– By Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran
Subtle acts of exclusion are ways that people unintentionally exclude or alienate others. They often have to do with people making inaccurate assumptions about another person or group.
These insensitivities can apply to any number of people’s attributes. One that often gets overlooked, because it’s seen as a “right of passage” of sorts, is belittling younger generations. Subtle acts of exclusion (SAE) around age are often rooted in the fears related to change — fears of new ways of approaching life, work, speech, sexuality and so on. But the cumulative toll of age SAE can lead an entire generation into believing that they embody a negative stereotype, even though it’s not based in reality.
For instance, the SAE that involves ridiculing Millennials for being lazy, entitled, underprepared or obsessed with social media assign derogatory labels to a group that numbers some 72 million diverse individuals. These stereotypes are belittling and close-minded.
If we approach younger (and older) generations with curiosity and empathy, we allow ourselves to view the world from a different viewpoint. We open up to new ways of working together, new ways of interacting and new ways to shape values. Dismissing an entire generation is not only bad social and business practice, but it creates a system that makes it extremely hard for members of a generation to succeed.
The truth is, we cannot generalize. Countless Millennials are hard-working and doing very well considering many entered the workforce during the Great Recession. A Pew Research Study found that, despite a reputation for job-hopping, Millennial workers are just as likely to stick with their employers as Gen X workers were (the generation just above them in age) when they were the same age. Roughly eight in ten of Millennials ages 22 to 37 in 2018 (79%) and Gen Xers of the same age group in 2002 (77%) reported working for their current employer for at least 13 months. About half of both groups said they’d been with their employer for at least five years. This study shows that the job-changing stereotype doesn’t hold up.
As many generalizations that are made about Millennials’ laid back work ethic or smartphone fixation, the opposite could be said in regards to their healthy work/life balance, their focus on social justice issues and their desire to become financially stable.
Yes, Millennials may interact differently and have different values than older generations, but in a broader sense, condemning younger people for behaving in a way that’s a direct response to their constantly evolving technological, social and economic upbringing is just as negligent as blaming those who fell victim to poverty during the Great Depression.
Stereotyping an entire generation, and using SAEs to repeat and enforce the stereotype, leads to mass false perceptions. A better way would be to support those who are coming of age and facing the issues they’ve inherited from those who came before them.
It’s important to reframe the stereotypes of younger generations. You can make a personal commitment through these approaches:
1. Recognize how you’ve formed your perceptions. Your own way of thinking about the world comes from your unique experiences. It’s neither right nor wrong, better nor worse than another’s.
2. Strive to listen without judging. Make it a point to deeply listen to others and work to accept where they’re coming from.
3. Diversify your experiences and your networks. Interact with people who are from different generations, and open yourself to other perspectives than your own.
4. Ask questions. Become curious about others’ experiences of the world. Listening to their answers can be illuminating.
5. Accept advice on limiting your own subtle acts of exclusion. If someone speaks up regarding an age-related SAE that you voiced, consider it an act of trust and a chance to improve your competency around inclusion.
Times are a-changing, and it’s important we approach such change with curiosity, empathy and a hunger to learn and adapt.
About the authors
DR. TIFFANY JANA is the CEO of TMI Portfolio, a collection of companies working to advance inclusive workplaces. TMI Consulting, a TMI Portfolio company, is 2018 Best for the World B Corporation. Jana is also the co-author of Overcoming Bias and the second edition of the B Corp Handbook.
DR. MICHAEL BARAN is a social scientist, and senior partner and digital solutions lead at inQUEST Consulting. He has taught at Harvard University and worked as a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research.
Their new book, Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify and Stop Microaggressions (BK, March 10, 2020), offers a pathway to a more inclusive, respectful society. Learn more at subtleactsofexclusion.com.
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