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Stop Dividing the Generations

October 12, 2001
Related Topics: Generations, Featured Article
Here's what you've heard about generations colliding in the workplace:

  1. Each generation of Americans has its own personality shaped by a set ofcommon experiences.

  2. Individuals carry this generational personality throughout life.

  3. Misunderstandings between managers born predominantly before 1960 and youngerworkers are a serious threat to business survival. This sort of generationaltension is diversity management at its most challenging.

    Books, endorsements and articles attest to the growing acceptance of the ideaof a generational personality.

    But is this analysis accurate? Is generational personality the same as race,gender, nationality, or sexual orientation in that it denotes immutable characteristicsthat we must recognize at work?

    There are gaps of logic in its basic concept. This kind of thinking is arbitrary,can stereotype, and be inconsistent. Let's address all three:

    First, it's arbitrary is it to divide the generations:

    This is a typical outline of the generations in the workforce:


    The theorists cite societal events and trends occurring around these yearsand then assess a generational personality. For example, those old enough tobe aware of World War II may have been imbued with a sense of crisis and challengethat shaped a collective personality throughout their life.

    The problem is, millions of Americans are born every year. Drawing lines toseparate groups defines generations subjectively, depending on where one chartsthe beginning points. The result is often to sever -- for the purpose of socialanalysis -- people from cohorts born just a few years before or after them.

    In 2001, for example, should a 57-year-old worker (a Baby Boomer) be considereda different generation that a 63-year-old Veteran? In what possible sense isit an important issue for diversity managers to address?

    Also, let's address stereotypical thinking:

    To claim the existence of a generational personality somehow encompassing tensof millions of Americans ignores both individual and cultural differences.

    Theorists describe Americans born between 1960-80 as skeptical, as unmotivatedby warm and humane treatment in a recruiting context and as wanting to do things"their way." They are called "slackers." Theorists describeAmericans born between 1943-60 as people who think too highly of themselvesand who are unwilling to grow up.

The literature on the generational personality is replete with descriptionslike these and they have usually gone unchallenged. At some point, however,HR practitioners should be rejecting this type of labeling as at best inaneand more often, harmful.

    Finally, there is the problem of inconsistency:

    Theorists disagree among themselves on the description of generational personalities.I have read that Americans born in the generation prior to the Baby Boomerswon a war and built the United States into the country that it is today.

    Others write that this generation was "apathetic, hypocritical and coastingalong." Who's right? Is it even relevant?

    I have seen inconsistency appear in a different form: theorists describingtwo different generations in very similar terms. The descriptions of GenerationX in 2001 are uncannily like the descriptions of young workers in the late 1960s,as reported in the media of that time. In both eras, writers focused on thealleged skepticism, survivor-orientation and individualism of the young. Thistells us how commentators stereotyped the young, but it tells us nothing abouta generational personality.

    Diversity managers must confront problems deeply rooted in American society-- race relations, gender relations, gay and lesbian concerns, and immigration.In comparison to these, the theory of generational personality is unproven andthe evidence that it exists is anecdotal and subjective. To divert resourcesto addressing the "unique" needs of employees born between two arbitrarilyselected years is at best misguided and at worst a waste of time and energy.

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