What We Don't Know About Generational Diversity
In the past several years, a lot has been written and spoken about generational diversity, the effects of having as many as five generations represented in many workplaces, and in particular, how to integrate Gen Y (the Millennials) into today's work environment.
We've written and talked about the differences among the generations, especially in the areas of work ethic, organizational loyalty, personal appearance criteria, the use of communication technology, expectations and feelings of entitlement, etc. We have a tendency to focus on these differences, which often leads to the need to cope with conflicts among the generations, especially the tag teams of Traditionalists/Baby Boomers vs. Gen X/Millennials.
Too often, we self-proclaimed "experts" on the generational characteristics gloss over the fact that what defines generational characteristics is not necessarily age, but specific life-defining experiences and the culture in which one has been reared. Even when we take these issues into account, it sometimes sounds as if middle class American culture is the benchmark against which all other cultures should be compared, and in so doing, that kind of comparison leaves non-American, or non-middle class cultures wanting.
As we expound on the generational characteristics associated with these experiences, we often forget that a great many people in this country and around the world didn't experience these events in quite the same way, and that these defining events affected many people much differently from those we usually talk about. Perhaps the reason for our oversight is that the writers and speakers - the "experts" - mainly come from the middle class American culture, and assume that because they have had the same experiences, we must all be similar to one another within the age cohorts that usually define the generations.
Let's stipulate that much of what has been spoken and written about the generations in the workplace, has been part of a discussion about the American workplace, but should we assume that the subjects of our discussion are all middle class Americans? If we do that, we then have to acknowledge that not everyone in today's workplace fits that mold, and that there are a great many people in the workforce whom we know little about.
We often define Traditionalists as those being born before 1946, with defining experiences including the Great Depression and the Second World War/Korean War/Cold War. These defining events are supposed to have shaped Traditionalists into the patriotic, loyal, thrifty, duty-bound, and heroic figures we hear about all the time. On the other hand, most Traditionalists still in the workplace did not directly experience the Great Depression themselves, and heard about it second-hand from their parents. And while many of them were loyal Democrats, having nearly deified FDR, a great many liked Ike, and benefited from the prosperity following the Korean War. Indeed, most Traditionalists still in the work force today are there because they have to be - they aren't able to sustain themselves through a carefree retirement. Their vaunted thrift hasn't been able to carry them through tough economic times and deteriorating health. How different are these still-working Traditionalists from their economically comfortable fellows? How different from the stereotypical Traditionalists are the African-American or Hispanic people who grew up at the same time, but who had very different life experiences? If we are to be honest with ourselves, we have to say, "We don't know."
Boomers are often defined as having been born between 1946 and 1964, with defining experiences including the building boom of the '50s, the nuclear threat (crawl under your desks), the beginnings of the space program (culminating in the first moon landing in 1969), the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, and the Viet Nam War protests. It's astounding how many Boomers claim to have been at Woodstock or in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, or who got a whiff of tear gas during a Viet Nam War protest. What we don't know is how many Boomers were actually in favor of the Viet Nam War. How many truly couldn't understand what all the hoopla of the civil rights movement was about? Does being a Boomer automatically mean that you had a bumper sticker that said, "Question Authority"? What about the Boomers of color who didn't grow up in the "Dick and Jane" suburbs? If any of them display the stereotypical workaholic characteristics of the Boomers, you've got to bet that their reasons are very different from their white, middle class, suburban counterparts.
Generation X is characterized as having been born between 1965 and 1980, with defining experiences including rampant divorce, being "latch-key" kids, seeing their parents lose jobs in the downsizings and reorganizations of the late '70s and early '80s, the Watergate scandal and associated political fallout, and the rise of digital technology. Also known as the "baby bust" generation, many within this generation feel squeezed between their "never quit" Boomer colleagues and the incoming Millennials, who want it all right now, and aren't interested in paying their dues. Gen-Xers are often characterized as skeptical, self-reliant individualists, who take for granted the equality of women and minorities, and who demand work/life balance. While we often don't acknowledge their contributions to the workplace, mainly because they are often thought of as challenging and lazy, we must remember that business casual dress codes are a legacy of Generation X. Let's also acknowledge that the members of Generation X did not all grow up in divorced/single parent households; neither did they all have parents downsized out of jobs. Despite Watergate, many of them are still Republicans and hold reverence for the memories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Generation Y (or the Millennials) are defined by being born between 1981 and 2000, with formative experiences that include the integration of digital technology into everyday life, the dot-com bust, the self-esteem movement in education (leading to a keen sense of entitlement), and the expansion of terrorism into the US (9-11). The Millennials are said never to have lived in a world where there were dial telephones, busy signals, and black and white TV. They are characterized as feeling entitled, optimistic, self-confident, and civic-minded. Many Millennials are quite close to their parents, and are responsible for the term, "adultolescence," which refers to their extended period of remaining dependent on their parents, their tendency to marry much later in life than previous generations, and their willingness to spend a lot of time in school or in internships, trying to find the perfect career. The stereotypical image of the Millennial is a young person in T-shirt and flipflops, with a music-playing phone jack in his/her ear, logging into a Facebook page, while in a group of peers in a bar. Are we willing to stipulate that not all "twenty-somethings" grew up in affluent families who could afford to buy them techno-toys? Are we ready to admit that many of the older Millennials (late 20s, early 30s) are as driven and skeptical as their Boomer parents and Gen-X older siblings? Are we still insisting that these young people are so optimistic, even in the face of an 18 month recession that has made many of today's college graduates despair of finding jobs?
In today's global marketplace, we know that the people we work with, especially Millennials, may originate from other parts of the world, where our generational assumptions may not be valid. Are we to say that these visitors or immigrants are "wrong" in some way because they don't fit our image of what they should be like? Worse, should we consider them "backward" in some way because they don't have the technical know-how we expect of people of their generation?
Generalizing about the generations, as with most other generalizations, enables us to get an overall handle on what to expect from a group of people. We still need to guard against carrying a handy generalization into a rigid stereotype. Regardless of when someone was born, we still need to learn who that individual is as a person before we start attributing motives, values, and preferences to that person. Treating people as distinct individuals may take some time and effort, but the risks and consequences of stereotyping people on the basis of their birth years are as serious as racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes.