Generation has become a polarizing word. But generations matter.

I know this because it’s what I do.

I work with clients across industries to help them see their generational diversity as an asset, not a liability. Often that work starts with addressing a core issue:

Are generations real?

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t lament on it again at length now, but the short answer is that used effectively, they are a lens for understanding differences.

Used incorrectly, they are ill-fitting cliches. But the answer to this is not to stop using them, it’s to use them the way they were intended. It’s to become smarter about what they help us understand and what they don’t.

Generations are what we call a “social construction”. It’s a category we created to help us capture and understand why people significantly older or younger than us seemed to be different in some important ways.

But like any framework in organizational or social psychology, there are ways it can be misused. As soon as you take it too far and insist “all people” in a generation are this way or that way, you’ve missed the point.

When it comes to human behavior, our field is full of past unsuccessful theories and frameworks that tried to insist that people always act or behave in a particular way.

The one thing you can be certain of when it comes to human behavior is that it depends on many things, never just one. 

That brings us back to the idea of a generation.

It is one layer of identity, not a magical decoder ring (I put this in bold so you don’t miss it, also because I found a way to use the phrase “magical decoder ring”).

People turn away from the lens of generations because too often it is reduced to lazy stereotypes that don’t fit.

We wouldn’t say “all women” are a particular way because of their gender identity.

Nor would we reasonably infer that all Catholics or all democrats have had identical life experiences or share universally similar attitudes or behaviors.

When generations are used this way, trying to magically put people into boxes based on birth years and then purporting to know everything about them as a result, we should turn away. 

In my work, I meet this issue head-on.

I’ll never pretend everyone in a generation is a particular way. But I will also insist we not ignore that the time in history in which we grew up has an important influence on us.

Everyone learns the tools they need to be successful in the time they enter the world and learn how to survive within it.

I often get questions about whether this isn’t just a matter of life-stage differences. When we bemoan Gen Z’s different behavior, isn’t that always the case with 18-25-year-olds?

Life stage is another important layer of your identity. However, it ignores that my 17-year-old son faces an entirely different world to navigate as he begins his adult life than I did (or you did) at 17.

  • That leaves the challenge of how we acknowledge the validity of a generational identity while not falling into cliched stereotypes and tired tropes like these: slacker Gen Xers
  • entitled Millennials,
  • Gen Z snowflakes (not to mention OK Boomer).

The Gentelligent answer to this has two parts. Exploring the importance of layers of identity and acknowledging the existence of generational norms. 

Part I: Layers of Identity

I’ve written about this before, but let’s say it louder for those in the back: Who you are and your experience in the world are the product of so many layers of your identity.

Not to get too into the weeds of the research here, but this is why our field of organizational psychology considers the following. 

A correlation between one construct (such as a personality trait or an attitude), and behavior to be “moderate” or “moderately strong” when it reaches a level of .3 or so (correlations can range from -1.00 to + 1.00).

Finding a significant relationship between a construct and a resulting behavior is challenging because of all the different dynamics that go into our behavior.

A blog post I did last fall on the intersection of age and generation blew up on LinkedIn, hitting a nerve with those that we call “cuspers”–at the end or beginning of a generation.

I’ve talked at women’s conferences about the intersection of gender and generation. Think about what it meant to be a woman and a Baby Boomer. Now compare it to the experience many Gen Z women are having as they begin their careers now.

As a result of changes in our legal, cultural, social, and workplace environments, norms have shifted. Learning those norms as you begin your professional career is a formative experience that impacts the norms you will be more likely to understand throughout the rest of your life. 

Part II: Generational Norms

I’ve now done hundreds of talks across the world and across industries on reframing how we view age and generational differences in the workplace. In every one, I’ve pushed back against the use of assumptions and stereotypes. However, I am a fan of generational narratives and norms. What’s the difference, you ask?

It is ridiculous to assume we can understand everyone born within a 15-20 year timeframe based on their generation. Generations are social constructions, created to capture shifts in the world that we see impacting those growing up in it at that time.

It is far from exacting. It’s a lens to help clarify understanding. And that’s it, just a lens that gets misused quite a bit. 

When we instead use a generational narrative, we can tell the story of a generation. How? By using the formative events we know occurred, and how they created changes and trends in particular ways of parenting, communicating, and working compared to times past.

We can use those narratives to identify generational norms while not claiming they were true for all people in a  generation.

Instead, we are saying the frequency of occurrence went up or down for this sample of the population.

For example, Gen Xers were more likely to grow up in dual-career or single-parent households. Compared to Baby Boomers or the Silent Generation, it’s because of women’s rights. That’s a norm shift.

That impacted how many (but not all) Gen Xers were raised. It impacted how they viewed their career possibilities and their priorities. That’s interesting.

That’s why generations matter.