Generational Labels: Building Bridges or Burning Them?

In recent weeks, the meme “OK Boomer” has dominated the headlines of many major news outlets. It seems that the phrase, as young people reject the authority and opinions of their elders, represents a growing animosity between generations. I wrote an op-ed for Newsweek about this phenomenon.

You know the stereotypes: “Millennials are entitled.” “Generation Z is lazy.” “Gen X are slackers.” “OK Boomer.”

With both sides slinging insults, some people have asked whether generational labels are nothing more than sources of division and conflict. Some even claim that these labels are outdated and meaningless.

I understand people’s dislike of generational groupings, but I’d like to suggest that generational labels can be powerful tools of communication and connection. In fact, generational labels guide us in a kind of “cultural translation” and give us a shared language and context, and a deeper understanding of one another. Let me explain.

Generational differences are similar to cultural differences

I’ve heard it said that, depending on the era in which you were born, in many ways you perceive the United States as a different country from that of people born in a different era. While of course there are similarities among all Americans, it makes sense to consider that the U.S. of the 1930s, for example, was in many ways a different country from the U.S. of the 1980s, which was a different country from the U.S. of today. 

How is today’s America different from the America of the 1900s?

Here are five examples of how American culture has changed over the past century.

  • 48 percent of Gen Z Americans identify as racial or ethnic minorities today, compared to 18 percent of Baby Boomers at the same age.
  • 65 percent of Traditionalists were married by age 32, compared to 26 percent of Millennials.
  • 9 percent of Traditionalist women had completed at least four years of college by age 36. By the same age, 36 percent of Millennial women have.
  • For the first time in more than 130 years, Americans ages 18 to 34 are more likely to live with their parents than in any other living situation.
  • In 1978, 58 percent of American teenagers had paid summer jobs. By 2016, only 35 percent did.

Generational labels help us empathize with others

Let’s consider some of the statistics above and unpack the “why” behind the facts.

Say you’re a Baby Boomer who thinks that young people who don’t take summer jobs are lazy. Granted, some young people might be lazy (you might have been lazy at sixteen, too), but most aren’t. Have you considered that many older workers are staying in the workforce much longer, thus holding jobs young people used to fill? Have you considered that it’s often more economically beneficial for a young person to boost their college resumé with volunteer hours and specialized summer camps? 

Or maybe you’re a Millennial woman in the workforce. You might feel angry that women in their seventies and eighties are rather conservative when it comes to gender roles. They don’t support your life and career choices the way you think they should. But have you thought about the fact that they did not have many of the opportunities you had? Have you considered that parenting styles have changed, and that they might not have had supportive parents who cheered them on to pursue their dreams?

I’m not shaming anyone for jumping to conclusions about other generations. But it’s important to take a step back and realize that everyone’s perspectives and interpretations are shaped by the times and places in which we grow up. 

By studying generations, we can understand where people are coming from. That’s empathy.

We are more similar than we are different

As I write in my book, The Remix, we are more similar than we are different. We all value similar things like family, security, and fulfilling work. It’s not as though people born in the 1970s say, “I’d really like to create a bad life for myself,” or people born in the 1980s say, “I hope my job is tedious and life-draining.”

I clearly don’t support any generational friction “OK Boomer” is said to represent. But I do support open and honest conversations. My hope is that the attention “OK Boomer” is generating can create space for those healthy dialogues. We shouldn’t discard generational labels. Instead, we should use them to empathize with others and understand the human beings around us.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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