Are you guilty of generational stereotyping at work?

Given the pervasive use of generational labels such as millennial and baby boomer in today’s media, it’s hard not to be — though you may not even realize you’re doing it in the first place.

In her new book Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes, organizational developer Jessica Kriegel argues that the generational labels we toss around are loaded with implicit stereotypes, and these stereotypes are divisive and unfair.

While this applies to all generations, it’s most pervasive for the 80 million individuals in America born between 1980 and 2000 — the so-called millennials.

Misguided information

Millennials in America, Kriegel explains in the book, have become the focus of countless books, blogs, and highly paid consultants offering advice on how to manage, recruit, and connect with this latest group of workers. Most of this information is not only incorrect and misguided but can even cost your organization talented employees.

Kriegel, who optimizes leadership development, team effectiveness and organizational design at Oracle, became aware of the seriousness of the problem while doing doctoral research in human development at Drexel University.

“When I started my research I fully expected to find differences between generations in the workplace. I was surprised to find none, so I dug deeper and saw countless examples of workplace injustices stemming from this unfair classification of employees based on these broad and arbitrary age brackets.

“Naturally, the proponents of generational labels disagree with me and argue that it would be silly to turn a blind eye to seemingly obvious differences among generations. Rather, seems silly to me to assume that 80 million-plus individuals in one bracket share the same traits,” Kriegel says.

Are they really tech-savvy?

According to Kriegel, most people seem to be attached to the stereotype that all millennials are tech-savvy. “It may seem obvious to many that because millennials have grown up using technology — and baby boomers have not —that millennials are more comfortable in our digital age. Millennials, so the story goes, are digital natives, while older generations are digital immigrants. However, it is simply not the case.

“I am a millennial, working at a high-tech company. On paper, I should be very tech-savvy, but I’m sub-average at best. And I’m just one example; I could give you hundreds. Look at the CEOs of the very biggest tech companies. They certainly aren’t all millennials. Comfort with technology is not an age issue.”

She also points out that no one likes their individual skills to be unfairly labeled according to broad stereotypes. Age-based generalizations condemn so-called digital immigrants to a lifetime of being outsiders. And it assumes a level of technical prowess among young people that might not be there. Stereotypes in the workplace can quickly become discrimination.

Kriegel has three main suggestions to help stop generational stereotyping at work:

1. Abolish generational labels from your vocabulary

Stop using all labels, including millennial, Generation X, and baby boomer. Consider also other less obvious labels that perpetuate stereotypes. For example, it has become common practice to refer to the youngest employees at a company as “kids.” Unless your company is breaking child-labor laws, your youngest employees are probably not kids.

2. Encourage others to avoid generational labels

You will inevitably hear colleagues use these labels, so use any such opportunity to spark a conversation. Such mis-labelling and stereotyping becomes obvious when light is thrown on it, and the problem can be solved by raising awareness. Also, ask your co-workers how they feel being unfairly labeled. You can make a difference by increasing communication and understanding with your colleagues.

3. Ignore the hype

There are countless articles and blog posts about generational differences. Next time you see an article about generational stereotypes, ignore it! Don’t click, don’t share, and don’t bother. The less interested we are collectively, the less motivated people will be to write about it.

As you move away from generational stereotyping, you’ll be surprised to notice how it has defined workplace dynamics. You’ll also notice how much more harmonious — and effective — you and your team can be without them.