Web Exclusive - July/August 2018

Talkin’ ‘Bout Five Generations

By Brian Summerfield


Baby boomers are the "me" generation, hippies who sold out and became yuppies. Generation Xers are faux-bohemian slackers who simultaneously reject labels and maintain an unhealthy obsession with them. Millennials are entitled, tech-addicted whiners. Gen Z will probably be millennials on steroids. And the silent generation is just old and irrelevant.

Alternately, the baby boomers have spent their lives pushing hard for massive gains in equality and civil rights. Gen Xers are tech innovators and cultural omnivores who continue to radically reinvent Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Despite being hamstrung by economic problems, the progressive millennials are driving major changes in both corporate culture and entrepreneurship. We're still learning about generation Z, but the research suggests that they tend to be independent, goal-oriented and, interestingly, more conservative than the millennials. And the silent generation is incredibly rich in life experience, having grown up during the crucibles of the Great Depression and World War II.

Depending on how you choose to look at the world, any of the generational descriptions above might be "true." But if you were to ask random members of each respective generation if those descriptions—negative and positive—applied to them personally, many of them would probably balk at the characterizations or even outright disagree with them.

That's because these categories, which are all about generalizations and probabilities, aren't great predictors of individual behavior and preferences. Not every boomer is Bob Dylan (who's actually from the silent generation), not every gen Xer is Steve Albini (who is, in fact, a late boomer), and not every millennial is Beyoncé (arguably among the last of the gen Xers). Nor are the generations particularly scientific: Ask people who were born in 1982 or 1998 which generation they belong to, and you're as likely to get a shrug as a response with any kind of certainty.

There is a danger, then, in "constantly trying to put people in these little boxes we think they should be put in based on when they arrived on the Earth," as Allyson Krichman, senior director of product sales at Rymax Marketing Services, put it. "I think when we do that, we put them in this subset that may not show the true employee and person they actually are."

The American workforce now comprises all five of these generations in substantial numbers, spanning an age gap of nearly 60 years. If they're going to work together productively, the people who lead organizations should understand the implications of broad generational trends, while also being mindful of universal traits and common humanity.

The Generation Gap

This wasn't supposed to happen. A decade ago, talk of the coming "war for talent" was all the rage in the HR departments of the largest organizations (and the trade publications that wrote about them). The silent generation and baby boomers were supposedly going to retire en masse, and the less numerous gen Xers and inexperienced millennials would spend the next several years struggling to replace them.

It didn't quite play out that way. Some of the reasons for that were positive: people living longer and healthier lives, for instance, and more workers finding fulfillment in a second, third or even fourth career. Others—such as the Great Recession that started in 2008, along with historically low rates of personal savings and investment before and since—were not. The combination of these and other factors led to more members of the older generations sticking around longer than most experts would have predicted.

So instead of two dominant generations in the workforce today, there are three: boomers, Xers and millennials. The silent and Z generations—now exiting and entering the working world, respectively—are at the margins, but still number in the millions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this situation has created resentments all around and even at times led to a sense of a "power struggle" among the generations instead of a feeling that we're all in this together. And, of course, that tends to bring about negative impressions and stereotypes of the people outside of one's own group.

That's too bad, because even accounting for significant gaps in age, people tend to be more alike than different when it comes to the way they work. That's what Allan Schweyer, chief academic advisor of the Incentive Research Foundation, found when doing research for the "Generations in the Workforce & Marketplace: Preferences in Rewards, Recognition & Incentives" white paper.

"We conducted extensive surveys to find out what was different about people among the generations," he said. "Most of what we found were similarities—what you might call 'human universals'—in terms of what motivates people. These included things like autonomy and having control over what you do at work, the need to learn and get better at things, the need to have purpose and meaning, the need for recognition and appreciation."

With all that in mind, let's clear up some of the common misperceptions people have about generations, and in particular the supposed differences among them.