One of the realities I had to brace myself for when I signed up for the part-time job I’ve been at for the last five months is that I would be working with people half my age. Indeed I would be answerable to and taking direction from those who were at least 12 or 15 years younger than I was. That seemed like a big thing at the time, some sort of mental hurdle I would need to clear. I’m 42 and many of the people who I’d be interacting with would be, on average, about 22.
Part – most – of this was fueled by two factors: First, I’d been working remotely for the better part of the last 10 years and so was just out of the habit of interacting with coworkers on a regular basis. That’s not to say I was anti-social, it just means that I wasn’t in the daily routine of making small talk and general chit chat as I went about my business. This was compounded by the fact that with almost two decades separating us – almost all my coworkers were born *after* I graduated high school – we just wouldn’t have any common ground of conversation.
Second, I’d been reading for the last three years about “Millennials” and their behavior. I’m smart enough to know that the broad pictures being painted in the media about the habits, tendencies, and desires of an entire generation generally aren’t accurate, but still, there were ideas that lurked in the back of my mind. Some small part of me continued to expect to walk in and find a group of disinterested slackers who were put out that they couldn’t spend their entire day sending snaps to their friends and wondering who had just Venmo’d them $17. Now I knew that wasn’t true of course. But I had this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I was in for a whole new world of experiences with people I had zero common ground with.
The reality has been far from that, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sure, some of their comments about Snapchat go over my head and I can’t participate meaningfully in a conversation about the struggles they’re going through in college at the moment. But otherwise what I’ve found is that everyone there, regardless of age, is completely committed to doing their best work. These aren’t the latest iteration of the “slacker” archetype that dogged my own generation. They all, uniformly, put forward their full effort in what can often be a demeaning, thankless job that’s rife with opportunities to be made to feel by customers that you are less than a meaningful part of society.
This shouldn’t have been surprising and I realized why a few weeks ago. Working in the PR industry for a decade, there was pretty steady turnover. Older, more experienced staff would be promoted or would be poached by clients or other companies to come in-house, with younger people – often recent college graduates – replacing them. So I was constantly having to learn the name of another young man or woman. But my perception of the was different because it was in the context of a professional services agency, a “real” job, and not a part-time retail job that is so commonly ridiculed by large swaths of our culture. The reality of the situation – that I was having to work and interact with people two decades my junior – wasn’t substantively different, it was the context in which that work and interaction were happening.
It was a revelatory moment when it dawned on me that I was, in my own way, allowing a prejudice to color my perception of my situation. It was an opinion I was only vaguely aware of even having, but it’s hard to not fall victim to something like it when the majority of press headlines, especially in the marketing field, fall into a few buckets:
- Here’s Why Millennials Aren’t Buying (insert everyday item that really isn’t that big a deal because every generation establishes its own consumer habits)
- A Broad Generalization About Millennials I’m Asserting Because of a Conversation I Overheard Between My Daughter And Her Friend
- My Millennial Coworker Isn’t On Facebook And I’m Freaking Out
- Maybe A Little Actual Sound Research On Demographic Trends
This generation is more than those headlines, though, just like mine was more than the aimless slackers of Clerks and Reality Bites and just like the one before mine was more than Easy Rider and Wild In the Streets. My advice to you is don’t be lulled by the lazy press narratives, which are no more accurate now than they’ve ever really been. It took a bit of time for me to overcome my own preconceived notions thanks to direct experience and interaction, but you can start to change your opinions today.