Generation Alphabet Soup

Posted: April 1, 2008 in Powerful Ideas

These days we’re hearing a lot about generational differences in the workplace. Companies are receiving training in these generational differences so that they can better manage workplace conflicts. Thus, we learn that Boomers are the original “Me” generation, whereas Gen X’ers, who came of age during the 70s and 80s period of high unemployment, are more accommodating. Now we’re into Gen Y and, apparently, Gen Z. What is going to happen in 10 years when a new generation comes into the labour market? Do we revert to the letter A? Or will it be Z-prime?

There may be some truth to the claims of generational differences, but there are also a lot of problems with them. The same goes for generalized claims of precision in demographic explanations and projections.

  1. No one seems to agree on the dating convention. The Baby Boom did start after the Second World War, but I’ve read dates for its end that range from 1962 to 1967. For Gen X, I’ve read claims that it includes people born between 1961 and 1980, as well as 1971 to 1984. I was born in 1962, so I’m either a late Boomer or an early Gen X’er. Gen Y is even more confusing. (Also called Millenials. Or is that Gen Z?) If these differences are based on demographics, then it should be fairly easy to identify the end of the Baby Boom. That may be the case, but it still doesn’t tell me why this should be important.
  2. Lack of explanatory power. Take the case of the Baby Boom. No one really knows what caused it. Moreover, it really only happened in North America, and it was more intense in Canada than in the US, and then tailed off faster north of the border. I’ve yet to read a satisfactory explanation for this. Reproductive trends, migration patterns, and mortality are all highly complex. Demographics only describes the results of their interactions, but can’t tell us much about why things turn out the way they do. I’ve also read that the Baby Boom caused the social unrest in North America in the late sixties. If that is the case, then why was there a wave of social unrest in Europe at exactly the same time, even though they never had a baby boom?
  3. Unframed projections. Claims about what the labour market or the population will look like in 10 years, much less 30 to 40, must be taken with a grain of salt. Individuals, government and society will adjust as things happen, and no one can predict the outcome. The Conference Board of Canada has predicted a labour shortage in Quebec of 363,000 workers in 2030. Let’s not panic, these are just projections based on assumptions about many parameters and factors. Who knows? They could be off by an order of magnitude either way. No doubt there are endnotes in these reports that give the limits of these projections, but no one reports on those. We only hear about the big scary numbers.
  4. Imputed characteristics. This is my favourite bugbear. Here are some of the generational characteristics we can read about in business magazines and the business section of the local paper. Boomers supposedly favour consensus and are idealistic because they came of age in the flowery 1960s. Gen X’ers are more accommodating and have a gritty realism because they came of age in the “realistic” 70s and early 80s. Gen Y’ers like to use their creativity and want to be appreciated. No one knows why, but it must be because of the Internet and the 500-channel universe. Let’s not forget the Traditionalists who favour, you guessed it, tradition and conformity. Actually, “traditionalist” is code for “old person.”

These are just some of the logical difficulties with the whole demographics and generational alphabet soup approach. In my opinion, though, a lot of the generational characteristics can simply be attributed to the general age group. Retired people worry about their health and their pensions. People in their fifties also have those concerns, but they are also looking to contribute in qualitative ways and to leave a professional and personal legacy. Workers in their forties worry about job and financial security. They find they pay too many taxes and that they pay for everyone else (primarily because they are entering their high earning years). In their thirties, it’s about getting ahead and professional qualifications. Consequently, people in their thirties are highly competitive in the workplace. They work 60 and 70 hours a week at their jobs and also to get a MBA on a part-time basis. Finally, the twenty-somethings are the idealists. They want to be recognized for their smarts and their energy, but they seldom realize that their intellect is barely tempered by experience.

Of course, my characterizations may be completely off base. However, I suspect that they have just as much validity as those being propounded and hawked by generational consultants and demographic scaremongers.

As the Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun. Plato thought that men shouldn’t marry or hold public office at least until the age of 30. Why? Because they have a lot of energy but lack judgment and a measured approach to things. Has anything really changed?

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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