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Millennial Burnout: X, Y, Z… how the “generation” scam consumes youth by Vincent Cocquebert (2019)

Laetitia Vitaud

Editor in Chief

The unfounded ideas about “Millennials” occupy a lot of human resources professionals, anxious to recruit and retain young workers, who are said to be more “fickle” and “in search of meaning”. But are all these theories about different generations just a big con? This is essentially what the journalist Vincent Cocquebert explains in his book Millennial Burnout: X, Y, Z… how the “generation” scam consumes youth (2019), in which he castigates generational stereotypes. 

These stereotypes generate business for consultants. But they are also a smoke screen that prevents us from seeing the real phenomena of rising economic and social inequalities at work in our society. The clichés about generations “X”, “Y” and “Z” are not as harmless as they seem: they have adverse consequences for the young and the not so young.  “Who are the victims? Companies…struggling with the new world, they cling desperately to unproved studies, each more doubtful than the last. But above all: the young, reduced to a notion that is absurd and delusional…”

Using many illustrations from the media and popular culture, Vincent Cocquebert provides valuable insights that any HR professional should read in order not to succumb uncritically to the siren calls of self-proclaimed Millennial experts, also known as “Ys”, or sometimes as digital natives.

“Scientifically, the concept of generation is questionable. Your education, where you live, your socio-economic class and whether or not you feel you belong to a community are much more important to the analysis of existential trajectories.”

“Generation Y has this in common with the so-called May ’68 generation – dissected ad nauseam – having been scrutinised a priori.” 

“Faced with this systematic gap between discourse and reality, we begin to wonder (…) if Millennials are not, at the end of the day, just an urban legend. Or, an imaginary human being, a public transport enthusiast, an altruist devoid of any impulse towards ownership and adept at co-working and looking for meaning.”

– Vincent Cocquebert in Millennial Burnout.  

Talking about generations is not new 

“These accusations about the end of authority or the cries for help of a youth in distress are a chorus heard across all generations.”  Vincent Cocquebert reviews the history of the concept of generation, and its multiple meanings. According to him, we owe the most ambitious definition of the concept to the German sociologist Karl Mannheim: “generational consciousness” develops as an echo to a historical situation “marked by the permanent appearance of new cultural agents; by the disappearance of the previous cultural agents…”. This definition greatly nuances “the idea of a homogeneous generational whole by highlighting the plurality of sociological profiles that constitute an age group”. 

We talk about the emergence of the “culture of youth” from the 1960s onwards. “The generational tool then becomes, little by little, a new identity filter, a way of reading a society and its power relations…”  Little by little, discourses about generations have replaced discourses on social classes and social conflicts. In this respect, the “May ’68” generation is the mother of all these fictions. While the media focused their analysis on the generational aspect of the protests, “by doing so they managed to erase the fact that May ’68 is one of the few general insurrections that Western countries have experienced since the Second World War”. 

The deeply social dimension of the May ’68 movement takes a back seat to the fiction of a supposedly rebellious youth. Yet the sociological studies of the time did not highlight a uniform mass of protestors but rather young people who “accepted society, strongly desired to be a part of it, respected adults and even shared their values”.  The generational concept of a ’68er “is a political and media construction, just like that of the Millennial (or Y)” which made it possible to “depoliticize the biggest strike in the history of France “, that is to say, to create a red herring.

Generation Y and Millennials are bullshit 

The concept of Generation Y or the Millennials comes from marketing media. It obscures the economic, social and cultural differences that create a hierarchical society and maintains a sociological “fog” that seems to have become thicker and thicker. Based on abundant research, Cocquebert shows that these discourses “totally ignore reality”. Already in 2008, a large European study “came to the conclusion that it was impossible to form groups of workers with consistent expectations and perceptions according to their ages”. The study distinguished between two forms of engagement, present in all age groups: the “pragmatic” commitment, when a job is above all a way to earn money; and the “reflexive” commitment, when it is an integral part of a person’s identity. In terms of work, there is basically no divide between the X, the Y and the baby boomer. Ultimately Millennials are a pure “urban legend”.

And digital natives are like Millennials (two expressions supposed to refer more or less the same age group): the reality is much less “digitally fluid” than expected. The author quotes Jean-Noël Lafargue for whom Millennials are rather a generation of digital innocents. The generation that precedes them often has more advanced knowledge of computer science because using a computer in the 1990s was not as easy and instinctive as surfing the internet …

Finally, the book also demolishes another stereotype, that Millennials are far more narcissistic than their elders. In this respect, it is important not to confuse the effect of age with the generation effect: it is not specifically young people today who are narcissistic, but young people in general, at all times (and in different ways, of course).

The adverse effects of “generational blaming”

“The generational filter offers free rein to what could be called generic blaming. This freedom to pronounce, without any scientific legitimacy, on populations of several millions of individuals, whilst at the same time finding the idea of stigmatising other social groups odious.”

In the world of work, the phenomenon is not without its victims: on the one hand, “mothballing” everyone over 45, and on the other, a “false valuation of young people”. Cocquebert recalls that a French employee is considered “senior” at 45 (against 65 in Sweden or Japan). Age has become the most important factor of discrimination in business. Moreover, when a stereotyped view of a generation is conveyed in a company, its employees tend to internalise the behavioural traits ascribed to their age group. As Jean Pralong, a professor at Rouen Business School, has noted, “fiction becomes reality”.

The misconceptions about the supposed immobility of older people and the fickleness of younger ones then confirm the company’s decision to disengage from career management. If the first are fickle and the second too immobile, then there is no point in investing in their training or emphasising the development of their skills… 

Paradoxically, what we are witnessing today is a homogenisation of values between generations: the “old” behave more like the “young” and the “young” like the “old”. For Vincent Cocquebert, it is essential to “deflate a managerial discourse that for too long has taken the place of sociological discourse”. It would be more interesting to integrate the fact that we live in an aging world and that we must prepare for it. (On this subject we recommend our article on the book, The 100-Year Life).

On the same topic, see also our ebook titled “Millennials: Enough with the diktats!” 

Writing: Laetitia Vitaud

Illustration : Pablo Grand Mourcel

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