Age discrimination is often thought of as a problem for older workers, but does it also affect younger workers? Lately, there are signs that persistent myths and stereotypes about millennials are dampening the appetite for hiring younger people — with some companies reporting that they are reluctant to hire anyone under 40.
This fear of younger workers is tied to attitudes that have sprung up about millennials — that age cohort that includes people born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. These attitudes and stereotypes can include negative ideas such as thinking that young workers are lazy, unpredictable, unreliable, unprofessional, and not willing to follow the rules of workplace conduct. One particular fear that employers have is that young workers simply won’t stick with a job once hired — that some other opportunity will catch their eye and they’ll be off, leaving the employer high and dry.
“The common theme is a fear or a reluctance to hire people under 30, because they are unpredictable, and, ‘they don’t know how to work,’” says Cam Marston, author and founder of Generational Insights, a consulting firm that works with companies and employees on generational issues.
It’s a life stage, not a character flaw
Several observers have noted that the problems associated with youth and inexperience are directly tied to the fact that millennials are, for the most part, young and inexperienced.
“This generation is far from the first group of 20-somethings to find entry-level work boring, not understand the concept of paying their professional dues, bridle at dress codes and office norms or yearn to have more of a voice in office decision-making,” wrote Alison Green, author of the “Ask a Manager” blog, in a 2014 column for U.S News and World Report. “While it’s certainly true that millennials are less likely to have a skillful command of office politics within a hierarchical structure than people in their 40s, for example, that was true of 20-somethings 30 years ago as well. The traits and behaviors commonly attributed to millennials are about being inexperienced – not about being born between 1982 and 2004.”
Marston says his experience suggests that today’s millennials are also delaying life choices such as marriage, owning a home, etc. This gives them less incentive to settle down with one company in their early work years.
“It’s not about being lazy; it’s just taking longer for people to become adults,” he says. “This generation is making those commitments about five to seven years later than previous generations have.”
Still, different generations have different priorities
Although it’s not fair to broadly paint young workers as lazy or undependable, that doesn’t mean that millennials have the exact same preferences and expectations when it comes to their work life as, say, baby boomers.
An article by Dana Wilkie for the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), notes that one survey found millennials have weaker ties to institutions and more strongly associate with networks of friends. Indeed, the increased use of the Internet and social networking is one of the defining characteristics of millennials — who grew up with connective technology, unlike many workers from earlier generations.
And other SHRM research found that younger workers have their own list of grievances against employers. SHRM’s “Intergenerational Conflict in the Workplace” survey found that 47 percent of young workers complained that their older managers were resistant to change; 45 percent said managers show low recognition of workers’ efforts; and 31 percent said their managers had low respect for work/life balance. In addition, 31 percent of young workers said that managers in their workplace had an aversion to technology.
Even with the differences, Green notes that it’s not as if young workers are blasé when it comes to making a living.
“Much of this generation is precisely the opposite of entitled when it comes to their workplace expectations,” she says. “They graduated into one of the worst job markets in recent history, they're often saddled with crippling student loan debt for educations that they were assured would help them pay off that debt quickly, and they had to quickly adjust their expectations to a fairly devastating new economic reality.”
Sweeten the pot
Marston says recent stories of company’s offering perks like ping-pong tables, social events, and onsite massages show companies are adopting strategies to make their workplace more attractive to younger workers.
“These are things that are designed to stimulate and make people happy in the early parts of their career,” he said. “All the things we read about that are supposed to be cutting-edge-employer-type things are designed to keep [millennials] in the workplace until they’re more predictable.”
Another strategy, he adds, is to simply recognize that younger workers are more likely to jump ship and plan accordingly. “There are employers that are set up to hire millennials and deal with the turnover,” Marston says. “They have a system where high turnover doesn’t hit too hard — they have just-in-time training; low-salary positions where, if the employee goes, the employer doesn’t lose to much; and they don’t invest too much in leadership training [until the employees are older.]”
Employers can also look carefully at a prospective employee’s background for clues to their attitudes, Marston notes. He says that, for example, prospects who have been involved with sports during their school years are more likely to value commitment and teamwork.
Drop the labels
Wilkie notes that it’s common for older workers to see younger workers as a threat, and take the easy way out by labeling them as somehow different. She asks whether it is “demoralizing, discriminatory or damaging to manager-employee relations when Millennials are broadly painted with none-too-flattering terms.” And she notes that author Lindsey Pollak has called for an end to “millennial shaming.”
Marston says that as millennials get older, they start to figure out what they’re really looking for, in both life and in their job — and that’s when they’re ready to do their best work for employers.
“As they age they begin to own their own happiness; that’s when we can really start to invest in them,” he says.