Letters to the Workplace Generations

Multiple generations are working side-by-side in today’s workplace: the Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials. Venerable practitioners from the Silent Generation and summer interns from Gen Z bookend this core workforce. In particular, Millennials now comprise the largest generation in the workforce, quickly becoming key influencers in workplace culture as well as entering leadership ranks. I am supposedly a “Xennial,” a member of a micro-generation born during Gen X/Millennial cusp years. Equal parts Gen X and Millennial, I am fortunate to have roughly equal numbers of older generations and Millennials among my friends and colleagues. From this position, I’ve observed (and studies have affirmed) the chasm between the diverse worldviews of the two generational groups. Among other things, Millennials typically do not base their diversity identities on collective characteristics like race or affinity, as older generations do. Instead, Millennials focus on individual experiences and perspectives. How, then, should we evolve the diversity dialogue so these future leaders will carry the torch in the campaign for minority integration in the legal profession, particularly the senior ranks? Below is my appeal to both sides.

To my Gen X and Baby Boomer colleagues: (from my Millennial half)

Thank you for your tireless crusade to pave the path for us. We stand as beneficiaries to the fruit of your labors. But for the younger generation to continue the cause, I respectfully request two things:

First, please change the dichotomous narrative often used in the diversity dialogue. Typical career panels for minority attorneys usually share advice like this: We need to perform better to earn their approval. We need to be more outspoken so they won’t overlook you for new opportunities. We need to blend in socially so they will feel comfortable. They will not share credit unless you demand it. In one panel, a particularly impassioned speaker said, “If you just put your head down and do your work as you’re told, you’re no different than a donkey. And they will treat you like a donkey. You need to speak up if you don’t want them to treat you like a donkey.”

We have a knee-jerk reaction to the “us versus them” narrative. For one thing, it does not resonate with a generation that is diverse (44% of Millenials are racial or ethnic minorities). Further, such adversarial dialogue sounds distorted, divisive and counter-productive. It implicitly fuels the tendency to paint the “others” as the problem, whether by their offense, ignorance or complicity. It also demeans the very people you need as allies. Maturing through post-9/11 America and today’s political climate, we have witnessed the destructive power of a divisive narrative; we will not partake in it.

Second, please give us advice other than telling us to become [insert established pre-defined success trait here]. We are a generation driven by ideals and identity. For example, I am a petite Asian woman who is mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and introverted. So naturally, based on appearance, others (who have never worked with/against me) have doubted whether I can effectively negotiate against adversaries, confidently communicate, or engage prospective clients. In response, the typical advice from my older mentors includes: “be more assertive,” “walk in and work the room!” “speak louder,” and “wear tall heels.”

Such advice sounds like you’re telling me to conform myself to the stereotype of success as promulgated by the dominant culture. But isn’t reconstructing that very stereotype and eliminating its underlying biases the cornerstone of the diversity struggle? If I rise to senior ranks only by talking and acting like a petite, black-haired woman version of the dominant majority demographic in law firm leadership, is that really a meaningful diversity accomplishment? Isn’t mere integration of different skin and hair colors into senior ranks, without more, a somewhat hollow victory? It should be accompanied by a cultural transformation embracing the value of the different attributes and perspectives that stem from diverse candidates.

To my Millennial colleagues: (from my Gen X half)

I admire your boldness and innovation. You are a community-minded generation dedicated to ideals, and that makes the older generations truly hope that you can catalyze meaningful change. However, while Millennials are committed to equality, many of you don’t seem to understand the relevance of advocating for certain demographic groups. So I want to say two things to you:

First, and most importantly, racial and gender diversity matters. Yes, I understand that you grew up in communities (in real life and digital) where encountering all different types of people is the norm. You might question why it is necessary (let alone important) to single out and give special attention to any one demographic subgroup. In short, it’s because society and history are bigger than the Millennial generation. Before and outside of your generation, there were/are struggles in many corners of society—including the legal profession—that deeply entrenched distorted prejudices against women and minorities. The underrepresentation and compensation gap between women and minorities are vestiges of such struggles.

Whether or not you see it, double standards applied to women and minorities do exist, and that is wrong. Some people do judge others’ professional capabilities based on presumed traits tied to gender, skin color, or sexual orientation, and that is unacceptable. The legal profession apparently remains resistant to diverse leadership, and that must change. Diversity is a social justice and business imperative and we all have the duty, if not the desire, to work towards greater progress.

Second, please understand that “meritocracy” is not an alternative to, or solution for, diversity. You may be familiar with the fable about the giraffe who invited an elephant into his house: The giraffe could not understand why the elephant couldn’t navigate the narrow doors and stairs without wreaking havoc. The giraffe suggested that the elephant exercise to lose weight so he could fit through the door and go up the stairs. The elephant, however, saw that a house designed for a giraffe will never work for him unless major changes happen.

This fable illustrates why meritocracy fails. Meritocracy, in practice, operates in a vacuum. It focuses solely on the individual, divorced from the preexisting infrastructure that constrains one’s performance. I’m sure you’ll agree that true meritocracy requires a level playing field for all participants. For underrepresented groups, the field is uneven. One person is shooting from the free throw line, another is at the three-point line. In this context, meritocracy can operate more like an aristocracy of the dominant majority—the “merits” passing down the same lineage due to an implicit advantage (or lack of implicit disadvantage).

My hope is that all the workplace generations can unite to work effectively in advancing diversity within the legal profession, particularly in growing underrepresented groups in senior ranks within firms and companies.

About the Author

Karen K. Won is a special counsel at Cooley LLP, focusing on trademark matters on behalf of clients across the technology sector. Contact her at kwon@cooley.com.

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