The Generation Illusion

Black and white image of a man walking on a street with wavy lines

When Bob Dylan plugged his electric guitar into an amplifier at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he changed folk music forever. The media, past and present, tells us that Dylan and other similar pioneers (stretching from the jazzy 1920s through Elvis and hip-hop culture) were powered by a set of personal values specific to their generation. Far more likely, however, is that their spark came from a combination of youthful bravado and access to new technology.

Strange as it may seem, this is a crucial idea for corporate decision-makers to keep in mind as they grapple with the challenges of balancing a generationally diverse workforce and improving team performance.

The theory of generations was first formally articulated by Karl Mannheim in 1923. He proposed that the collective social consciousness of a broad segment of society is influenced by the major historical events of their era. If these collective experiences are significant enough, so the theory goes, the entire generation can develop an original and distinctive consciousness that defines how they think and how they act. In 2000, William Strauss and Neil Howe released the bestseller Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, which built on their 1991 hit Generations. Both texts evolved Mannheim’s thinking through a mix of “history and prophecy,” cementing the notion of generational identity in popular culture.

But generation theory has been repeatedly criticized academically for a lack of rigour, not to mention compelling empirical evidence. In other words, business decision makers should not see it as a solid framework from which to approach organizational human resource challenges.

“The tendency to transpose technological features into generational values is one of the most obvious flaws of generation theory.”

Why is this a major issue? Simple. In today’s business landscape, the majority of markets are characterized by high levels of price and product parity. In this tightly contested context, the quality of the consumer experience as a whole either builds or undermines customer engagement and, ultimately, loyalty. This is as true in the world of professional services as it is in the supermarket or in the realm of online shopping.

Ultimately, then, competitive advantage is defined by who a company is, rather than what a company sells and how it sells. Talent is paramount. The ability to attract, retain, nurture, and motivate talented employees (of all ages) is a critical success factor for any company, in any industry.

And when facing this challenge, it’s all too easy to follow the path of generational stereotypes—not least because the idea is such popular fodder in the media. We are constantly reminded how generation theory best explains interpersonal office dynamics (both in scientific terms and in simplistic popular science language). However, despite the enticing nature of some of these theories, there are better explanations and more focused lenses through which to view the complexity of team performance.

Think of Elvis Presley, an icon of the Baby Boomer generation. To the elders of his time, Elvis embodied a set of moral characteristics that were strikingly similar to those attributed to today’s Millennials. He had a novel approach to sexuality and an inherent rebellion against authority and traditional notions of personal responsibility. Similarly, Generation Xers were viewed as innately scruffy delinquents in their youth, with a low prospect of ever holding down a real job. Fast forward to 2017. Generation Xers are suddenly seen as reliable adults who get stuff done, whereas Baby Boomers—those same kids who were cheering on Elvis’s stage gyrations—are now seen as a source of stability and leadership.

Clearly, there’s a case to be made that the pivotal element in these generational cohorts is not so much their inherent, generationally defined moral character, but age. Throughout history, young adults have been viewed by their elders as strange and, quite possibly, genetically unable to work a full day. When the Millennial generation reaches its seventies, its members will surely look down the age ladder with the same bemusement as their elders look at them now.

Now consider Bob Dylan’s status as spokesperson for his generation, which had as much to do with the electric guitar he brandished as with his personal or political ideology. Generation theory, however, bluntly blurs ideology, lifestyle, and technology. Born into the digital era, Millennials are thus given personality characteristics and values that actually belong to the technologies of their age.

Millennials are all about collaboration, right? As The Economist pointed out in 2015, the data behind this conclusion doesn’t fit nearly as neatly as one might think. It noted:

CEB, a consulting firm, polls 90,000 American employees each quarter. It finds that the millennials among them are in fact the most competitive: 59% of them, in the latest poll, said competition is “what gets them up in the morning,” compared with 50% of baby-boomers. Some 58% of millennials said they compare their performance with their peers’, as against 48% for other generations. . . . Fully 37% of millennials say they don’t trust their peers’ input at work; for other generations the average was 26%. This is a generation of individualists, not collaborators.

The same article goes on to offer a key insight from researchers, citing work from Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership, an executive-training outfit, and Alec Levenson of the University of Southern California. The pair studied 25,000 people in 22 countries and concluded that generalizations about Millennials in the role of employees are inconsistent for the most part, and sometimes even destructive.

This tendency to transpose technological features into generational values is one of the most obvious flaws of generation theory. Given how divisive technology can be, however, the inaccuracy is not surprising. When some workers adapt seamlessly to new tools while others struggle to master the basics, we easily perceive this phenomenon as a fundamental gulf of ethos, ethics, and spirit—rather than simply as a more prosaic skills gap.

Generation theories can also be a trap for corporate leaders because they offer an easy explanation for an employee’s behaviour differing from one’s own. When based too heavily on generational stereotypes, such assessments create a dangerously simplistic view of office behaviour that fails to recognize the central role of personality type.

Rather than giving credence to generational generalizations, effective leaders focus on growing a strong relationship culture within their organization. Indeed, by recognizing the need to understand and work with differing personalities, they can drive consistent improvements in team performance.

They can do this by treating employees as individuals who operate within a complex group context. This approach recognizes that effective relationships are rooted in genuine human connection. Understanding and exploring individual personalities helps to grow and nurture that human connection, as opposed to ascribing generic characteristics to people based on their date of birth.

Working with the nuances of age and technology is a vital part of this process. Executives themselves, for example, benefit greatly when offered the opportunity to think back to when they were in their twenties and compare their values (in terms of job commitment, career progression, and interpersonal relationships) to those of their younger colleagues. When they do this, they often find surprising similarities between themselves and the supposedly alien generational other.

That said, it’s unwise to leave this process to occur organically, or informally. Day-to-day office pressures make it unlikely for workers to naturally come to a sophisticated awareness of the myths and pitfalls of generation theory. It is far more likely that consistent, easy-to-digest media coverage will reinforce existing generational stereotypes and encourage staff at all levels to use this frame to explain behaviour in themselves and others.

A more effective approach is to drive ongoing relationship skill development within the office through formal programs. Interpersonal skill development programs are very effective in helping diverse teams understand each other, appreciate the collective strength their diversity offers, and put this strength to work.

Such programs are most successful when they are carefully structured and threaded into the operational ethos of the organization, rather than delivered via a rudimentary workshop approach. Key aspects include helping staff create a productive and respectful working environment while learning how to listen to and assimilate diverse viewpoints, and eventually using these abilities to collaborate to build consensus. When actively identified and developed, these skills deliver significant bottom-line returns through improved and more cohesive team performance.

In 2016, writer Patrick Hogan compiled a clever list for the online magazine Fusion (now Splinter) of 47 things Millennials have been accused of killing off. Each item links to a media source that leverages generation theory to show how Millennials have destroyed essential parts of life as we know it, including relationships, credit, e-mail, the European Union, the suit, cereal, annual performance reviews, sex, wine, the American dream, and much, much more.

Hogan’s pop-culture counter-punch highlights the significant flaw lurking at the heart of generational thinking. It ridicules the concept that shared birth dates and historical experiences can define—and predict—personal values and behaviour among large groups of people.

Understanding what drives individual employees is crucial for any leader hoping to inspire staff to reach greater performance heights. Generation theory is often used for this task, because it seemingly focuses on meaningful human connections, or lack thereof. Ultimately, however, we need to consider the science. Although individuals and generations may have a myriad of differences, most people—regardless of age—are similar in their search for meaning and value. Most of us enjoy establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships, and we seek meaning and value through our work. When understood and properly harnessed, this fundamental human desire has the power to unite any organization to produce impressive results.