Origins of the Millennial Stereotype

There’s a perceived need for recognition that is often discussed when considering millennials’ needs as employees in the workplace.

The Millennial stereotype is often characterized by the way people think about them. Millennials are thought to be recognition-hungry, praise-mongers who need continuing acclaim. This stereotype is based on a cascading waterfall of stereotypical generalizations that goes back several lifetimes. 


History of the Millennial Situation

Today’s millennials were raised by the often-ridiculed “helicopter” generation X parents. When generation X members were young, so the story goes, their baby boomer parents were getting divorced. (This was the peak baby boomer divorce years of the 1970s and 1980s.) In addition, baby boomer mothers were entering the workforce in record numbers. 

Therefore, it is surmised that generation X was the least-parented generation in history. Because baby-boomer women were not at home to take care of their children, generation X toddlers often were sent to daycare centers and later came home from school to empty homes. 

The Latchkey Kid

This led to the stereotypical latchkey kid: a child neglected and alone. 

This experience supposedly traumatized generation X, and they collectively vowed never to raise their children in like circumstances. 

The Helicopter Parent

But, in yet another media-built stereotype, generation X parents became overprotective, overinvolved, overindulgent parents of the millennial generation. 

Millennials were supposedly showered with praise by their helicopter parents (so named because, like helicopters, they hover). 

The Participation Award

Self-esteem became a major concern during this period, so children were protected from any instance in which their self-esteem might be negatively affected. They were often given participation prizes: a ribbon at every sporting event, regardless of performance, and flowers at the finale. 

Helicopter parents often believed that declaring winners and losers was a cruel punishment for their less-athletic, less-talented children. Participation trophies and constant praise became a norm that continued into the workplace. 

As managers metaphorically replaced parents in a workplace setting, they, too, were expected to deliver the goods. However, instead of participation prizes, they were given plastic awards; and, instead of merit badges, they expected raises and promotions. So say the gen-experts. 


Breaking Assumptions about Millennials

None of these assumptions are well-researched, and many are media driven. Many articles, in fact, contradict themselves regarding millennials’ need for recognition. For example, one article (Smith, 2014) features the opinion expressed by a high-tech cloud company executive who asked this question: Do millennials really require positive feedback or do they simply have the natural human desire for any feedback? The simpler truth might be that millennials want to know how they are doing: Are they meeting expectations? Can they do better? 

Another corporate blog (O’Donnell, 2015) suggests that the millennial employee problem is one of miscommunication. The blogger argues that millennials, having been raised with minimal criticism, exaggerate any corrective feedback as overly negative. 

Perhaps they just require constant positive recognition to balance exaggerated good with perceived bad. This also points to a supposed cause of intergenerational conflict among the generations: Older employees view younger employees’ need for praise as a weakness that creates tension among employees.


Overcoming these Stereotypes 

The primary responsibilities for managers is employee engagement. In order to motivate your team effectively, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Your team is made up of individuals, not stereotypes; an effective manager must understand what drives each person. What works for one employee may not work for another. 

Evaluate Motivational Factors Most Important to Each of Your Team Members 

Motivating employees can be a challenge. Even though managers have a seemingly endless list of tools to engage employees, selecting the best options for a team can be tricky. The list of tools in my book, Unfairly Labeled, can help you select the best tools for your unique work environment and team composition.


Brainstorm ways to motivate your team such as: 

Compensation: Offer your employees secure compensation in ways other than a straight paycheck, such as services, meal plans, and so forth. 

Work/life balance: As a manager, are you more focused on the number of hours that your employees work than on the results they achieve? Evaluate whether you are watching the clock to a fault and how you can ensure goals are accomplished, even if employees aren’t putting in a full 40-hour week. 

Flexible working hours: Does your global team take late-night or early-morning calls? Consider giving them extra time off to offset the lost sleep. 

Breaks: One company implemented a 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. stretch break for all employees. Getting people out of their seats together encouraged social conversation and boosted employee morale. 

Rest areas: Some Silicon Valley companies have installed nap rooms in their office for employees who need a midday snooze. This may be one way to offset employee burnout.

Health and Safety: Monitor and enforce good health and safety practices.

Show Concern: Knowing that management is concerned for safety allows employees to be less distracted, more trusting, and less stressed. Think of authentic ways to demonstrate that you, as a manager, care. 

Secure Employment: Knowing that a company is financially solvent offers a sense of long-term employment security. If possible, inform your employees about the company’s long-term sustainability. 

Job Security: Ensure that employees know that their job is not at risk. Treat mistakes as learning opportunities and encourage employees to correct the error and try again. 

Benefits: Health benefits and retirement benefits offer a sense of security for employees, their families, and their future financial situation.

Collaborative work environment: Facilitate cooperative teamwork, not only because it is good business practice, but also because it allows your employees to feel they are a part of something larger than themselves. Ensure that this is a value for all employees, not just millennials. 

Personal relationships: Ensure that your team connects at a personal level in order to foster a sense of belonging within the team. This can be done informally or through regular team-building workshops.


Learn more about Stereotypes and other Unfair Labels

If you’d like to read more about generational labels and their impact on our daily lives and workplaces, check out my book Unfairly Labeled on Amazon.



Kriegel, Jessica. Unfairly Labeled (pp. 51-53; 62-66). Wiley. Kindle Edition. 

O’Donnell, J.T. 2015. 6 Things Millennials Say at Work (and What They Really Mean). Blog. Inc.

Smith, Jacquelyn. 2014. “Why Millennials Need Constant Feedback At Work.” Business Insider.

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