Why It’s Time to Retire the Word ‘Millennial’

January 21, 2017, 6:00 PM UTC
The University of Maryland College Park is pictured on Thursday October 20, 2016.
COLLEGE PARK, MD - OCTOBER 20: Students walk across the McKeldin Mall at The University of Maryland College Park on Thursday October 20, 2016. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Photograph by Sarah L. Voisin—The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you help millennials feel like they’re part of the company?” is written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, a visiting scholar at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, and the author of You Raised Us, Now Work With Us.

One of the top workforce challenges facing any business today is the need to attract and retain future leaders. That goal can best be achieved if young employees feel they are a valued part of the organization. Employee engagement is critical to organizational success, leading to increased profitability and lower attrition.

An important first step toward engaging younger workers may be to cease using the term “millennials” as a descriptor, at least until that label loses the baggage associated with it. The generation born between approximately 1980 and 2000 has endured more negative stereotypes than any before it. For whatever approbations of youth other generations’ names carried, the names did not include the multiple and consistent references to being entitled, disloyal, distracted, too focused on their personal lives, lazy, unprofessional, poor communicators, and lacking in problem-solving skills. Employers who want millennials to feel like they’re part of the company should start by bringing a healthy skepticism to the adjectives used to describe the largest living population.

Instead, employers should become familiar with the fascinating and growing body of research that offers a far more nuanced picture of this generation. These data points identify patterns and trends that, fully understood, can prevent over-generalizations that are a disservice to the workplace. The studies, instead, can guide employers through the implementation of steps they can take to maximize the retention of their talented younger workforce.

One such step is to increase transparency throughout the organization. Millennials highly value transparency, and are more engaged when they understand as much as possible about their workplace. But transparency is more than openness. It is also about ensuring fundamental fairness for all employees. Policies need to be understood and accessible to all, without whispered side deals that are available to favored employees.

In addition, recognize that ambiguity is not a benefit. Research shows that millennials, more than any other generation before them, were raised with structure, and accordingly may be more comfortable with structure in the workplace. That can make it harder to adjust to ambiguous policies and lack of clear direction.

The emerging trend of offering unlimited vacation as an employee benefit is an example of an ambiguous policy that can increase anxiety among younger employees. In most cases, unlimited vacation is a false promise that leaves many employees wondering: What does “unlimited” really mean? What would be considered a reasonable amount of time off? And when would stigma set in against those seeming to take a disproportionate amount of time away? The effect is that the lure of the concept becomes a trap that exacerbates workplace competition and worry, and results in fewer vacation days taken.


Another way employers can achieve higher retention rates is to understand that work-life integration is no longer a woman’s issue alone. There are more dual-earner families in the workplace than ever before. Young male and female parents are struggling with the challenge of successfully managing both their work and family responsibilities.

The data demonstrating the work-life concerns of male and female millennials is global. The institutional sustainability of every workplace depends upon the development of policies that provide stigma-free flexibility for all employees. Such policies understandably must be tailored to the needs of the organization, but opportunities to provide gender-neutral options should become the norm, not the exception.

Finally, recognize the common bonds that can help each generation build bridges to the other. Numerous studies point to the similarities among generations with respect to their career goals and aspirations. For example, in a study in which baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials were asked to select the top attributes of the perfect boss, all identified “ethical and fair” among the most important.

Generational differences exist. But workplaces that build on the strengths of all of their employees will find that they have an ample talent pool upon which to build their future.

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