There’s a growing suite of training, coaching, and books devoted to helping organizations understand Millennials—the term used to describe individuals who graduated from high school and entered the work force after the year 2000.

Some of the characteristics often associated with Millennials include:

  • Digital gurus
  • Short-Term Commitment to any job
  • More concerned about purpose and meaning than title and career advancement
  • More apt to work 10-5 p.m. and for a couple more hours late at night rather than sticking to a rigid 8-5 schedule

There’s some good research to back up some of these claims. Others, not so much.

Yesterday I participated in a conference where there was a lot of discussion about Millennials. During a break, I was talking with a 20-something woman who began to express her immense frustration with feeling like her sr. leaders continually stereotype her based upon all the training they keep getting about her age group.

She said, “I feel like I’m hitting a glass ceiling because everyone just assumes I’m not committed to being here for more than 3 years. And they presume I’m more interested in rock climbing than advancing my career.  But a lot of what they’re being taught about ‘my’ generation just isn’t me!”

I resisted telling her, “Millennials don’t like to be put in a box.” But then do any of us? It’s helpful to understand basic patterns and norms that tend to characterize a cultural group, including generational cultures. But any description of a culture, even if it’s positive, has to be held loosely and applied with immense discretion.

What does this look like?

Research shows that most Indians are more comfortable with ambiguity than Japanese are. But when interacting with an Indian or a Japanese person for the first time, I should use that cultural understanding as my best first guess. Use the interaction with the individual to pick up on cues to see whether this cultural norm applies to this person. (See this previous post for more)

The same thing applies to interacting with various generational cultures. Use the insights from research on Millennials to help you think about how to effectively adjust your policies and practices. But move as quickly as possible to get to know an individual personally because all of us have areas where we’re unlike the cultures of which we’re part.

And by the way—keep in mind that national culture usually trumps generational culture. So even though there may be some similarities between how 20-somethings in London, Shanghai, and Detroit behave, national culture is what most strongly socializes thinking and behavior.

A lot more research (and training!) is needed to better understand Millennials and emerging adulthood. But let’s apply cultural intelligence to how we use the insights gathered.

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