before the age of 25.  However, many of them are busy with postsecondary education, travelling, struggling to get their first job, and, in some cases, raising children.  By age 25 people are largely working, with the occasional maternity leave or brief spell of unemployment.  Those over 65 may work as well, however, it’s not a universal experience.

Whenever we talk about humanity as “the workforce” we’re actually choosing a 40-year age bracket (aged 25-65) of people who would normally live for 80 years.  The workforce is about half the population.

When we drop a generational definition into the middle of this 40-year age range of “the workforce”, it can be hit-and-miss.  It is possible to fit an entire 20-year cohort into the workforce, such as in 1995, when Baby Boomers were aged 30-50.  Indeed, Baby Boomers were very important at that time.  Today Baby Boomers today are age 51-71.  A lot have retired already, and a few more retire every year.  They contribute strongly as individuals but their club isn’t so impactful.  Gen X would feel their pain, if they had it in them.

The reverse dynamic is happening with Millennials.  In 2005, Millennials were age 10-30, fewer than half of them truly in the labour force.  They were not a small population, it’s just that the 40-year age bracket called “the workforce” ignored the youngest half of this crowd.  Fast forward to today and they’re age 22-42, largely working, making up the largest fraction of the workforce.  They are ambitious and they say what they want.  They are the second-most-entitled population to ever walk the face of the earth.  Gen X is strangely calm working with Millennials.  It’s hard to explain.

The fuss about the multi-generational workforce is just an experimental perspective in which we have split categories in half and caused some numbers to pop more than others.   In a few years the population born after 1995, Generation Z, will start finishing their master’s degrees or get their full credentials in the trades.  For a brief moment, in 2020, there will be four generations in the workforce.  Then the Baby Boomers will fully retire, leaving us with three generations in the workforce.  Then, ten years after that, Generation X will retire.  In 2040 there will be two generations in the workforce because we’re back to two, twenty-year cohorts straddling the 25-65 age range.

It is not how big these generations are that makes them important.  It is whether they are in a 10-year or 20-year cohort, and whether the generation is fully or partially in the labour force.

Is it just me, or does this sound like we’re figuring out what colour of metal ear-tags to put onto our cattle?  I think it would be far easier to talk to everyone as individual people, with their own perspectives and unique hopes and dreams.  Isn’t that what the human rights legislation tells us?  Isn’t that what compassionate leadership is all about?

Isn’t that what we have all learned from one another as colleagues and friends?

Millennial Turnover Similar to Prior Generations

hipster-attributed-to-rodger-evans
Hipster.  Attributed to Rodger Evans.

It is my pleasure to draw your attention to a great paper produced by three students at the University of British Columbia.  Grace Hsu, Geoff Roeder, and Andrew Lee produced a paper for their Statistics 450 course with Dr. Gabriela Cohen Freue which was put in for a student research contest.  The paper, Analysis of Factors Affecting Resignations of University Employees won an honourable mention for the contest.

The paper identifies that “Millennials do not exhibit a practically significant different length of employment compared to other generational groups.”  That is, that although those born after 1975 have a high quit rate right now, they are passing through a high-turnover age group.  Prior generations that passed through the 25-34 year old age group in years past, themselves had high quit rates.

Getting more to the point… “This finding disrupts stereotyped representations of generational factors in the workforce and suggests that younger employees resigning sooner can be better explained as a feature of their age rather than their generational group.” My guess is that age 25-34 is when people figure out their career, partners, and housing, with some things changing a few times before getting stable.

Working with twenty years of data covering 7000 staff who quit, their data model chose “years of service” as the variable that would be explained by other data points.  If we could predict the number of years a new hire would stay, this might be something an employer could improve.  That is, assuming it was not illegal to pre-judge.  Thankfully, their findings suggest we should not pre-judge.

Years of service prior to quitting averaged 1.2 to 1.9 years for 25-to-34 year olds, and 4.3 to 5.5 years amongst 35-to-44 year olds.  There were small differences between generations, but not in a manner that strengthened a stereotype.  For example Generation X quit more quickly when they were younger, but stuck around for longer once they were 35-44.  Baby Boomers were not always big on job loyalty, being the quickest to quit in the 35-to-44 age bracket.

One more thing… men and women do not have a big difference in their length of service.  When sizing-up job candidates for staying power, it is not just unfair and illegal to favour men; it is wrong on the facts.  Keep that in your back pocket next time you help with hiring.