Home > Articles > Business & Management

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

The Two Major Problems with the Four-Generation Model

It would be natural to think that these four generational designations make sense. After all, we’ve been talking about the four-generation workplace for so long that it might be hard to think of it in any other way. You might be saying, “There really do seem to be significant distinctions between each of these groups of people.” And you’re right: There are significant distinctions between people. I’m not saying there aren’t. I’m just saying that those differences can be explained in much simpler terms than by putting everyone into one of four categories.

And here’s why. For one thing, there isn’t even much agreement on who belongs in which group. Depending on whom you ask, the Traditionalist Generation begins as early as 1909 or as late as 1925, and it ends sometime between 1940 and 1946. The earliest Baby Boomers were born as early as 1940 or as late as 1946, and they finished up either in 1960 or 1964. Generation Y is either the group of people born between 1980 and now, or it’s a much smaller group (say, between 1979 and the mid-1990s) so that we can apply the unfortunately fashionable Generation Z label to cover anyone born between the mid-1990s and today.

But in terms of imprecision, no “generation” is more obstinately unwilling to be pinned down than Generation X, for whom each of the following explanations has been used:

  • Because Generation X is the tenth generation in America (This, by the way, isn’t at all true.)
  • Because photographer Robert Capa used the term to describe people he was photographing in the 1950s (This means he was actually taking pictures of post-WWII Traditionalists or their Baby Boomer children.)
  • Because of Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett’s 1965 book Generation X (The authors were certainly interviewing people we would now call Baby Boomers.)
  • Because Billy Idol was in a punk band called Generation X in the late 1970s, which was then referenced in Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, as the genesis of the term (Huh?)

As you can see, Generation X is a term designed to apply to returning WWII vets, or British hippies, or Billy Idol, or the people we now consider to be Generation X. Even now the best that can be said of Generation X is that they were born sometime in the 1960s and stopped being born (depending on the source) in 1975, 1980, 1981, or 1982.

This is as close to a consensus as we’ve come, which isn’t much of a consensus at all. So the first problem is this: With such fluid designations, how are the millions of people on the edges of a given “generation” supposed to properly self-identify in order to know how to act and interact with others?

The logical counterargument to this criticism is that these years aren’t meant to be hard and fast. Instead, they’re supposed to function like convenient markers to make sense of the chaos. America didn’t suddenly crave independence and decide to go to war in 1776, but we use that year as an easy way to simplify the decades-long process that transformed America from a collection of subservient colonies into its own nation. In the same way, the argument goes, we’ve picked logical but admittedly arbitrary years to make it easier to talk about the different generations.

But this leads to the second and much, much larger problem with the four-generation model. Theoretically, the whole point in having a four-generation model is to make it easier for you to identify and then interact with people from different generations. However, it actually does the opposite. In an effort to justify that there really are significant and fundamental differences between the members of these four “generations,” people have created truly exhaustive lists that detail dozens of divergent qualities. I know you’ve seen those lists before (I’m going to reproduce one for you in couple pages, which I truly, sincerely hope you don’t take the time to read), and on most of them there is absolutely no overlap. On the lists where there is some overlap, it’s kept to a bare minimum in order to make each generation seem distinct from every other. As a result, the so-called four generations have been presented in a way that makes it look as though the people in each group are rigidly distinct in literally every way imaginable from the people in every other generation—all despite the fact that millions of people hover on the edges of these loosely defined categories and thus might be identified as completely different types of people, depending on which “generation” their age would assign them to.

So here’s what you’ve seen, I’m certain, in every book and keynote presentation about generational issues that you’ve ever endured. The author or presenter tells you for the millionth time in your life that for the first time in history, there are four distinct generations operating side-by-side in the workplace. He or she then goes on to outline the differences between those “generations.” This is the core of the book or presentation, designed to create order out of chaos. After this, you’re given various strategies to deal with members of each generation. I’m certain that every one of these authors and presenters is genuinely well intentioned and confident that their advice will be helpful to you. You’re then left to take that knowledge and put those strategies into practice. It sounds fairly simple.

But it’s not, because the charts they use to delineate their four-generation model make the entire picture too complicated for their well-intentioned advice to have any practical effect.

I’m going to give you one of those charts here. Table 1.1 is a compilation of several of the various generational charts I’ve seen. I’m certain you’ve seen something very much like this chart before. And I truly hope you don’t read it; the only reason I’m putting it here is so you can be reminded of how the four-generation model is typically structured. You’ll understand my subsequent arguments whether you read this chart or not. However, if you do choose to read it, I promise I made a few small embellishments that should entertain you.

Table 1.1 The Four-Generation Model


Baby Boomers

Generation X

Generation Y

Birth years





Famous people

Charlie Chaplin


Jeff Havens

Ashton Kutcher

Number of members

40 million

80 million

51 million

75–100 million

Chief influences

  • Great Depression
  • WWII
  • Korean War
  • A bunch of other sad things
  • Civil Rights
  • Vietnam War
  • Cold War
  • Moon landing (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist)
  • Dual-income families
  • Single parents
  • End of Cold War
  • First generation expected not to be as financially successful as their parents
  • Digital media
  • The Internet
  • Portable technology

Core values

  • Rule followers
  • Conformers
  • Dedication and sacrifice
  • Discipline
  • Duty before pleasure
  • Hard work
  • Loyalty
  • Responsibility
  • Equal rights
  • Equal opportunities
  • Personal gratification
  • Personal growth
  • Spend now, worry later (or, better yet, let your kids worry about it!)
  • Team-oriented
  • Diversity
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Independent
  • Informality (after all, they popularized the mullet)
  • Pragmatism
  • Self-reliance
  • Cynicism
  • Overconfidence
  • Fun!
  • Tolerance
  • Social
  • Technologically savvy
  • Street smarts (despite the fact that most of them have never played outdoors)


  • Committed to employer
  • Financially conservative
  • Ethical
  • Organized
  • Strong work ethic
  • Task-oriented
  • Thrifty
  • Trusting
  • Ambitious
  • Challenge authority
  • Competitive
  • Avid consumers
  • Live to work
  • Loyal to careers and employers (how this sits in the same box alongside “challenge authority” is beyond me, but there you go!)
  • Political correctness
  • Willing to take on responsibility
  • Adaptable
  • Angry but don’t know why (I like this description of us!)
  • Flexible
  • Focus on results
  • Free agents
  • Results driven
  • Self-starters
  • Strong sense of entitlement
  • Work to live
  • Attached to their technology and parents
  • Multicultural
  • Have never lived without computers
  • Even more entitled than Gen Xers!
  • Global in their thinking
  • Overindulged by their Baby Boomer and Gen X parents
  • Innovative
  • Tech-dependent
  • Loyal to friends
  • Open to new ideas
  • Self-absorbed


A dream

A birthright

A necessity

A calculated risk

Approach to finances

  • Put it away
  • Pay cash
  • Save everything
  • Buy now, pay later
  • Cautious
  • Conservative
  • Earn to spend

Work ethic

  • Dedicated
  • Pay your dues
  • Work hard
  • Company first
  • Driven
  • Work long hours to establish identity
  • Quality
  • Balance
  • Work smarter, not harder
  • Self-reliant
  • Want structure and direction
  • Ambitious
  • Already bored with what they’re doing now because they want to know what’s next
  • Multitasking
  • Entrepreneurial






View on respect for authorityp

  • Authority is based on seniority and tenure
  • Started off skeptical of authority but now like it since they’re in the positions of power
  • Still skeptical of authority figures
  • Will test authority repeatedly
  • Often seek authority figures when looking for guidance

View on time at work

  • Punch the clock
  • Get the job done
  • Workaholics
  • Invented the 50-hour work week (if, you know, you completely ignore farmers and everyone who worked in 19thcentury factories, coal mines,railroads...)
  • Visibility is the key
  • Project-oriented
  • Get paid to get job done
  • Gone at 5 p.m.
  • Work is a “chore” or something that fills the time between weekends

Opinion of work/life balance

  • What the hell is work/life balance?
  • Worked too hard so they could buy multiple vacation homes they never have time to use. As a result, imbalance between work and family.
  • Focus on clearer balance between work and family
  • Flex time, job sharing, and sabbaticals

Desired work environment

  • Hierarchal
  • Top-down management
  • Democratic
  • Equal opportunity
  • Functional
  • Efficient
  • Flexible
  • Informal
  • Collaborative
  • Creative
  • Positive
  • Diverse

Think work is...

  • An obligation
  • A long-term career
  • An exciting adventure
  • A difficult challenge
  • “Just a job”
  • Like, really hard

What they bring to the workplace

  • Experienced
  • Consistent
  • Disciplined
  • Dependable
  • Detailoriented
  • Stable
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Good at seeing the big picture
  • Good team players
  • Mission-oriented
  • Go the extra mile
  • Adapt well to change
  • Direct communicators
  • Determined
  • Good task managers
  • Highly educated
  • Multitaskers
  • Consumer mentality
  • Great at collaboration
  • Fast
  • Optimistic

Major problems they have at work

  • Don’t adapt well to change
  • Hierarchical approach can annoy others
  • Typically avoid conflict
  • Everything is either right or wrong
  • Expect everyone to be workaholics
  • Don’t like change (anymore)
  • Can be pretty judgmental
  • Not good with finances
  • Self-centered
  • Their cynicism can get really, really tedious
  • Dislike authority so much they sometimes ignore great ideas
  • Impatient
  • Lack people skills
  • Sometimes reject rules simply for the sake of rejecting them
  • Distaste for menial work (or anything that doesn’t look at least a little bit like a video game)
  • Inexperienced
  • Need a lot of supervision
  • Unreasonable expectations
  • Did I say Gen Xers were impatient? Just wait until you see these guys!

What you need to know to work with them

  • Don’t expect work to be fun
  • Need to know procedures
  • Want a disciplined working environment
  • Consider their feelings
  • They appreciate personal touches
  • Need to know that their ideas matter
  • B ecause their careers define them, acknowledging the value of their work is important
  • Easily annoyed by unproductive routines
  • Need to know why their work matters, how it fits into the big picture, and what impacts it will have and on whom
  • Tend to like team assignments
  • Respond well to attention and recognition
  • Tend not to take criticism well
  • Crave independence and informality in the workplace
  • Appreciate flextime so they can pursue other interests
  • Need to be able to have fun at work
  • Want the latest technology
  • Want to work with bright, creative people
  • Want you to take time to learn about their personal goals
  • Want to work with friends (even when those friends are not bright or creative)
  • Need to know the rationale for the work you’ve asked them to do
  • Want variety
  • Need help navigating work/ life issues
  • Make work personal

Opinion of authority





How to communicate

  • One-on-one
  • Write a memo
  • Present yourself in a formal, logical manner
  • Show respect for their age and experience
  • Use good grammar
  • Use formal language
  • “Call me anytime!”
  • Use a direct style of communicating
  • Pay attention to your body language
  • Answer questions thoroughly and expect them to grill you for more information
  • Include them in decisions
  • Okay to use first names
  • Emphasize the company’s vision and mission
  • “Call me only at work.”
  • Email
  • Use straight talk and present facts
  • Learn their language and speak it
  • Informal communication style
  • Don’t micromanage (like there’s any group of people on the planet who LIKE being micromanaged...)
  • Avoid buzzwords and jargon
  • Connect your message to results
  • “Text me.”
  • “Or send me a picture.”
  • “Does a phone have another function besides texting and picture sharing?”
  • Use positive, motivational language
  • Use action verbs
  • Be funny

Feedback and rewards

  • No news is good news
  • Satisfaction is a job well done
  • Want private recognition without fanfare
  • Like monetary rewards and often display all awards for public view
  • Like praise
  • Like title recognition
  • Want something to put on the wall
  • Want to be rewarded with time off
  • Prefer regular feedback on their work
  • Need constructive feedback to be more effective (duh!)
  • Want structure and coaching
  • Like a handsoff type of supervisory style
  • Need frequent feedback
  • Need clear goals and expectations
  • Need frequent communication
  • Want recognition
  • Like flex-time, work-fromhome, and other creative arrangements

Messages that motivate

  • “Your experience is respected.”
  • “You are valued.”
  • “You are needed.”
  • “Do it your way.”
  • “Forget the rules.”
  • “This place is fun.”
  • “You will work with smart, creative people.”

How to mentor them

  • Investment in long-term commitment
  • Show support for stability, Security, and community
  • Allow the employee to set the “rules of engagement”
  • Ask what has worked for them in the past and fit your approach to that
  • Respect their experience
  • Avoid saying they’ll need to undergo radical change
  • Acknowledge that they have “paid their dues”
  • Teach them work/life balance
  • Show them how you can help them
  • Pre-assess their comfort level with technology before new projects
  • Emphasize that their decision is a good one
  • Follow up, check in
  • Offer a casual work environment
  • Lighten up
  • Be more handsoff
  • Listen and learn
  • Let them know they work with you, not for you
  • Appreciate that they have a life
  • Provide learning and development opportunities
  • Provide opportunities to try new things
  • Be prepared to answer “why” often
  • Present yourself as an information provider, not “The Boss”
  • Encourage them to explore new avenues
  • Acknowledge their self-worth
  • Welcome and nurture them
  • Challenge them
  • Offer a custom plan specific to them
  • Be impressed with their decisions
  • Use their peers as testimonials

Attitude toward training and development

  • Training should contribute to the organization’s goals
  • Training helps the organization but is also a path to promotion and additional compensation
  • Training enhances their versatility in the marketplace
  • Not necessarily loyal to the company that trained them
  • Willing and eager to take risks
  • Everything is a learning opportunity

Attitude toward retirement

  • Put in 30 years, retire, and live off of pension/ savings
  • If I retire, who am I?
  • Haven’t saved enough money so probably need to work at least part time
  • Hope to retire early
  • Might want different experiences and may change careers
  • Expecting to develop a killer app and retire a multimillionaire by the time they’re 32
  • Delusional

This is what you’ve heard. This is what you’ve seen. And it is almost completely useless.

Honestly, what manager has the time or even the ability to put a chart like this into practice? Who can afford to sit at a desk, putting everyone she manages or works with into this chart, analyzing their supposedly rigid attitudes about a couple dozen different elements of work, life, and the balance between them—and then devise solutions tailored to each person’s incomprehensibly specific needs and motivations? And even if you could somehow find the time to do such an exhaustive independent analysis, the larger question remains: With so many glaring and seemingly insurmountable differences between the members of so many different generations, who can even hope to find successful managerial techniques, change management strategies, or anything else when it looks as though everyone 15 years older or younger than we are is essentially a completely different type of person?

In the interest of making it easier to describe people based on their age, we’ve made it enormously more difficult to develop real solutions for a diverse workforce.

It’s time for a better way. It’s time to think about generational differences the way we used to before we needlessly complicated the issue and turned simple issues like how to dress for work into grueling, heated arguments between multiple factions. This book is for anyone who has grown tired of our current method of discussing generational differences. It’s for anyone who has sensed that this problem may not be as difficult as we’ve made it out to be. And it’s for anyone who thinks that we might all be a little more alike than we are different.

So say goodbye to the four-generation model because I won’t be referencing it again. I might occasionally use terms like Baby Boomer and Gen Xer while making various points, but I’ll only be doing so as part of the process of reframing our current four-generation model in the terms of the two-generation model we’ll be discussing from here on out. If you think it arrogant or audacious to try to overturn several decades of established theory about generational differences in the workplace and replace all that with a new model, I understand why you might think so.

But to be perfectly honest, the two-generation model you’re going to be reading about is not new at all. Not by a long shot.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account