When Rod Thill graduated college in 2013, “everyone,” he remembers, “wanted to work at a startup.” Thill, who’s better known as @rod on TikTok, where he creates content focused on explaining the millennial experience, says that “Silicon Valley, Apple, Google were so idolized.” He recalls thinking, Okay, I can't work at Google — but how can I get close enough to that? Startups, he says, were known for being relaxed, collaborative, innovative spaces, full of fun perks for their employees — the opposite of the typical, soul-crushing workplaces portrayed in Office Space or Workaholics. Who wouldn’t want that?
But just as images populated by rows and rows of identical cubicles became shorthand for “the death of creative freedom,” it wasn’t long before startup-styled workplaces, filled with exposed brick and in-house coffee bars, began to reflect a different kind of professional malaise. Thill noticed that workplaces used office features to signal that they offered all the supposed perks of startup-style work in an attempt to recruit young, millennial workers. But Thill, who often brings up The JED Foundation in his posts to raise awareness around mental health, says those gestures often weren’t backed up by the office culture that was promised. “I think all of that ‘startup mentality’ of having the coffee bar, the Slim Jims in the break room, the pool table, and the open-floor plan has created toxicity in the work environment,” he says. Only this toxicity was something these workplaces took pains to cover up; at one job, Thill says he was asked to submit a positive Glassdoor review. “They were like, ‘We need to make sure this looks like a good place to work.’ And it’s like, ‘You should actually try to fix it!’”
Thill’s experience is part of a bigger trend that has played out at organizations across the country over the last decade or so: the pandering to millennial workers, and refusal to acknowledge that aesthetic flourishes are no substitute for healthy work environments. All of this was done based on a series of assumptions about millennials’ collective generational personality, but even though millennials are now the largest percentage of the workforce, you rarely hear much about what they might need or want at work anymore. The corporate world has moved on, training its lens on Generation Z in a way that feels very familiar to what happened with millennials — and just as toxic.
This is how it goes, says Lisa Finkelstein, PhD, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Northern Illinois University: While conversations about workplace productivity and happiness are constant, what shifts every decade or so is their focus — what Dr. Finkelstein calls the “hot” generation of the time.
The catch is that generational divides, as they pertain to the workforce, don’t really exist. “If you really think about all the differences among all people born in a certain time period,” Dr. Finkelstein says, “it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to think they all want the same thing. It’s rather insulting, I think, when you make assumptions about someone rather than get to know them as an individual.”
Take job-hopping, a stereotypically “millennial” behavior that is meant to indicate the fickleness of this generation specifically when it comes to their careers. A 2016 USAToday article cited a Fidelity survey that found that even though 86% of millennials were happy at work, half were still open to changing jobs, even when it meant less money. John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity, told USAToday that this desire for change is reflective of millennials’ inherent impatience. “The fact that today’s millennials want more control over their work/life balance shouldn’t be surprising to us given that these people have grown up in an era of somewhat instant answers,” he said. “They’re used to being able to find what they want fairly quickly.”
Okay, except for the fact that this categorization completely ignores the way that young workers have always tended to switch jobs relatively often: They’re still trying to figure out what they want to do, and they have fewer encumbrances than they might later in life. In fact, although baby boomers have a reputation for being one-job wonders, data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth has shown that between the ages of 18 to 22, boomers held 4.4 jobs and millennials held 4.6; between 18 to their early-30s, boomers held 8.6 jobs to millennials’ 7.8.
"It’s rather insulting, I think, when you make assumptions about someone rather than get to know them as an individual.”
Lisa Finkelstein, PhD
“People believe that there are dramatic differences between workers from different generations, but the data are not consistent with these beliefs,” says Eden King, PhD, an associate professor of Industrial-Organizational (IO) Psychology at Rice University. She points to a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) as evidence of the fallacy of generational differences. In fact, the report shows that focusing on these differences can “lead to prejudice, bias, and stereotyping in the workplace.”
Nancy Tippins, the principal at The Nancy T. Tippins Group, LLC, who led the NASEM report, says, “We found that most of the research findings that are attributed to generational differences are really a shift in the characteristics of work more generally, or simply the variations among people as they age and get experience.” Some workplace changes that are attributed to a certain generation may be an inevitable result of the rapid technological innovations that occurred in the early 2000s, for instance. Other human qualities or habits might apply to certain age groups across generations.
“The other thing that we found is that a lot of the research makes assumptions that that really aren't true,” Tippins adds. For example, she says, “I have lots of education and have a very white-collar kind of profession, and I sit at a desk all day. I’m different from the woman who is my age and works as a waitress or on an assembly line. To make the assumption that we’re homogeneous simply because we were born between certain years is really a false premise.” Tippins points out that someone in their 30s with two young kids might actually have more in common, with respect to assistance with care, with someone in their 50s caring for ailing, elderly parents than with a childless person in their 30s — something that underscores the shortcomings of trying to categorize people by generation.
Companies’ insistence on using generational differences as a shortcut to understand and appease their workers is emblematic of what’s wrong with corporate culture today, wherein buzzwords are a replacement for substance. In effect, corporations are classifying entire groups of people under one insufficient and oftentimes contradictory umbrella as a way to avoid listening to what their workers are actually saying about what they want and how they feel, so they can instead tell them how they feel and what they want. It’s a shallow and performative attempt to “appeal” to each new generation of workers, to slap a bandage on top of what are often deeply troubling systematic issues. Ultimately, when these “accommodations” fail to make workers happy, blame falls on the workers themselves, with companies citing young people’s entitlement, indolence, or selfishness, and never looking at what they did — or didn’t do — to contribute to the problem
What better example is there of millennials being given “what they want” than the rise of the office ping pong table (or pool table, espresso machine, IPAs on tap, etc.), the “work perk” du jour when millennials still represented the youngest class of incoming employees? In a 2010 paper entitled “Generation Y in the Workplace”, the authors conducted a survey that included just 85 millennials, and noted that 72% of them listed “work environment” as something that they consider when making workplace decisions. From there, the study authors concluded: “Who could imagine that for a holiday party, the theme would actually be the movie Animal House (1978), and togas were the preferred costume? This may seem unusual, but many companies are starting to realize that environments like this are just what this new generation is looking for.”
"To make the assumption that we’re homogeneous simply because we were born between certain years is really a false premise.”
This one paper alone didn’t move mountains — other research had been drawing the same conclusion for years by the time this was published — but it’s representative of the kind of framing of generational desires that led companies to reach for low-hanging fruit and, say, buy a pool table for their break rooms or make that year’s holiday party toga-themed (please, no), and not understand why their Glassdoor reviews continue to plummet.
Janet Pogue McLaurin is the global workplace research leader at Gensler, a design and architecture firm that has been behind many “next-gen” office redesigns. She says that a company’s office space can “go really far” in terms of improving workplace culture, and relies on insights from The Gensler Research Institute combined with client needs to inform some of the concepts Gensler brings to their design plans. But any office design changes “have to feel authentic to that organization and their culture. And that can't be just to placate employees because people see through that,” she says. “The best designs really reflect what that personality is and how that particular organization truly works. And it starts with listening to their employees. It doesn't just come from leaders.” McLaurin is talking about office design, but the same holds true for all aspects of office culture: The best work environment can be found in organizations that are willing to actually listen to their employees, and adapt to their needs and wants. Too often, companies rely on shortcuts that claim to tell them what workers really want and how they can easily deliver it. In the process, most companies totally miss the point.
“The problem is people believe [that there are massive generational differences], and that then creates problems [because] people think others are so different from them or all have certain attitudes and characteristics,” Dr. Finkelstein says. It can be frustrating when, for instance, a manager assumes that all of their youngest hires will prefer communicating via Slack to in-person meetings without asking first, or when companies cite the fact that millennials and Gen Z have long wanted better work from home options to tell them that the pandemic-related WFH mandate is actually a “benefit.”
Generational identity rhetoric in the workplace has already begun to affect Gen Z. The major stereotype that’s currently bubbling up is that the so-called “woke generation” attaches significant weight to a company’s social impact, ethical practices, and commitment to inclusion and diversity. One would hope that identifying this value — even if it’s not necessarily tied to Gen Z alone — would spur corporations toward more meaningful change than investing in an office rec center. But it’s more likely that companies will look for a simple, performative fix. Just as some companies bought pool tables to act the part of a fun-loving workspace that valued play and social connection, now others will talk endlessly about the carbon offset benefits they offer their employees and hope it distracts from the fact that they offer their executive board NetJets memberships as part of their comp package.
The oldest millennials turn 40 this year, and many of the work perks companies had instituted in order to attract them have been hijacked by the pandemic. Free communal snacks and open-floor plan offices are meaningless if nobody’s working on-site anymore, and there’s still no federal requirement to reimburse remote workers for work-related expenses, which means many companies have simply opted not to. Workers across all age groups are experiencing tremendous amounts of burnout and anxiety, and although many companies have already begun to pay lip service to their inclusive, Gen Z-friendly culture, it’s clear that they’re simply trying to repeat the same empty promises they made to millennials, repackaged for a new generation.
But, if generations are a lie, and the only way to foster a truly inclusive and happy workplace culture is to actually listen to your employees, and try to tailor your benefits to what the majority of them need, then Dr. King offers a good place to start: “It turns out that the evidence suggests that people from all ages and generations appreciate flexible schedules and autonomy in their work.” Who would have guessed?