Are generational stereotypes a bunch of baloney?


My law partner and next-door neighbor at the office, Bill McMahon, was venting to me last week about the way HR consultants, lawyers, and others stereotype employees based on the 20-year period during which they were born.

(It's like astrology -- so, everybody in the world who was born between July 22 and August 23 has the same egotistical-overbearing-yet-generous-and-magnetic personality? Yeah, sure.)

Bill is quite a bit younger than I am -- he's on the tail end of Generation X and the beginning of the Millennials. 

Admittedly, those of us who grew up in different eras had different experiences. Bill read an article that said he is a member of the "Oregon Trail Generation." This was a popular computer game that kids who were born in the '80s apparently all played in school. If you can stand the excitement, here's a clip:

According to this article, the Oregon Trail Generation (people born between 1980 and 1983) is unique because its members were born in a relatively low-tech world, but things changed very rapidly during their childhoods.

For the most part, Baby Boomers are the oldest generation that is currently actively employed. But, really -- everybody born between 1946 and 1964 grew up in the same world? Are you kidding? Taking this "Oregon Trail" idea, I'd divide Boomers into sub-generations, based on the "tech" of that era -- the television: 

*The Howdy Doody Generation (the first wave of Boomers, when television was rare, new, and unusual, and black and white, with lots of "snow"*)

     *For you kids, "snow" is electrical interference. Back in the 1950s, all TV looked like the HBO intro, but it wasn't intentional:

*The Flintstones Generation (born after everybody had and grew up with a TV)

*The Scooby-Doo Generation (the late Boomers, born after everybody had and grew up with a color TV)

Generation X'ers are now our up-and-coming leaders as the oldest Boomers begin to retire. I'd subdivide them as follows:

*The Mr. Rogers/Sesame Street Generation (early X'ers, who grew up with these new and revolutionary kids' TV shows)

*The Mary Tyler Moore Show Generation (mid-X'ers, who learned that women could be single, have careers, and be perfectly happy, if a little neurotic)

*The Cable TV/CNN Generation (late X'ers, who never knew what it was like to have your TV get staticky when your mom ran the vacuum cleaner, or to be limited to seven channels on your TV if you lived near a big city -- or two, if you didn't -- and who grew up with the 24-hour news cycle)

That brings us to 1980, and Bill's Oregon Trail "cusp" Generation. From that point, I don't think TV works as our milestone. I'd divide the Millennials as follows:

*The 8-bit Generation (early Millennials, who played games on Atari consoles hooked up to the TV set, and Mario Brothers on original Nintendo Entertainment Systems)

*The Game Boy/Mortal Kombat Generation (mid-Millennials, who played video games on handheld devices and more sophisticated games on consoles that were hooked up to TV sets)


*The "PC" Generation
(not "politically correct," but "personal computers." AOL, chat rooms, dial-up modems)

*The Flip Phone Generation (late Millennials, born before the iPhone and smartphones were invented, but able to call -- or be called by -- their moms from wherever they happened to be -- even at ballgames or while in the car!)

The next generation -- I've heard it identified as "Z" -- would be those born after about the year 2000 and who are just beginning to enter the workforce. Of course, we'll be able to subdivide them by smartphones, social media platforms, and streaming entertainment. 

Hey, I could write a best-selling book about this!

Nah. Consultants like to engage in generational stereotyping because it it's fun and it helps to sell their consulting services. But according to a study by Jennifer J. Deal, a research scientist with the Center for Creative Leadership, there really aren't dramatic differences between the generations. According to Ms. Deal, who compared The Silent Generation (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (1946-64), Generation Xers (1965-1980), and Millennials (1981-2000),

*All generations place a high priority on family.

*All generations want to be treated with respect.

*All generations want leaders they can trust.

*All generations are averse to change. (Even Millennials! *gasp!*)

*People are more loyal the higher they rise in their organizations. Age is not a determining factor. To the extent that older employees are more loyal, it's because they are more likely to hold higher-level positions.

*All generations like to learn new things. (Even Boomers! *gasp!*)

*All generations appreciate constructive feedback.

Not as exciting for a speech or best-seller, but it's nice to know that the generations have more in common than we think.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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