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Destroying the Four-Generation Myth of the Multi-Generational Workplace

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In this chapter from his book, Us vs. Them: Redefining the Multi-Generational Workplace to Inspire Your Employees to Love Your Company, Drive Innovation, and Embrace Change, Jeff Havens banishes once and for all the notion that there are four generations in today’s workplace, which is entirely unworkable if you want to create loyalty, dedication, and runaway success.
This chapter is from the book

You’re forgiven if you’ve gotten tired of hearing about generational issues in the workplace. Amazon lists more than 1,100 books with the words generation and workplace in the title. That’s the equivalent of a new book on generational issues in the workplace being published every 6½ days for the past 20 years. If you’re fatigued, it’s because you should be. Talking about the same issue in the same way and with the same language over and over and over again is exhausting.

Indeed, it’s precisely because of this avalanche of literature that I’ve been compelled to write this book. The way we have been thinking about generational differences in the past two decades—the central premise behind those 1,100 books and the uncountable others with cleverer titles that talk about the same thing—is making it harder for us to find workable solutions. We’ve been complicating the problem rather than solving it.

Fortunately, things are much easier than they seem.

It’s not that there aren’t significant differences between generations; there are. For example

  • You might have grown up listening to record albums—and not as an accoutrement to your retro lifestyle but because it was the only form in which music came. If you did, it’s possible you also grew up drinking phosphates, lounging on the davenport, wearing derby hats, and hoarding lamp oil.
  • You may never have seen a pay phone. Perhaps you wonder if they were phones that paid you.
  • You may have all but forgotten that the English language has vowels and rules for proper spelling, and that thngs r rlly hrdr if u brk th roolz all th tim.
  • You might have grown up without the Internet, which necessarily means you spent your entire childhood being bored. What did you do for fun? Nobody knows.
  • You might still have a fake ID in your dresser.
  • You might have fake teeth sitting on your dresser.
  • You might have children who learned things in fifth grade that you yourself didn’t learn until high school or college.
  • You might be worried about your pension.
  • You might not be quite certain what a pension is—or, more accurately, what a pension was.

It’s a safe bet that some of these descriptions remind you of you, and some of them make you shake your head at the people to whom those descriptions apply. We are undoubtedly different. But we’ve allowed ourselves to categorize those differences in a thoroughly unhelpful way. We take as axiomatic the following sentence:

  • For the first time in history, there are four distinct generations operating side by side.

Every speaker, book, lecture, infographic, or TED talk that addresses generational issues is founded on the premise of this four-generation workplace. It’s so ubiquitous that you’ve probably never questioned it. Instead, you’ve asked yourself, “How am I supposed to get anything done when there are so many people with so many different needs, motivations, desires, goals, and issues? How can I balance all these conflicting desires against each other in a way that works for everyone and somehow doesn’t consume my every waking thought?”

Again, if you have ever felt overwhelmed by the multigenerational workplace, it’s not your fault. You’ve simply been persuaded by an endless stream of “generational experts” telling you how crazy and difficult and unprecedented the working world is today. In fact, some of them want you to feel overwhelmed. They want you to be scared. That’s how they sell you things: by making these issues seem bigger than they really are and then offering “solutions” to those artificially inflated problems.

But not me. I don’t want you to be scared, except maybe of sharks and botulism and close talkers and other things it makes sense to be scared of. When it comes to your career, however, I want you to feel secure. The challenges facing today’s workforce are not unprecedented. In many ways, they are the same challenges that have been facing professionals for centuries.

The point of this chapter is to banish once and for all the notion that there are four generations in today’s workplace. The four-generation model is entirely unworkable if you want to create loyalty, dedication, and runaway success. Thinking of your workforce as multigenerational creates more problems than it solves. Fortunately for us, there are not four generations operating side by side. That’s a lie whose time has come, and this book is going to bury it once and for all.

Generational Differences Throughout the Ages

Strictly speaking, the length of a generation is the amount of time it takes for an infant to get old enough to have children of his or her own. Historically this has ranged anywhere from around 13 years (please don’t have kids when you’re 13, by the way) up to 40 years—although it’s hard to say exactly how our ancestors measured the length of a generation because there’s decent evidence to suggest that nobody paid it even the slightest amount of attention. I’ve typed every possible permutation of “generational differences” into every search engine there is,1 and there are exactly zero mentions of generational differences being an issue that anyone talked about in any form whatsoever before about 1960.

This means that for the majority of human history, generational differences either didn’t exist (which is seriously unlikely) or were framed in different terms (which we’ll be discussing in greater detail shortly).

The most common argument used to explain why we have a four-generation workforce for the first time in human history is that—you know what’s coming, don’t you?—the world today is different than it used to be. These are the two platitudes we always trot out when discussing generational issues: For the first time in history, there are four distinct generations operating side by side, and the world today is different than it used to be. But let’s put this into a proper perspective. The Revolutionary War was as comprehensive and world-altering for early Americans as WWII was for the so-called Silent Generation; the French and Russian revolutions were significantly more volatile and transformative than the 1960s and Vietnam were for the Baby Boomers; and the printing press was easily as colossal a technological innovation for 15th- and 16th-century Europeans as the Internet has been for today’s Generations X and Y (and the rest of us, too). There is nothing so unique about our world today that we can’t find parallels from earlier eras. And yet our ancestors didn’t talk about the travails of negotiating a multigenerational workforce, and we do.

To be sure, people tended not to live as long as we do today (yay for toilets and medicine and antibacterial soap!), so there would have been fewer instances of 20-year-olds working alongside 40- and 60- and 80-year-olds. But it certainly happened. For example, the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence ranged in age from 26 (Edward Rutledge, South Carolina) to 70 (Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania). In addition to them, there were 2 other signers in their 20s, 17 in their 30s, 21 in their 40s, 8 in their 50s, and 6 in their 60s. By today’s measure, these men would absolutely represent a multigenerational workforce, and yet none of them ever made mention of thinking along those lines, despite the fact that many of them were both business owners and prolific writers. Neither did a single factory owner in the first 200 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution. No one ever talked about a multigenerational workforce—not once—until 40 or 50 years ago.

So what happened?

The answer, which will surprise you for only a moment if indeed it surprises you at all, is that we have changed the way we market ourselves. Over the past several decades, marketers have systematically worked to create a hyper-complicated picture of our generational differences, specifically so that they could sell “solutions” in the form of books, products and consulting, and a host of other services.2 Today’s “multigenerational workforce” is not a real issue; it’s a marketing strategy. And I’ll prove that in the next few pages.

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