- Generational Differences Throughout the Ages
- How Marketing Created the "Multigenerational Workforce"
- So How Does This Relate to the Generational Question?
- The Two Major Problems with the Four-Generation Model
So How Does This Relate to the Generational Question?
I have no problem whatsoever with the marketing world’s tendency to create finer and finer consumer segments for the purposes of selling products. If a company knows its cameras are extremely popular with 23- to 27-year-old Irish men and creates commercials to attract this audience, that makes perfect sense. If a band bills itself as “countrified acid steampunk with a dash of EBM” and that somehow speaks to their audience, they should do what works.
But people aren’t products, and the generational question deals fundamentally with people and the interactions between them. Unfortunately, we’ve been segmenting various facets of society for marketing purposes for so long (toddler, teen, young professional, and so on) that we’ve extended the process to people themselves. The term Baby Boom was never intended to describe the personality of a generation but rather to indicate the explosion of births following World War II. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Baby Boomer assumed the connotation it has today; once it did, we became enamored of the belief that every new group of people was somehow fundamentally different than everyone who had come before or who would come after.
Again, this segmentation into Traditionalist, Boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y3 seems to satisfy our need to understand things. But the more segments we create, the harder it is for us to actually know what we’re supposed to do.
There have been several interesting studies about this phenomenon, which for lack of a better term can be called the “poverty of choice.” Very basically, the hypothesis goes like this: The more choices we’re given, the more indecisive we become, and the more likely we are to do nothing. One of the classic examples of this phenomenon is the famous jam study of 1995.4 Researchers placed various jams in a display sample at a grocery store. Every few hours, they changed the number of offerings from 6 varieties to 24 varieties. On average, customers tried two samples at both the large and small displays. However, while more people stopped by the larger display (60% at the large display versus 40% at the small display), they made significantly fewer purchases (3% bought something at the large display versus 30% at the smaller display). Several other studies have been conducted with different products and different parameters, but the results tend toward the same conclusion: The more choices we’re given, the harder it is for us to know what to do with all those choices.
And this is exactly what we’ve done with the generational question. In creating four distinct generations, we’ve made our workplaces seemingly easier to describe but actually harder to manage. If you’ve ever despaired of figuring out how to work with all the different kinds of people in your office or factory or secret laboratory at the center of the Earth or wherever you work, it’s because it feels like a problem too complicated to solve.
But it isn’t. We just need to return to thinking about generational issues in a simpler, more natural way—the way all of us did up until a few decades ago.
However, because you’ve been hearing about four generations since you’ve been old enough to care about generational issues in the workplace, let’s cover what you’ve heard before.
The Four (Totally Invented) Generations in Today’s Workplace
Following is a brief description of each so-called “generation.” I’ve taken the liberty of describing them in slightly different terms than you’re used to, but I think you’ll agree that my descriptions are not only accurate but also a whole lot more fun than what you’re used to reading. Here goes!
Generation #1: The Traditionalists—1922 to 1946
First we have the Traditionalists, also sometimes called The Matures, the Veterans, the WWII Generation, or the Silents. Whatever you decide to call them, they were born roughly between 1922 and 1946, which explains why they make fun of anyone who complains about the state of today’s economy. Their favorite medicines growing up were whiskey and cod liver oil, and many of them still maintain the belief that medicine can’t possibly be effective if it tastes like anything you would want to put inside you. Seriously, you could get them to eat sand if you told them it would promote their digestive health. They’re generally very loyal workers and good rule-followers, and their favorite pastimes are complaining about various physical ailments (often caused by eating too much sand) and yelling at children who run across their lawns, although sadly many of them now live in gated communities and so no longer have lawns to get mad at children for running across. To compensate for this, many of them now yell at their TVs instead. They always drive 18 miles an hour below the speed limit, and they let everyone know that they’re turning 7 miles before it’s going to happen and about 32 miles after completing the turn. If you’ve ever been caught behind a Traditionalist driver on the interstate in a single lane of traffic while the other lane is blocked off for the next 23 miles by orange construction cones, then you have a decent idea of what the afterlife is like if you don’t make it into Heaven. Traditionalists typically go to bed at 8 p.m., and every year their glasses get a tiny bit thicker. But don’t think they’re weak! This is the generation who decided three martinis for lunch was a good idea. They can drink the rest of us under the table. Don’t underestimate them.
Generation #2: The Baby Boomers—1946 to 1964
Next we have the Baby Boomers—or as I like to call them, the Dirty Filthy Hippies. Born between 1946 and 1964, they were the transitional generation between black-and-white and Technicolor. Instead of whiskey and cod liver oil, their favorite medicine growing up was LSD, which some of them actually tried to get added to our drinking water. They’re generally very goal-oriented and sometimes workaholics, which is hard to believe since many of them made it entirely through college without taking a shower. And how can I say that? Because the Baby Boomers were the first group of people since the Vikings to believe that razors and deodorant were somehow part of the oppressive establishment, which means they should have been barred from any decision-making position anywhere. They are notable for their conspicuous consumption and responsible for the absurdly optimistic phrase, “50 is the new 30!” which can be true only if you honestly expect to live to be 134 years old. They invented disco, for which they can never truly be forgiven. And perhaps most importantly, they also invented Generations X and Y, although many of them have tried to pretend that they had nothing to do with it.
Generation #3: Generation X—1965 to 1980
After the endless debauchery of the Baby Boomers came Generation X, so named because somewhere in the mid-1970s people apparently ran out of words. This is my generation of people, born between 1965 and 1980. We were famously called the “slacker” generation, which I personally find hilarious considering the generation that comes after us. In a radical departure from our forefathers, our favorite medicine is angst, which isn’t even a medicine—it’s just a whiny, pouty-faced way of looking at things. Our basic attitude is thus: “Show us your proudest accomplishment, and we’ll show you our crushing indifference.” We’re typically more informal than our elders and have an instinctive distrust for authority, which is hardly a new concept since “distrust of authority” is one of the foundational principles of the American psyche. We’re generally described as self-starters, and it’s quite evident that we weren’t interested in listening to anyone else when we created the fashion sensibilities of the 1980s, which could actually qualify as a crime against humanity. We are the reason for the hole in the ozone layer because we decided it was more important to have big hair than to avoid death by sunburn. Generation X was the first generation in the history of human beings to decide that nobody really understood us, including our friends and family, and that the less people understood us, the cooler we really were. There is really no good explanation for how any Gen Xers survived into adulthood, except that cynicism ultimately isn’t fatal. Oh, and we also gave the world rap music. You’re welcome.
Generation #4: Generation Y—1980 to Four Minutes Ago
And last but not least—in fact they’re the biggest generation in the country, slightly bigger than the Baby Boomers and about twice as large as my mopey Gen Xers—we have Generation Y, so named because by the mid-1990s people were too lazy to even care that X isn’t the first letter of the alphabet. They’re also known as Millennials—presumably because they were all born on the Millennium Falcon. Born between 1980 and four minutes ago, these people are barely old enough to shave. Their favorite medicine is Ritalin, which has probably been put into their cereal at this point. The proliferation of ADHD diagnoses has happened in large part because this generation, cognizant of the increasing cost of higher education, has chosen to get diagnosed with hyperactivity disorder so that they can pay for college by selling all their extra pills to their friends as “study aids.” They’re comfortable with new technologies and rapid change because they have never known a time without new technologies and rapid change. This is significant for three reasons. First, it means they’ve never developed film and been disappointed when 90% of their pictures turned out to be crap. Second, they’ve never made a mixtape for anyone, painstakingly arranging the songs in the proper order to best express their love for whoever they were going to give it to. And third and perhaps most importantly, they occasionally walk into trees and parked cars and walls and other people when they’re texting their friends because they can’t be bothered to watch where they’re walking. Seriously, they’re barely even people.
So there you have the four generations, as I like to think of them. Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y. That’s what you’ve heard. That’s the only version you’ve ever heard.
And it’s wrong.