We Need to Stop Our Obsession with Generational Differences

Back Commentary Mar 6, 2017 By Jessica Kriegel

By all accounts, Amanda Blackwood is a successful millennial in the corporate world. At age 33, the Sacramento resident is vice president of operations at Kings Casino Management Corporation and a partner in OE Consulting Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting firm. She was previously the chief financial officer for a multi-million dollar real estate development company and has 13 years of experience in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Yet, she still hears the words “your lack of experience” every couple of months in professional settings.

How can someone so accomplished be perceived as unseasoned? The answer lies in society’s obsession with generational differences.

The first study of generational differences was published in Holiday magazine back in the 1950s and featured an in-depth look at 23 individuals turning 21 in 1953. (We now call them the silent generation.) The authors looked for commonalities but found hardly any. Lacking any clear definition for the generation, one of the story’s photographers, Robert Capa, called them “The generation X.” And so the first generational label was born — implying the label itself was unnecessary.

Related: Gen Z at Work

The term “Gen  X” was then commandeered in 1965 by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett to describe a completely different group. Their book, Generation X, described 1960s-era teenagers who are now known as baby boomers. Shortly thereafter, rock star Billy Idol (ironically, a baby boomer) popularized the term Generation X by using the name for his band. Finally, in 1991, Douglas Coupland wrote Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and referred to them as those reaching adulthood in the late 1980s (that definition stuck). For those keeping track at home, the label generation X has been used throughout the 20th century to label three different generations and a rock band, despite being originally coined to honor the diversity found within one generation.

These days, generation X is known as the “middle child” generation: squeezed between the well-defined personalities of the hard-working baby boomer and the entitled millennial. Gen X has almost become an afterthought, given our culture’s obsession with the ever-growing millennial population. But this is a blessing of which the millennials can only dream.

What defines one’s personality is a deeply complex cross-section of experiences, family, genetics and not the 20-year long — generally accepted, but largely arbitrary — age bracket one happens to fall within.

As a millennial who has studied generational issues for five years and written a book on the subject, I can only dream of being disassociated with the millennial persona. No longer the “it” generation, millennials are now seen as the entitled generation: addicted to their phones, unable to connect interpersonally, holding unrealistic expectations of their employers, fickle by nature, spoiled by hyper-sensitive parents who gave them participation trophies in Little League and told them they would rule the world one day.

Related: Buzzwords: Millennial

In reality, many millennials are lazy, while many others are not. Still others, myself included, are sometimes lazy and sometimes not lazy, or they are lazy about certain things and not lazy about other things. This same nuance can be said for any stereotype applied to any generation. Baby boomers are not all tech-averse. Not everyone in generation Z is afflicted with ADHD. What defines one’s personality is a deeply complex cross-section of experiences, family, genetics and not the 20-year long — generally accepted, but largely arbitrary — age bracket one happens to fall within.

Yet, we eagerly embrace the stereotypes. A recent opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee read like the battle of generations when millennial author Tre Borden took on baby boomer and Greater Sacramento Economic Council CEO Barry Broome. Broome expressed his disappointment with millennials, while Borden claimed these young professionals could “breathe new energy” into organizations needing a fresh perspective. From my vantage point, both fell into the trap of categorizing a massive group of people based on a few anecdotal experiences. In my years of human resources experience at a Fortune 100 company, I have observed the presence of disappointing underperformers and those delivering fresh perspectives across all generations.

We tend to subconsciously default to what social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner called in-group, out-group dynamics — a process by which we classify people as “us” or “them.” In order to build our own self-esteem, members of the in-group must see themselves as better than the out-group. I have run countless workshops and training sessions on generational differences in the workplace, and the one thing I am certain of is that people tend to believe their own generation is the best generation.

Related: What Motivates Millennial Voters?

This theory is more than mere social science conjecture. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh revealed an underlying biological mechanism that drives us to identify with certain groups based on social, racial and generational cues. In other words, we are genetically inclined to favor members of our in-group. Our society seems to have determined that each generation is different, our brains have eagerly agreed and the media continues to perpetuate the myth.

Even the stereotypes are a bit classist and racist: The entitled millennial persona is based entirely on a middle-income, suburban, white American. One must have been privileged enough to afford Little League in order to get that participation trophy, and one has to have access to technology in order to be addicted to it. Even when access is equal there still remains a difference in how rich vs. poor students use technology within the same generation, according to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

So what can Amanda do to overcome the stereotyping she experiences in the workplace and to get the credit and respect she deserves? In truth, not much. The best thing she can do is stop the cycle of categorization and judgment for the next generation. Members of generation Z (currently 17 years of age and younger) are already victims of their own unfair labels, described as entitled, tech-crazed millennials on steroids. Rather than fight the millennial stereotype, which is already deeply implanted in the zeitgeist, she can start to knock down generation Z stereotypes (Editor’s note: See our generation Z stereotypes on page 36).

In my opinion, ending generational categorization and judgment begins with awareness. Next time you hear generational stereotypes among your friends or in your workplace, speak up! By breaking down these stereotypes we can overcome the discrimination that generational labels facilitates.


Craig (not verified)March 8, 2017 - 1:22am

Totally agree and it's only when we dispel the stereotypes and see them for what they are, that we open the door to a deeper and truer understanding.
For more on Generational Stereotypes: The Truth Behind the Headlines, checkout my LinkedIn post at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse...

Devin (not verified)March 16, 2017 - 11:34am

Thanks for the podcast ... it would be really helpful if the sound were more balanced, since I'm usually not listening in a quiet setting. Thanks!

Recommended For You

New Spenders

As millenials climb into their highest spending years, financial institutions must go digital to catch their coveted dollars

Ann Thompson, a regional sales executive for Bank of America, knows that the surest route into the hearts and minds of millennials is through their hands — not hand-holding, but talking to them through technology. “They want to be self-served and want things convenient,” Thompson says. “So, we have to reach them through that thing they hold in their hands, a smartphone.”

Mar 29, 2016 Bill Sessa
Sean O’Brien, financial adviser, and chair, Metro Edge at Northstar at Tahoe

The Millennial 1%

Affluent YPs are a new breed of consumer

When he’s not jet-setting to Tahiti or hobnobbing with his best friend Tom Cruise*, Sean O’Brien is just a regular guy. He’s 29, single, never pays full price when shopping online and likes to snowboard with friends in Tahoe. 

Jan 1, 2013 Mike Graff

Red State Homes Are Luring Young Blue Buyers Inland

Dayton, Ohio, gave the world the Wright Brothers and the electric cash register. As recently as 1990, manufacturing jobs there were the backbone of the local economy. But in the two decades since, the area has lost thousands of blue-collar jobs, and the local housing market still wears the scars of the foreclosure crisis.

Dec 8, 2016 Patrick Clark