GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES ARE A MYTH. ITS TIME WE PUT THIS OBSSESSION AWAY.
Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of generational stereotypes everyday whether in the news, entertainment, social media and even at work conversations. Its Millennials this, Gen Z that, Gen Xers are slackers, Boomers ruined everything, ‘Geriatric’ Millennials etc. But seriously WTF are all these labels about and do they really mean anything?
The generations are identified as follows:
- Silent Generation — born before 1946
- Baby Boomers — born between 1946 and 1964
- Generation X — born between 1965 and 1979/80
- Generation Y (aka Millennials) — born between 1977/80 and 1994/2000
- Generation Z — born between 1995 and 2010/12
- Generation Alpha — born between 2010 and 2025
I was born in 1977 which according to standard definitions, I belong to Gen X. But this is where it gets tricky. According to some sources, I’m a Gen Y/Millennial or a Xennial (the last one make me laugh). Why the confusion? Its because generational boundaries don’t exist.
While there is nothing wrong in identifying with a particular generation but the problem arises when it becomes a source of stereotype which in turn creates a generational feud or a tribalist society. With this mentality, we create division instead of an understanding. And we tend to discount people just because they happened to be born in a year that belongs to a different generation. But the reality is, our differences aren’t rooted by our birth dates. In fact, numerous studies have shown that we are more similar than we think. There could be identical twins with one born at 11:59PM 12/31/79 and the other one born at 12:00MN 01/01/80 and yet according to the so-called accepted generational definitions, they’re from two different generations even though in reality they were born only one minute apart! Did aliens suddenly went to earth and gave birth around 12MN on 1 Jan. 1997 and all babies born from them until 2010? That’s the problem most marketers and demographers never even thought of. Frankly the idea of grouping people according to birth years is nothing more than an artificial construct and humans are too complex to be grouped. While I respect and understand the demographer’s need to study different generations for the purpose of identifying different collective behaviors and trends but the point of dividing people into groups should be to explain something that’s unique about that group. But more often than not, generations put a tremendous, diverse group of people into a broad category that doesn’t explain much. Even demographers admit that their basis for picking a certain year ranges are random without any basis. Pew, Howe & Strauss, Jean Twenge etc. all say the start and cutoff years are arbitrary. After all, generations are based on our collective experiences of events happened during our formative years and not on the year we were born.
I came across an article from The Washington Post about washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/03/01/stop-wasting-your-life-worrying-about-what-generation-youre-in/. According to that article, it turns out that generations are nothing but a social construct with the intention of studying different behavioral trends. Apart from the Baby Boomers which is the only generation recognized by the Census Bureau, everything else are made up and subject to different interpretations. Even the Pew Research Center which is the most reputable demographic research firm admits that “Unlike the Boomers, there are no comparably definitive thresholds by which later generational boundaries are defined”. The Baby Boomer generation was derived from actual statistics of the birth rate surge from the late 40s up to the mid 60s. The markers are there, the generation was based on an actual real data unlike those came before and after them. So that alone is what sets this generation apart. But even being a Baby Boomer doesn’t mean anything at all. Do you really think people born in 1946 think the same with those born in 1964?
Which means that everything we read or hear are purely made up. Generations are nothing more than an imaginary pseudoscience that was made out of convenience. Truth is there is no such thing as generational boundaries. Life experiences are what counts the most rather than the year we were born. Every generation are known to have its own set of values based on their collective life experiences but its important to note that the experiences aren’t unique to one generation only. Take note of the following:
- Boomers aren’t known to be tech-savvy but they led the computer revolution in the 70s and 80s. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple are all Boomers. Whats more, the Boomers also invented the internet which was officially “born” in January 1, 1983. The younger half of Boomers most likely had computer classes either in high school or college. Right now more than half of Boomers (both older and younger) are very active on Facebook, Youtube and even on Tiktok, communicate via IM daily and are purchasing online.
- Even the oldest Gen Xers born in 1965 grew up with technology. They were 5-6 when the ARPANET (the very first email) was launched in 1971, 11-12 when the Apple IIe and Atari home gaming system came out in 1977, 15–16 when the IBM released their very first PC, 18–19 when the Apple Macintosh came out and 19–20 when the Windows 1 and the NES home gaming console came out in 1985. Gen Xers were the ones invented Google, early social media such as Friendster, MySpace, Orkut as well as Youtube.
- Most Millennials played outside as kids and remember the days of VHS, rotary phones, payphones, video rentals, boomboxes and a pre-internet culture.
- There are more Gen Zs living in developing countries than first world countries and they don’t have internet access, smartphones, ipads etc.
Although I agree that the times we grew up in does influence our outlook in life but it only make up a small fraction of our overall upbringing. Apart from the era we grew up in, we are also shaped by unique circumstances in our lives such as culture, family values, religion, country we were from. Even the Boomers themselves aren’t the same. The Boomers who became adults in the 60s and 70s have different life experiences than the Boomers who were in high school in 1980. The 80s and 90s babies from developing countries have very different life experiences compared to their counterparts in developed countries. There are Gen Xers who were sheltered as kids. At the same time, there are Millennials who had latchkey childhoods. So we cannot dismiss someone’s life experiences just because they happened to be born in a different decade.
Millennials are being bashed for everything. Being entitled, lazy, spoiled and killing everything the Boomers have built. But do they really know who they are talking about? What’s funny is that some of those who bash Millennials as it turns out are actually part of that cohort itself without realizing it. See how heterogeneous they are? The reality is youth shaming isn’t new. Its been around since time immemorial. Weren’t Boomers once got called “kids these days” during their youth? Weren’t Gen Xers once stereotyped as cynical, directionless slackers who boomerang back home? The stereotypes have nothing to do with generations and everything to do with people’s life stage. But its also unfair to judge young people simply for their age. How many young people have they met for them to negatively judge these youngsters like that? I‘m a businessman and most of my employees are in their 20s and 30s. I find them to be nowhere near that stereotype. In fact they are among the most hardworking and resilient people I have ever met. While there are certainly Millennials who fit the stereotype but so are the other generations. There are good and bad apples everywhere. In fact many Millennials have already made significant contributions in this world. Mark Zuckerberg (born 1984), Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (born 1985), Prince William (born 1982), Kate Middleton (born 1982), Serena Williams (born 1981), Beyonce (born 1981), Cristiano Ronaldo (born 1985), Roger Federer (born 1981), Rafa Nadal (born 1986), Leo Messi (born 1987), LeBron James (born 1984), Emma Watson (born 1990) are just some of the few. Do these people sound lazy, entitled, spoiled, immatured adult children to you?
Generational labels benefit no one but the media who use the labels just to have something to write about, HR professionals who use it to determine their employee’s behavior & needs and marketers who use generational labels to create a consumer base. Now, I have worked in sales and marketing for almost 20 years and to me, I find that tactic lazy and ridiculous. Its a lazy move that won’t benefit consumers. Do they really think 40 year olds act and think the same way as with 25 year olds? Do they really think they can sell expensive gaming gadgets to a 37 year old dad of 2 kids whose struggling to make ends meet? Do they think they can attract customers in their early 40s using the same ad campaign platform made for 50 somethings? Think about it. If you want to reach out to more customers, its much better to know them as individuals, their purchasing behavior and their preferences rather than going by their birth years. The same logic apply in determining your employee’s needs. Nobody wants to be stereotyped and people regardless of age all want to be respected and acknowledged for who they are as individuals and not for what generation they are in.
So all these generational differences are useless. We won’t get anything good from stereotyping people.