Let’s Talk Black Millennials

black millennialsIn my four and a half years of working at the Commission on Professionalism, and speaking around the state and country, absolutely nothing has gotten my audience as engaged (read: riled up) as talking about millennials in the workplace.

As regular readers of our blog, and students of our online course on intergenerational communication, know, I talk and write a lot about millennials in the workplace, those 16-36 year-olds who have so engaged our social narrative. And I typically begin with the same story that many millennial speakers around the country do. I explain that millennials generally are young, self-promoting, purpose-driven, team-oriented and job transient. They want more technology in their organizations. They seek leadership opportunities from Day 1. They want more control over the direction of the company. They live in cities not suburbs. They’re not as religious as their parents. Money is not the driving force in their lives. Many in this “boomerang generation” can and do rely on their parents for support.

That’s the traditional narrative. Read books about millennials, articles about millennials, stories about millennials, that’s pretty much what you’ll find.

The Brief Millennial Caveat

Now when I talk about millennials, I always briefly mention a caveat. And it is this: not all millennials are the same. There are 76 million millennials in the country. They are the most diverse American generation in history. And while they have shared experiences as an age cohort, those shared experiences are complicated by a number of factors, including income, geography, gender and race. The experience I had as a black female millennial raised in a large city in the Caribbean is both similar to and different from the experience my husband had as a white male millennial raised in a small town in the Midwest.

But as the millennial conversation has grown louder and more insistent, I often wonder if we’ve done the analysis a disservice by focusing so much on the similarities, and less so on the differences.  I think about myself as a black millennial lawyer. I think about many of my black millennial lawyer friends. And I realize that mentioning a brief caveat, and not fully exploring that caveat, leaves out an important piece of the narrative.

How Are Black Millennials Different?

How can the narrative of black millennials diverge from the traditional millennial narrative described above? Take money, for example. The traditional narrative goes that millennials are less concerned with money than older generations because they are more concerned with purpose-driven work. Even those with substantial amounts of debt (and there are a lot of us) can use their parents as fallback options.

But look closer. Black millennials carry seven times more student debt than white millennials – 68.2% to be precise. Moreover, while young adults from wealthy white families hold significantly less debt than their less affluent counterparts, in black families, not only is the debt higher, but there is no difference between wealthy black families and less affluent black families.

Partly because of that, white millennials are more likely to be able to rely on parents for financial help, particularly financial help that leads to upward social mobility. Black millennials, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They often have to give money to their family members, rather than receive money from them. One researcher reported that when he asked white interviewees if they were lending financial support to family members, “I almost always get laughter. They’re still getting subsidized.” Moreover, the financial disparity can continue even after death. Across the board, white Americans are five times as likely to inherit money as black Americans. When both groups inherit money, white Americans received around ten times more.

Where Do Black Millennials Live?

Millennials like to live in cities (for now). And yet, here again, a different perspective changes the dialogue. Due to the racial segregation in many cities, especially here in Chicago, black millennial professionals might not have grown up or may not currently live in the same neighborhoods as white millennial professionals, potentially including their bosses and supervisors. And others’ opinions of their neighborhoods might lead them to be excluded from conversations and activities.

If you have a moment, read this story about a Washington DC journalist who served on a criminal jury. All the jurors, save for him, were either white or black. The defendant was black and the incident had taken place in a primarily black neighborhood. At one point, one white juror lamented that she would always lock her doors in the neighborhood the crime took place because it was just so dangerous. Three of her fellow jurors lived in that neighborhood.

Adding the Narrative of Black Millennials

Those are only a few examples. Religion is another one: millennials are less religiously engaged than previous generations; black millennials might be an exception. And black millennials, of course, aren’t the only way to break down the 76 million strong millennial cohort. Women millennials, for example, add a whole new perspective to the discussion. They are better educated than male millennials and have a smaller pay gap than their predecessors. What different and challenging perspective do millennial women bring to the workplace?

See, the reason we talk about millennials in the workplace is because we want to ensure that employers and employees both understand the perspectives, perceptions and values each generation brings to the workplace. We want to share how to successfully communicate across generations by understanding those perspectives, perceptions and values.

That discussion, however, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For black professionals, the workplace discussion almost always turns to diversity and inclusion. And the considerations for improving inclusion for black professionals in the workplace – evaluating resource access, feedback process, compensation, work allocation, mentoring and sponsorship among a host of other issues – should also include the considerations for millennials as well.

We shouldn’t consider being millennial in the workplace separate from being black in the workplace, nor should we consider being black in the workplace separate from being millennial in the workplace. I think about me, a black female millennial lawyer. I left my large law firm in 2012. I was 29 years-old. You could analyze me leaving from a number of different perspectives – as a millennial, as a woman, and as a black attorney. But if you take each of those separately, then you miss out on a fuller part of the story.

So let’s continue to fill out the narrative. When we talk about in the workplace, let’s remember that we’re talking about the most diverse generation in history, on multiple levels. No, we can’t talk about each of the 76 million, but we can do better than mentioning the internal differences as a caveat. At the very least, it will give people even more to argue about when someone mentions millennials in the workplace.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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