Why Do We Study Generations?

How can you take 75 million people and say they have anything in common? In other words, how can you take one “generation,” with each person having individual likes and dislikes, quirks, history and background, and treat them as one big, uniform group?

You know where I’m going with this: I’m talking about millennials. In my work, I identify characteristics about generations that can help groups of people work more effectively and collaboratively. But some people disagree with the very concept of generations.

Is It All Baloney?

Believe me, I hear the criticism of “generational theory.”

I have read Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times article that questioned why the media insists on promoting “gleefully broad generalizations and criticisms of millennials.” And there’s the essay in Aeon magazine called “Against Generations” that defines generational theory as “a simplistic way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society, and history.” These writers, and others, make valid points.

But here’s why I continue to think that there is value in discussing large cohorts of workers. Recently I was preparing to give a presentation and was greeted by an investment banker who said, “I’m looking forward to your speech, but I think this whole concept of generations is baloney.” This didn’t bother me because I have heard that criticism before, and I’m always eager to follow up with the naysayers after I talk. After my presentation, his reaction shifted like many I’ve heard before: “I still think it’s baloney, but it’s remarkably accurate baloney.” Indeed.

Did We Grow Up Watching the Same TV Shows?

All Americans are not the same. But, certainly we can say there are similarities among people who live in the United States. And among women. And among those of us raised in Connecticut. We are not all the same, but we tend to share some common experiences that are valuable to note. And those common experiences can offer clues to how we might prefer to communicate, what challenges or opportunities we might face in the workplace, and much more.

Plus, generational commonalities can provide an opportunity for bonding. After all, don’t many of us enjoy those listicles and memes like “29 Things That ID You as Gen X”? When we read these lists, we usually laugh. Not because we still think about Pony Boy, but because we remember the reference as a cultural touchpoint that binds us together.

Why Generational Theory Matters

While the time period when someone was born is not the be all and end all that defines our personalities and life choices (gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, birth order, country of origin and many other factors all play a role), I do believe it is instructive to look at the impact of the times in which various groups of people have grown up. When I describe the different generations, I tend to look at the technology they grew up with, the geopolitics and economic ups and downs they witnessed, the parenting norms and educational philosophies that dominated during their childhoods, and the media and advertising messages they saw and heard. All of this impacts our expectations of the workplace we enter as adults.  

[bctt tweet=”Birth year isn’t the only thing that defines you, but elements of a generation bind us together.” username=”lindseypollak”]

Categorizing someone based on their generation can be one more clue that provides a road map to help you communicate, interact and engage productively in the workplace.

What do you think about generational theory? Have you found value in looking for common traits among age groups? Share your opinion the comments below!
Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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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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