No such thing as “generations”
A few years ago, I was doing research for a workshop on intergenerational conflict, and I found out something that really surprised me. The concept of “generation” and the associated labels we use – Baby Boomer, Millennial, etc. – is actually ill-defined and has little scientific basis. We say that a generation has emerged when there is a significant rise and then fall in births, as in the “Baby Boomer” generation, the first group to actually receive a generational label. But what does “significant” mean? And how do you choose the cutoff year? Well, depending on the group doing the research, the cutoff years may be different for the same generation. Below is a chart that shows the variations in cutoff years and generational labels between Pew Research, Strauss and Howe (marketing experts who popularized the idea of generational differences with their book Generations), and Canadian marketing experts Foot and Stoffman (Boom, Bust, and Echo).
As you can see, there are quite a few differences. If you were born in 1946, you might be a Baby Boomer or of the World War II generation. If you were born in 1981, you might be Generation X or a Millennial.
Aside from the ill-defined nature of generations, there is no scientific evidence to support that age cohorts have inherently different personality characteristics. Instead, groups of people are defined by historical events, social interaction, and social structure. Moreover, an individual’s personality and behavior may change – indeed, we expect it to change – quite a bit over the course of their life.
If generations aren’t real, then where’s the conflict coming from?
There is no denying that conflict exists between people of different ages in the workplace. Younger workers expect and demand more feedback, more decision-making power, increased transparency throughout the organization, and a softening of the hierarchical structure. More experienced employees resist these demands, citing a lack of experience and a sense of entitlement on the part of the younger workers. So who is right? Well, in this case, I don’t think there is a right or wrong, just different experiences that have resulted in different perspectives. I do believe that increased transparency is a good thing, and so is responsibility and decision-making power that is more equally distributed throughout the organization according to roles. I also think that increased respect for everybody’s perspective and experience is called for.
Discrimination happens when we assign a set of negative characteristics to a group of people based on a common demographic. When we believe somebody’s age indicates how they will behave in the workplace, or in any other setting, it’s called “generationalism” and demonstrates poor leadership, according to the journal article Leadership and generations at work: A critical Review by Rauvola, Rudolph, and Zacher. Therefore, I would argue that using terms such as “Baby Boomer”, “Millennial” and the like is discrimination, and not only is it counter-productive, it’s wrong.
How do we fix it?
We can fix this the way we fix any conflict – through open, honest, and respectful communication. In the end, everybody in the workplace wants the same thing. For themselves, people want respect, recognition, the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, and personal growth. For the organization, we want to achieve the mission and work towards the vision. Identifying shared goals and then figuring out a path that takes everybody’s needs and challenges into account will significantly reduce turnover and moral injury (a.k.a. burnout), as well as increase the chances of individual and organizational success.
Contact Human Systems to learn more about how to reduce age-based conflict in your organization.