What’s the Problem with Inter-Generational Working Theory?
(#1 in the series. You can find #2 HERE)
It’s that it’s a theory, NOT the real world. So talking about inter-generational working theory can be dangerous. It’s a simplification of the human condition which in itself is unique, messy and still being learned about.
🟥 What is a theory?
By definition, a theory is something that’s not yet proven – like string theory in physics or the theory of life on Mars.
It’s a supposition, with general principles, and it can often be followed by real-world research, experimentation and proof of evidence.
So when we talk about inter-generational positioning it comes from the theories of William Strauss and Neil Howe, who were the first – as authors, historians and pop psychologists - to come up with generational theory.
Broadly, their theory argues that people who grow up under similar circumstances often share the same characteristics relating to attitudes and behaviours such as work ethic, respect for authority, spending habits, technology adoption, mindset, hopes, fears, values, and so on.
So far so good: except that their theory was born from a shared interest in the Vietnam War and in US history - and their books covered generational cycles in America.
So their thinking is already positioned for the American market, culture and history.
The Inter-Generational Working Theory Today
OK. So let’s fast-forward to today. Whilst few countries in the world agree 100% on the labels first established by Strauss and Howe, we do know that talking about different generations is a framework in order to think about:
❇️ who is in our workplace today?
❇️ what factors have influenced their working style and practices?
❇️ how different groups and ages of people are impacted by world events and the evolution of work. (For example, Covid has got so many of us used to WFH and virtual events/meetings, and AI is here to stay).
I’ve been working with a range of multiple generations all my life.
And if you have parents, grandparents, children, or any older or younger relatives and friends, then so have you.
But I’ve been studying different generations in the workplace since 2015.
And whilst I think reading about generational theory is interesting, I follow more closely the pragmatic positioning of the Office of National Statistics in the UK (ONS) and the Pew Institute (the equivalent in the USA), since their research is based on hard facts.
For example 58% of people born in 1920 in the UK survived to the age of 70 in 2016, but 78% born in 1946 survived to the age 70 in the same year.
This difference in survival rates is due to the fact that children born in 1946 did not have to go through the dangers and deprivations of WWII.
It’s also proof, that medicine, nutrition, health and wellbeing, have all improved with ever decade since the 1920s. That’s not theory; that’s fact.
And that’s the truth of generational theory.
Whatever age you are, and however old or young someone is in your workplace today, everyone is a product of the time they were born in and what was going on around them as they grew up.
All of that has had an impact on their health, wealth, wellbeing and working practices.
What that means is that - however we label you as a human - when you were born matters.
How you grew up matters.
What issues were impacting your education, work opportunities and career, also really matter.
Generations ARE different from each other, for those reasons alone.
🟥 So What’s Important About Inter-Generational Working Theory?
By all means read Strauss and Howe’s first book “Generations” (1991) or their second “The Fourth Turning” (1997) or even Brunswick’s research on Millennials, published in their 2017 “The Generations Issue 2017” https://www.brunswickgroup.com/brunswick-review-issue-11-i2852/.
But we all know that what really matters is who you have working in your company, today, whatever their age and background.
What you really want to know is:
🩸 How are working styles, productivity and performance changing in my company?
🩸 What will my leaders of tomorrow be like?
🩸 How will I make sure that all my employees are happy and thriving, whatever their age
🩸 How will I protect and grow my revenues and profits with my current and future workforce?If you’re leading or running a business, you’re a pragmatist. But so am I, so we’re good together.
So let’s start with the basics.
Here are the labels and time periods that are broadly agreed by both the ONS and the Pew Institute.
Silent Generation (also known as Traditionalists, Maturists and Veterans)
1925 to 1945
Baby Boomers (everyone calls them that, due to the spurt in birth rate globally after WWII)
1946 to 1964
Generation x (named after Douglas Coupland wrote a book by the same name in 1991)
1965 to 1980
Millennials (named by Strauss & Howe) but also known as Gen Y – a team coined by the Ad Agency in the US in 1993)
1981 to 1996 – called Millennials because the oldest would leave full time education and be in work around the Millennium
Generation Z (following the X and Y labels and coined by the readers of USA Today in 2012 through an online reader competition 2012) but also called the iGeneration (after iPads and iPhones) and Generation K (after Katniss Everdeen from the Dystopian Film Trilogy The Hunger Games
1997 to 2009
Generation Alpha (following on from X, Y and Z labels) coined by Mark McCrindle an Australian generational consultant in 2005. They are too young to work but are already starting to think about earning money online.
2010 to 2025
Since we’re dealing with the basics here, let’s just answer some of the questions and concerns that organisations have about generational labels.
🩸 Question 1: As you age, do you change your generational label and move into another generation?
No you don’t. If you accept generational theory at all, then, once you’re given a generational label, then you stay in that generation. Millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1996, are simply getting older every year. As is every other labelled generation.
🩸 Question 2: Are there are some people who are stereotypical examples of a particular generation?
It’s not that simple.
A generational label is based on the bell-curve of statistics.
Statistically, most people who are born between 1925 and 1945 tend to accept the rule of law and the power of authority. That’s because of how they were brought up and educated.
They tend to have a more silent, “stiff upper lip” response to life challenges, and don’t make much noise in public.
They keep their heads down. But that doesn’t mean every Silent is like that.
Famous Silents include Queen Elizabeth II. She’s very much a Silent. But others, such as the US entertainers, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, were loud, proud and extrovert.
And that’s the biggest problem with labelling
As soon as we give a generation a label, we can all find someone who bucks the trend.
I mean, we all know someone who is 75 or older, and who still acts like Tinkerbell or Peter Pan, forever young and forever child-like!
🩸 Question 3: Does it make sense to give everyone in the workplace a specific, generational label?
No. It doesn’t.
That’s like labelling someone as male or female, when actually things might be more gender fluid for them.
Generational labels are only useful in a discussion around what might have had an impact on a particular cohort of workers, such as younger talent being more interested in new tech and digital disruption than most older generations.
I usually say to participants on my trainings, or attendees at my keynotes “We’re going to label the hell out of things in this room, but outside this room, we’re just going to use what we learn here today, without the labels”.
In other words, what’s important here is to know that the labels - and the theory - are only there to be used as a very loose framework for understanding that people of different ages who have been brought up under very different circumstances, are very likely to behave differently and want different things from each other, in today’s workplace.
The simple answer to all generations in the workplace is as easy as:
🔤 A B C...
A: Ask what people in your organisation, want/need, like/dislike, understand/struggle with
B: Be open to debate and be curious and interested about what’s working in your company today. Have you got a multi-generational, highly-productive, happy workforce? Brilliant. Stop reading now. You don’t need anything else from me. Have you got a multi-generational, unproductive, patchy workforce, with a mixture of low engagement and high staff attrition? Well, then, this series of articles is for you.
C: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep talking and listening. Keep finding out what is going on and how your employees think and feel about themselves, each other, and the organisation itself.
If you want to know about the similarities between the generations in today’s organisations, read Why does a wide variety of ages enrich your workforce?