The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Age Is Nothing But a Number

If you’re a Millenial, what is your perception of how other generations see you? If you’re a Boomer or a Gen Xer, what are your perceptions of Millenials? Does a 20-something just starting out on his or her career journey approach work differently than a 60-something eyeing retirement? Do early-career professionals who grew up in the age of social media and iPads and cell phones and instant information at their fingertips work more efficiently or multitask better than baby boomers who may have started their first jobs with a typewriter, a notepad and a rotary phone? Do the five generations in today’s workplace really have all that much in common?

On the surface, it might seem like differences abound, but if you dig a little deeper, you may be surprised at what you find … for often it’s perceptions that divide, not generations. And CUPA-HR member Sheraine Gilliam of City University of New York is making it her personal mission to educate others on just that.

As she shared in CUPA-HR’s Creating Inclusive Communities project (a collection of stories, portraits and videos designed to not only celebrate the experiences and perspectives that make higher ed HR professionals unique, but also to serve as a catalyst for discussions around diversity on campus), looking younger has created some tensions in her work life, as others’ perspectives of who she is, how she operates and what she can offer have been shaped partly on the belief that she is a “Millennial.”

In Gilliam’s own words: “Recently, I had an idea pop into my head and I decided to get a senior leader’s view and support. During the conversation, the statement that made time stand still was, ‘Oh, you Millennials!’ I immediately said, ‘I am not a Millennial.’ In that moment I felt like I had steam coming from my nose and ears! What did that actually mean? The statement validated a thought I’d had – looking younger can be held against me, especially in higher ed. Unfortunately, today’s popular view of generations arises from stereotyping, over-generalizing and widespread prejudice toward older and younger employees. I used my disappointment and frustration as motivation to tell my story and to bring attention to the impact that generational perceptions have on workplace culture.”

To this end, Gilliam created and has presented at several CUPA-HR conferences and on her campus an educational session on how harmful and divisive generational stereotyping can be in the workplace. “Lumping people together in any kind of group, regardless of what it’s based on — age, skin color, socioeconomic class, political beliefs, religious views, etc. — impedes progress, furthers stereotypes and holds an organization back in myriad ways,” she says. “In contrast, when we’re able to truly see our colleagues and coworkers as individuals with their own unique work styles, mindsets, strengths and contributions, we can help foster respect, productivity and understanding, and in turn help make our organizations more robust, forward-thinking and successful.”

See all the stories and videos, as well as related diversity resources and conversation starters, from CUPA-HR’s Creating Inclusive Communities project.