One of Canada’s oldest institutions is grappling with how best to manage some of its youngest workers — and the negative perceptions some staff members have of them.
The Senate of Canada has a training course on offer titled “Working with Millennials.” It’s a webinar aimed at getting older Senate employees to confront their stereotypes about this age cohort — especially the belief that, according to the wording on the Senate website, millennials are “entitled praise-seekers who are easily distracted by technology.”
The one-hour course, which was offered as recently as last month, is designed to manage what the Senate calls one of the “greatest challenges” in the workplace — “negative stereotyping in multi-generational teams” — according to the description posted on the Senate’s human resources portal.
The Senate doesn’t offer a similar course on how to work with other generations like Generation X — the cohort generally defined as people born in the late 1960s to the early 1980s — or the baby boomers, who were born after the Second World War.
But the “Working with Millennials” course does address the perception that these older workers are “risk-averse, inflexible or lacking in enthusiasm,” according to the course description.
Senate human resources pitched the course as a way for employees and managers to deal with “an evolution of work environments” as both young and old staffers return to their offices and face-to-face interactions after a period of remote work during the pandemic.
The “millennial” generation is loosely defined but it usually covers people born in the mid-1980s to the 1990s — the first generation that grew up with the internet.
Course sends the wrong message: academic
It’s a cohort that has been maligned by some as lazy, entitled job-hoppers who are hungry for praise.
Joel Thiessen is a professor of sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary and the co-author of “The Millennial Mosaic.”
Thiessen told CBC News the Senate course perpetuates the “ageist” myth that millennials are uniquely difficult to work with compared to earlier generations.
He said it sends the wrong message to young staff, who are already confronting barriers in the workplace — especially in the federal public service, where workers tend to be older.
“There’s a perception out there that millennials are lazy or entitled or don’t want to work hard. That’s not accurate at all. In fact, in the research for our book, we found that working hard is more valued by millennials than their parents’ or grandparents’ generation,” Thiessen said.
“They’re more likely to work harder than previous generations. And that’s not a surprise — think about all the obstacles they’re up against these days,” he added, citing sky-high housing prices, inflation and a wobbly economy.
There are some workplace differences between millennials and older cohorts, Thiessen said.
Millennials, on the whole, place a higher value on a work-life balance, he said, referring to polling he’s done as part of his research.
“They work to live rather than live to work,” he said.
They’re also more likely to take a lower-paying job if it gives them “more of an opportunity to live,” he said.
CBC News asked the Senate why it launched a course on working with millennials, what exactly was discussed in the webinar, how many people participated and if senators themselves took part.
Alison Korn, a spokesperson for the Senate’s internal economy committee, which governs the Red Chamber, did not answer those questions.
“The Senate offers a wide range of learning and development opportunities,” Korn said, adding the “working with millennials” course was optional.
There was no added cost to taxpayers because the course is part of the Senate’s existing employee assistance program, she said.
“Regular development opportunities include procedural seminars on the legislative process, official languages training, professional skills and leadership development, and diversity and inclusion workshops, to name but a few,” she said.
A ‘harmful, negative stereotype’
Jennifer Chan is an employment lawyer at JTC Litigation in Toronto. She said it’s commendable of the Senate to offer a course on “generational diversity.”
But it’s “a bit odd,” she added, that it singled out millennials as the cohort that requires a course of its own, since millennials have been in the workplace for some time already. The oldest millennials are now in their early 40s.
“They’re the sandwich generation, in between the upcoming Gen Z and Gen X. It’s not clear to me why millennials are the focus,” she said, adding that there may be more of a generational shock involved in working with people in their early 20s than with the more established millennial cohort.
The idea that some Senate staff perceive millennials as “entitled praise-seekers” is also a “harmful, negative stereotype that’s quite superficial,” she said.
“Millennials do not want to be treated differently, or carry a stigma. Public service managers need to prioritize treating all employees the same, regardless of age,” she said.