My degree was in astrophysics. When I mentioned that I studied astronomy to people, the response, “can you read my horoscope?” was more common than I’d have liked. Why did that bother me? It wasn’t that people didn’t know what astrophysics was, or even that they were probably just trying to wind me up (success). It’s the idea that a huge swathe of the population can have the same characteristics based on when they were born. This perception is particularly bad news for Virgos in China applying for a job, for instance. So, when a seasoned manager described me as a “millennial” based on my wanting to understand the feelings of people, I set out to figure out why that evoked a similar response and why something so seemingly harmless could be a problem.
In the discussion, I was describing the Insights Discovery colour wheel (other personality profiling tools are available), explaining that I tend to align with the supporting-coordinator role. I explained that while this doesn’t define me, it indicates that I have strengths such as empathy, and taking a coach-first approach. I’m concerned with how people feel, myself included. The response was, “Oh, you’re definitely a millennial then”. They might as well have said, “Ah, got it. You’re a Taurus.” (I am, by the way).
There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with what the person did here. There was no call-out needed, no discriminatory slur, and to be crystal clear, I am not comparing this to any experience of marginalised or persecuted groups (based on race or gender for instance) who are still unfortunately attributed to dangerous labels on a daily basis. So why then in this “harmless” case can labelling still be damaging?
The story that I told myself I heard was, “Oh, you value people and care about how they feel? That’s a weird thing for a manager to do. It must be because you’re a millennial”. Far-fetched, I know (we’re all human, and we all fill in the blanks with stories). Even so, there were two implications here that didn’t sit well with me: One, that my generation could be branded so easily as all having the same characteristics (and controversial opinions abound as to why this could be). Two, that my values and purpose – the things that I’ve worked so hard for years to define and curate – have been given to me and my fellow snowflakes by the inevitable product of bad parenting, as Simon Sinek calls it a “bad hand”, and a series of unfortunate economic balls-ups.
millennial – noun – “a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century”Google Dictionary
First of all, the definition of “millennial” from Google Dictionary (and many others concur) is “a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century”. So yep, objectively I am one. No argument there. If we’re looking at things the timeline can affect, I was raised by baby-boomers, in a time where I probably got a participation award at some point, thought I was entitled as a teenager (ever met one who didn’t?), and led a privileged, economically stable upbringing. I did go through the economic crash of 2008, losing tens of thousands in the housing market, and I did have crippling student debt. Whilst there’s evidence to suggest things are objectively harder for us as a generation, I question how any of this could have an effect on the values and characteristics of effectively an entire generation and why that would lead to a labelled generalisation.
At the end of my reflection, I think the issue was the implication that because I was an empathetic, coach-style, feel-first type personality, it must be because I was a millennial. I think it was the reduction of my self-awareness journey over the last few years to a label shared with an entire generation that made me contemplate how powerful labels can be. Lord knows I wasn’t always empathetic. I had some shameful experiences with junior developers early in my career. It’s taken some painful life events, some deep self-reflection, and learning how to support these values with resilience (not to mention a qualification in coaching) that I’ve defined and developed these values.
Here’s the reason why I try not to use labels. When you attribute a person’s individuality to an arbitrary group of people – when you reduce their life experiences to a label – you are dehumanising them. People’s lives are not just shades of grey, they’re rainbow coloured, an infinite spectrum filled with nuances and life experiences that shape them as humans. Don’t get me wrong, I like being labelled as a ‘coach’ – but I’d probably take issue if someone said “you’re a good coach, you must be a Taurus”.
When we’re about to label someone based on their characteristics, even if it’s just a subconscious bias in our head, it’s in our power to stop and think – is this label really a part of their identity that they’re proud of? Or are you taking away from their individualism as a beautiful, worthy and fallible human being?
Of course, my response in this case was not a 900 word essay. It was, “yeah, I don’t really like labels.” But then, that was a very millennial thing to say.