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The dangers of generational stereotyping

The dangers of generational stereotyping
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Let’s stop stereotyping whole generations of people and look more closely at the similarities and differences that make us all who we are.

Human beings love to categorise things. It is core to the way we make sense of the world and one way of coping with the complexity that comes at us everyday.  But the danger is that we stop seeing difference, the nuances, the flavours the subtleties of the world around us and we can become lazy.

Stereotyping people is especially lazy and an especially dangerous form of categorisation. I remember sitting in as an observer in a Board meeting of a big company once; the HR Director was discussing a proposal to set targets for the recruitment of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Trans-sexual employees as part of a wider push on diversity in the workforce. At one point the chairman turned to the gay Marketing Director and asked him a question

“What would the LGBT community think about this number Frank?”

Frank was immediately incensed

“How the hell should I know?” he shot back.

Major uncomfortable silence ensued. Then the conversation moved on to other topics.

Being gay didn’t make Frank a spokesperson for all gay people. Obviously. But we can lazily fall into that way of thinking.

Yesterday I sat in a room listening to someone tell me about my attitudes to work, to money and to relationships on the basis of my birthdate as he labelled me a ‘baby boomer’. Some of this was playful fun. But most of it was an attempt to get me into a box by assigning my life a category with all of the colour and flair of a lengthy horoscope analysis. I didn’t like it.

Last week I sat in a meeting of HR professionals who were debating how to adjust their organisations to take into account the preferences of young people (Generation Y and all those born afterwards). We heard from experts that the rising generation viewed things very differently from previous generations and needed to be handled differently. For example the rising generation learn differently (visually), they are super social, they prefer You Tube to broadcast TV, have clear views about Work/Life balance that are at odds with the more traditional views of baby boomers, prefer hoodies to suits and ties, prefer collaboration to competition, can’t drive, suffer from ADHD (Any Device Heads Down), don’t want to be managed but facilitated, are vegan in outlook as well as diet, very brand aware, are consummate consumers and are politically naive and idealistic. And so on.

This is as entertaining as it is dangerous in my view.

I said so in this meeting but was shouted down.

There is no doubt that the different experiences of different generations can shape attitudes and preferences of those generations. We can try and get a handle on exactly how generational attitudes and preferences differ by sample surveys and so on.

But whatever dataset we use we are playing with gross oversimplifications. That’s fine as long as we acknowledge that and the consequences for the implications and use of the data.

But we don’t. We categorise and quickly firm up our prejudices to the point where we start designing things (recruitment processes, induction programmes, performance management systems, benefits packages etc.) differently.

Stereotyping, of all kinds, is antipathetic to the real work of creating inclusive organisations where diversity is seen and understood in all its richness and complexity and where we don’t label people according to their age, their colour or anything else. All organisations have the capacity to treat people as they expect to be treated; as beautiful individuals.

For me everyone of all ages, shapes and sizes want and need very similar things from their employment; to feel as if their work has meaning, to be able to build and benefit from a sense of belonging to a community and to be stretched and challenged to grow (intellectually, emotionally and spiritually). All organisations can and should provide those things first before spending time trying to justify or explain why they need to treat Gen X, Y or Z or any other notional sub group differently. Let’s work together using the things that we share first, let’s emphasise our similarities before we start cataloguing our differences. And let’s avoid poisoning the debate about diversity with half-baked prejudices masked as science. We all know where that can lead and it isn’t good.

In my view HR professionals need to lead their organisations out of the trap of generational stereotyping and towards more inclusive cultures.

Or perhaps they can’t, because we know for a fact that all HR people are…

Grahame Broadbelt is Global Head of Communications and R&D.