The topic of millennials (and the up and coming Gen Z-ers), and their differences from previous generations is an incredibly popular one. Press has villainized, glorified, and stereotyped the various generations, creating controversy where none exists. In fact, many researchers argue against the existence of major generational differences, especially in the workplace. Furthermore, an increased focus on millennial burnout has surfaced – even though burnout is not a generationally specific phenomena. Focusing on generational differences can lead organizations to make incorrect assumptions about their people, resulting in reduced productivity, performance, and engagement. The real danger in millennial burnout is making everything about millennials.
Generational Differences V.S. Age Differences
Why do we see differences between the generations? The explanation is actually pretty simple. Everyone goes through various life phases. One goes through childhood, then early adulthood, followed by middle age, and so on. There is also a natural life cycle of work, including changes in decisions and attitudes about work over time. When people are early in their careers, like millennials and Gen Z-ers, they are exploring various jobs and industries, learning about what career path they want to pursue. As they age and reach the middle of their careers, they are spending more time focusing on balancing work with life. These employees are more likely to have kids or aging parents that require their attention. Mid-career employees are also more likely to have stabilized career paths, therefore they change jobs less frequently than they did in their 20s and early 30s. Finally, towards the end of the work life cycle, people are more likely to focus on the timing and the nature of their retirement.
Based on this concept, it is clear that many of the differences we observe between generations are more likely due to age than true generational differences. Interestingly, when you look past some of the surface level age differences, research finds no consistent differences between generations in the workplace. In fact, individual differences are much more important in understanding people’s behavior in the workplace. Understanding whether an employee is a good fit for a position, a high performer, and satisfied in the workplace depends highly on their personality characteristics. Making blanket judgements of an entire generation will cause organizations to dismiss great employees based on false stereotypes.
The Real Burnout Problem
Not only are millennials no different than other generations, but their experience of burnout is not unique. Burnout is a response to stress. It includes emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of feelings of accomplishment. Research on burnout has existed since the early 1980s and has been heavily studied ever since. In other words, burnout is not new or only relevant to millennials. Unfortunately, employees have been burning out for decades – probably longer!
Viewing burnout as a millennial problem comes with a host of issues. First, if organizations believe that one group of employees is experiencing burnout, it becomes more of a “them” issue instead of an “us” problem. Burnout is often caused by the work environment. While life and family issues play a role, a positive and healthy work environment can help minimize burnout in many cases. Employers viewing the issue as something outside of their control is problematic, since they have the power to create good fixes.
For example, overworked employees are tied to burnout. Organizations can implement solutions to prevent employees from working too many hours. For example, they can create strict rules about late night emails or they can encourage employees to use their full vacation time to recharge (which, ideally, would be several weeks of PTO). Allowing burnout to be seen as a limited issue reduces the responsibility of employers to make good work environments.
Second, not recognizing burnout and stress in older generations can also be a problem. Different life phases do come with different types of conflict between work and life. If an organization is simply looking to improve burnout in one group, they will alienate all other groups that also feel emotionally exhausted from stress at work. Alternatively, the older generations might feel like the millennials are being coddled, which aligns with some of the millennial stereotypes. Perpetuating these group differences can cause more harm then good. We understand that diversity and inclusion is important in regards to race and gender, but the same can be said about other types of differences – like age. Creating divisiveness across groups, or treating certain groups differently, is never a good idea – as all HR professionals understand.
Unfortunately, burnout is a real problem in our culture and it does not discriminate amongst generations. Anyone can fall victim to burnout. Employers and employees alike need to work to reduce this pervasive problem. Employers can start with implementing programs and processes, like flexible work schedules, telecommuting policies, and fitness classes to help promote and improve employee wellness. Employees can start to take charge of their own well-being by trying to disconnect from work in the evenings and weekends, participating in wellness activities they enjoy, and taking advantage of the benefits being provided. It is a partnership between employer and employee to build the right environment where all generations can enjoy and thrive. Do not fall victim to the stereotypes and buzzy press – burnout is a problem and all generations can benefit from reducing it.