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Yesterday I read a really interesting piece describing how corporate America is so focused on the stereotypes associated with millennials that companies may be missing the bigger picture when trying to relate to young people. As in, it’s risky business to shove an entire generation of people into a single, small, predictable box. After all, if your marketing efforts only consider the broad strokes people are so eager to share about millennials (they’re lazy, they’re entitled, they will only care about your company if you care about their favorite cause), you’re likely missing the boat.

I think the same can be said for employee benefits communications. Those of us who focus on this important role will be unable to make an authentic connection with the portion of our target audience born between 1980 and 2000 if the only things we believe about them are those negative stereotypes. After all, despite differences among generations, there are also some striking similarities. Or at least there were at the point that each of the previous generations was young.

I saw another piece today that further amplified, in my opinion, our need to stop characterizing millennials so definitively. The piece focused on how people in their first couple years of employment after college are not saving as much as they should for retirement.

Let me ask you some questions, without knowing how old you are.

When you were 23, how frequently did you think about retirement? Did you think it was important to max out your 401(k) contributions? Did you even know what that meant? More importantly, when you were making that fresh-out-of-college salary we’ve all experienced, could you afford to max out your 401(k)? Add student debt to that equation and it gets even more challenging.

When you were 23, how much importance did you place on health insurance? How often did you ever need to see a doctor? Probably not very often, because youth and good health tend to go together. (Though that’s a stereotype, too, that is beginning to change as obesity becomes more common in younger people. But that’s another conversation altogether.)

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Let’s remind ourselves that we were 23 once, and we probably weren’t particularly focused on what would happen 30 or more years down the road. [/pullquote]

Although I won’t comment on my exact age, I’m part of Generation X and I clearly remember working in my first job, which was in human resources for a healthcare IT company. My boss, nearly two decades my senior, was aghast that I didn’t have massive contributions going into my 401 (k). Okay, if I’m honest, I had not even set up a 401 (k) account yet at that point. Under duress, I started my account and put away what I could afford, which was maybe 3 percent back then. But I still recall clearly just how far away the future felt and how I believed I had much more immediate issues that demanded my attention…and my hard-earned tiny salary. This is not an issue unique to millennials.

So when we look at our young employees and we see they aren’t leaping at the chance to insure themselves with every option we offer, or they’re not saving as much as they should for retirement, let’s not jump directly to “they’re idealistic and don’t take responsibility for themselves.” Let’s remind ourselves that we were 23 once, and we probably weren’t particularly focused on what would happen 30 or more years down the road. And let’s find a way to create messages for this group that resonate with them today, on their terms, to gently begin urging them in the right direction.