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Why We Shouldn't Exaggerate Generational Differences

Lumping any group of people into a designated bucket is misguided.

Key points

  • Commonly accepted generational differences are largely a myth.
  • Creating and perpetuating such alleged differences can do real damage to people's lives.
  • Focusing on commonalities versus differences will go a long way to creating a more equitable and just society.

We’ve heard them over and over. Pithy nuggets of alleged wisdom describing the collective attributes of a generation and the individual characteristics of their members. They generally go as follows:

  • Silent Generation (born 1927-1946): Having grown up during the Great Depression or World War II, members of the Silent Generation are loyal and dependable, a product of their yearning for stability;
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964): Boomers are entitled and self-centered, a result of the postwar obsession with children and their good fortune of being raised during an economic boom;
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980): Gen Xers are angry and deservedly so, caught in the wake of boomers’ huge numbers and their financial windfall;
  • Millennials (born 1981-1995): As digital natives, Millennials rule the social media roost and avoid deep professional and personal commitments like the plague, preferring to focus on the now and keep their career and relationship options open;
  • Generation Z (born 1997-2012ish): Zers are conservative and risk-averse, a throwback of sorts to the no-drama-please ways of the Silent Generation.

Is there any truth to such generational generalizations? Perhaps, as it can be seen how the seminal events that define a certain period of time may make a lasting impression on an individual, especially during one’s youth. I was a teenager during a countercultural era, for example, and watching the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s unfold (Vietnam, assassinations, energy crisis, airplane hijackings, and Watergate, to name just a few of that era’s greatest hits) convinced me that the world is a chaotic place where pretty much anything can happen anytime. That perspective has served me and many of my fellow boomers well, however, as it laid an experiential foundation by which to place the pandemic in historical context.

Overall, however, the creation and perpetuation of such generational archetypes is not just a silly exercise but a potentially harmful one, especially in the workplace. Lumping any group of people into a designated bucket is misguided, for one thing, especially when tens of millions of unique individuals are involved.

The problem is that defining humans by any single attribute is a dangerous business. Discrimination and hate can result from such seemingly harmless “otherness,” fueling a more competitive and Darwinian society. Making suppositions or conclusions about a group of people based on the year they happened to have been born is something that should be permanently retired, like racism and misogyny.

Rather than continue such a divisive practice, we should instead focus on the much more obvious commonalities that humans share in order to build bridges across generations and all other socially constructed barriers. In a previous post, I proposed that there are 10 traits that we share as a species. Concentrating on these instead of our alleged differences could go a long way toward creating a more equitable and just society.

These traits are, in no particular order:

1. Belonging. We’re all social beings, meaning we rely on meaningful relationships with others.

2. Community. Likewise, we have a longing to be part of something bigger than our individual selves.

3. Creativity. Humans share the drive to use their imaginations to make something that previously didn’t exist.

4. Curiosity. We are inquisitive organisms with a desire to figure out what makes things tick.

5. Family. The desire for kinship, biologically based or otherwise, is hard-wired into our genetic makeup.

6. Love. This strong, chemically induced emotional state is nature’s trick for getting us to perpetuate the species.

7. Memory. Our brains are receptacles of the past, a means of passing on our life stories to the next generation for continuity.

8. Purpose. Each of us is here for a reason, and our mission is to find out what that is and then do it as best we can.

9. Storytelling. Chronicling some aspect of the human condition in some way to someone else is our primary form of communication.

10. Voice. All of us have the need to express ourselves in a unique way to tell the rest of the world who we are.

These 10 human traits transcend all the superficial differences we spend way too much time thinking and talking about. Let’s use them as ways to bring us closer together, even as we acknowledge and respect our wonderful diversity.