Mythology 101 – Generational Stereotyping

Looking over the shoulder of the newest next generation

People are different. We come into the world as unique human beings and then are guided by the conformists of the day to conform to their beliefs. Even when we reach the maturity level that allows independent thinking, our thought processes are still somewhat biased in favor of the seeds that were planted in our youth. Fortunately, we do have choices: We can consciously open our minds to objective analysis of facts, we can set out on a path to justify whatever bias we choose, or we can just decide to not think at all and follow others. There is no right or wrong choice, but it is hard to think objectively with all of the frustrating rhetoric adding static to effective communication.

In my 3rd grade class, before my age had more than a single digit, my teacher’s favorite way to get classroom participation was to divide the class into the girls vs. boys in competitive activities. Who sings the loudest and best? For the losers it wasn’t a fun activity, but surprisingly each side never realized fully that both groups won about the same number of times. Thus begins a life-long path toward adversarial relationships. My high school football team is better than yours. My college degree is better than yours. My company’s products are better than yours. My country is better than yours and I will fight you to prove it. My religion is better than yours and I don’t have to respect your beliefs. My generation is better than yours and all other generations. Basically, I am better than you in just about everything.

The one topic that generates almost daily discussion in a diverse workplace, and yes even heated exchanges of words, is that of generational differences between people. The helicopter view of the battlefield generally reveals that most combatants don’t even use the same definition of generation while lobbing word grenades at their opponents. The term Boomer and Old are interchangeable in everyday language. The common viewpoint regarding so-called generational differences equates generation to age. Attaching a prejudicial attribute to someone according to a perceived generation is not just illogical it is simply age bias. Discrimination justification has always been the easy way to satisfy one’s own status or situation by claiming superiority over someone else or as blind retribution for perceived wrongs. Once we agree that the discussion is really about a generational cohort of people and not an age cohort, we can begin to understand that in fact there really is a difference. Then we can begin to make progress toward not only understanding, but also promoting effective communication. It also helps to see that generational stereotypes are no different from generalizations about any other groupings such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality or sexual orientation.

The first myth is that there is a generation gap. How can there be a gap between overlapping events? A family generation is approximately 30 years in length, but there is not a solid brick wall between them. The differences within a generational group can be greater than the differences between generational groups. A Boomer and Gen X’er born a year apart will have more characteristics in common than with people at the other end of their own generation spectrum. When you read one of the popular charts that define a Boomer as someone born after 1946, recognize the fact that war babies born after 1943 also fall into this group according to some analysts. Fuzzy boundaries don’t help in solving the problem and most often people will adopt the era that they feel best fits them. Tell someone they are a Scorpio it is easy to relate to the stereotype that they are fiercely independent, able to accomplish anything they put their mind to and never give up. Give someone a Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator test and the ENTJ can become a self fulfilling prophesy.

It is a myth that generational cohorts of people are indelibly branded by their generation like cattle. Everyone is influenced by the environment and events of their time, but rational thought processes can put events into perspective. Many of my generation have shared stories about the hard-to shake mentality caused by the Great Depression and World War II that we heard so much about while growing up. Living in tough times leaves an indelible impression that is difficult for reality to erase. Even when times were good, my mother would save everything. Does anyone today still have a collection of buttons because they may be needed in an emergency? It sounds quaint in today’s world, but we rejected some of those ideas and absorbed others to pass on. College graduates this year are finding a difficult time finding employment in their major. Much of their career decision making was influenced by their parents. Only time will tell if their choice to pursue higher education or their choice of focus was a good choice or subject to future regrets.

Technological prowess is another generational myth. If there is no other proof that there is very little difference between the ability of any generation to be innovative with technology, take short trip into the history of technological advances vs. time and see that every age has been influenced by the evolution of technology generated by previous ages and each leaves its own legacy. Consider: Thomas Edison (1847 – Progressive Generation); Werner von Braun (1912 – G.I. Generation); Ray Tomlinson (1941 – Silent Generation); Bill Gates (1955 – Baby Boomer Generation); Lawrence “Larry” Page (1973 – Generation X); Mark Zuckerberg (1984 – Generation Y). Just as there will be individuals who will stand out as icons in their time, there will always be those who will reject new ideas and add credibility to an otherwise unfounded stereotype. Sometimes evidence to the contrary proves how untrue these concepts can be: A recent article hypothesized that teenagers today are not as active on Facebook because it is not cool to be on the same social media site with their parents and grandparents.

The myth of eroding loyalty and work ethic in recent generations is really based on other changes in business and the economy. Did the generation change or did the environment change? Working harder no longer guarantees success as it once did. Businesses are forced to downsize and recast their financial pictures to maintain profitability. The apparent fading loyalty on the part of employers logically generates a healthy skepticism on the part of employees…ALL employees. Those in earlier generations that had to pay their dues to get where they are today naturally don’t understand the viewpoint that paying dues doesn’t really lead anywhere. On the other hand, later generations must not overlook that experience does count. It is not age, but life experiences that give wisdom and the ability to see things in a broader perspective. A worn out expression that “you don’t know what you don’t know” is actually a good thing to keep in mind. Every experience opens a new perspective on a vision beyond the present. An individual’s horizon goes only as far as their vision allows them to see.

The mythology of generational stereotypes won’t be solved by declaring them myths. It is a necessary evil to know what is in the minds of groups of people. In today’s world we measure everything because demographic marketing is a way of life. The men’s department in Macy’s is located near the exit because a study indicated that male shoppers wanted a fast in-and-out option: pick up what they want and leave. The success or failure of movies and TV shows can be impacted if they are targeted to the wrong demographic. It is not only the marketing needs of our society that makes measuring these differences essential. Resource planning for schools, colleges and business cannot be done in a vacuum. Census data has unlimited usefulness in planning for the future, but it also contains so many variables that misconceptions are bound to happen.

The following chart shows how many people have been added to each generational cohort for the past 70 years in the United States. What this simple chart doesn’t show is the fact that the most recent increase in the births actually reflects a decrease in the impact on the general population. In 1941 live births represented a 2.03% of the total population. By contrast, the 2011 numbers reflect only a 1.29% addition in that year. When analyzed by the average number of births for women of childbearing years it is learned that fertility rates are declining as well. The numbers are fascinating. They are begging for someone to dig into the projected ethnic mix of employees to justify diversity in recruiting and employment on those grounds rather than the reason that somebody said it was the right thing to do.

Busting a myth requires trusting facts over fiction, but that is not an easy thing to do. Nicolas Malebranche the French philosopher argued in the 18th Century that abstraction was impossible for women, because of the “delicacy of the brain fibers.” This myth was perpetuated by Freud and other scientific thinkers until somebody took an objective look at the facts. Scientific racism abounded for centuries and gave justification for slavery in U.S. pre-civil war days and in Nazi Germany. A great commentary on this was provided by A. C. Higgins on William Tucker’s, A review of The Science and Politics of Racial Research, where he stated: “Tucker has exposed the mental gymnastics of the social scientist who abuses science in the name of ideology. That is precisely what Tucker sees scientific racists as doing: abusing science by using it as a mechanism of ideology.”

Stereotypes of all kinds are possible by qualifying outcomes of thinking to suit personal ideology or the status quo. Generational labeling is inconsistent and only a late comer to the field of studying people and their ideas. Boomers were decreed to be Boomers after they were already adults and Gen X became seen as “different” when they were in their teen years. Gen Y logically followed because every generation now has to have its own name and some people have already started calling the next generation Gen Z. Thankfully, we are at the end of the alphabet and perhaps this silliness will stop before others are put though age related stereotypes. In the meanwhile, acknowledge that environmental and experiential influences are more significant than age. Thoughts turn into actions and actions influence beliefs.

Other articles:

From the Greatest Generation To the Degraded Generation
The New Old Generation