Talking Bout My Generation: A Q&A With Millennial Expert Elisabeth Kelan
We’ve all heard the criticisms—members of the millennial generation, or “millennials,” are lazy, entitled, impatient, and unprepared to face the harsh realities of the workforce.
But according to Elisabeth Kelan, critics have been dismissing the generation too soon. Kelan strongly believes Generation Y has great potential, which is why she wrote Rising Stars: Developing Millennial Women as Leaders. This extensively researched book analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the millennial generation and explains how these traits manifest in the workplace.
More specifically, she focuses on how millennial women are unique and unlike their female predecessors, possessing a new confidence and skills that may enable them to rise to more positions of power than ever before.
I had an opportunity to talk to Kelan about what sets members of Generation Y apart, the special challenges they face, and how millennials can prove those critics wrong.
I felt your book gave a really well-rounded view of the millennial generation. Can you talk about the traits millennials have that are positive in the workplace and the areas where they may be struggling?
It’s difficult to say that a trait is negative or positive, because I think it depends on the environment. But we have very good studies now that indicate generational changes, or how this generation is different from previous generations. For millennials, part of this change happened in relation to self-confidence, and we do know that this generation is much more confident about themselves than previous generations.
So, it’s really exciting when you look at the whole picture. On one hand, yes, there’s always the idea that this generation is very self-entitled, they want everything immediately, and so on. But on the other hand, that self-confidence can be really positive in other situations such as public speaking. I think what millennials need to learn is when they can fully express their self-confidence. Sometimes, they need to tone it down a little to learn from other peoples’ experiences and recognize that they might not know everything just yet.
You mention in your book that many millennial women would like to think gender does not have to play a defining role in their careers. However, you believe that it does play a part. Why is it important for women to recognize this?
When we look at the research on millennials in regard to other generations, one of the changes we can detect is that women are more similar to men in this generation in terms of traits. You don’t see a difference in confidence levels anymore—this is probably the first generation in history where women are just as confident as men.
At the same time, if you are a millennial woman, you still are facing gender discrimination in your workplace, and I’m worried that young women are ill-prepared to see those challenges. Instead, they say, “It’s not because I’m a woman, it’s because of me and something I’ve been doing wrong.” With this mindset, what I suspect will happen over time is that women’s self-confidence will diminish since they are thinking of themselves as the problem instead of recognizing they might be seeing an expression of gender discrimination.
So, something that millennial women might need to have in their minds is that while we have made great progress in regard to gender equality, there are still many elements of residual gender discrimination such as stereotypes and unconscious biases in our daily working lives.
One of the examples in the book that really stood out to me was a woman who felt she did not have role models in her own company because the women who succeeded in her office were not able to balance it with a family life at home. How do you think this idea of “having it all” affects a millennial woman’s expectations for women in the workplace?
I think what we see in this generation is that women cannot really identify with more senior female role models. This was really interesting to me, and it took me a long time to work out why this was happening. What eventually became clear is that women have a really high expectation of their role models’ ability to “have it all.” So once a senior woman has made some kind of sacrifice or some tough choices in her life, her ability to function as an ideal role model has then diminished for millennials.
Based on this, rather than finding just one senior role model or one woman in their organization that they completely want to emulate, I think it’s important for millennial women to try to find many role models and integrate traits from all of those role models into their own identities. I think this will be much more powerful than trying to find a female role model who has all the traits you try to emulate because the likelihood of finding a woman who shares your exact ambitions is very tiny.
Along with creating these “composite role models,” I also was intrigued by your suggestion that organizations should create "generation-specific" programs rather than gender-specific programs. Can you explain why these programs would be more beneficial to mentoring millenial women?
Since millennials don’t usually perceive gender to be an issue in the workplace, as we discussed earlier, they are less likely to join a women’s group in their organization. So, we have to be creative about how we approach those topics and how we give them room to matriculate in an organization.
If you approach it from a generational level and create a network for millennials or even new employees, it is a much better way to engage millennial men and women in important conversations. At one time or another, they will start talking about gender and how it might matter to each person, and then you’d have men and women considering gender in a setting that would make women much less likely to switch off on this debate and think it’s not relevant. You’ll also have a much more balanced conversation than if you just had women talking about these issues on their own.
You give a lot of advice to organizations about how they can create an environment for millennials that will foster success. What steps do you suggest women in this generation can take on their own to succeed in the workplace?
My goal was to encourage millennial women to think about where they want to be in the future and show them a few areas of tension or curiosity where they need to focus a bit more. Gender may be one of them, as well as actually looking more specifically around what other kinds of things they need to be leaders in the future. I developed a curriculum in my book that details areas that are important to leadership development, and I think it’s valuable for women—as well as men—to take some time and reflect on these issues for themselves. This isn’t something that anyone else can do for them, it’s ultimately their own choice and responsibility to think about these different areas and visualize what they want to be a few years down the line.
What we’ve seen in previous generations of female leaders is that they did not take the time to reflect on these sorts of issues and then are surprised when they’re suddenly confronted with them. So this is my attempt to harness this golden opportunity of having very confident young women in the workplace so we avoid continuing to see the scarcity of female leaders we see in the workplace today.
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