Generations Schmenerations, What’s the Difference?

People smarter than me have told me that the notion of generational differences is a made-up construct. Every one is different, they say—we are all unique. Indeed, among almost eight billion humans, there is not a matching set anywhere.   

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t groups of humans don’t share common traits. This is the basis of the study of sociology—by definition, literally the collective behavior of organized groups of human beings. Myers Briggs profile tells us that there are 16 groups— like groups of ENFP or of INTJ’s. StrengthsFinder and DISC, two popular personality assessments distinguish groups of people tells us there are groups of people with “Woo” or “Influence”.

I’m a data guy—I ran a division at Gallup and learned the difference between good research and bad research. There is a massive trove of peer-reviewed, rigorous social science data examining change in attitude, culture, and behavior over time, from longitudinal studies done by the National Institutes of Health, to numerous published research in medical journals. Work by Sociologist Jean Twenge, Social Psychologist Sarah Konrath, and others support the notion that generations are uniquely formed by historical and cultural circumstances—their age location in history, as demographer Neil Howe calls it. Each generation’s coming-of-age experience has a lasting impression on their behavior traits later in life.

At Work 

At work, these differences are magnified, as all these generations are smashed together with competing viewpoints on how work gets done. Over eight in ten recognize generational differences in the workplace (source: LifeCourse, 2014), and seventy two percent think these differences get in the way of productivity.

Being the leader that you are, if anything is getting in the way of most of your team’s productivity, don’t you think you should address it? Most people acknowledge generational differences, but very few know what to do about it.

Meet Them Where They Are 

My mantra for generational collaboration is you have to meet people where they are. And you can’t meet them where they are unless you know where they’ve been. Generational understanding starts with understanding the collective lived experience of each generation-- the shared values and experience that each generation experiences together. Boomer put work in the center of their life. Millennials put life before work. Xers, meanwhile prefer work-life balance. Does every member of the Boomer generation put work at the center of his or her life? Absolutely not, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a cultural preference for the entire generation that has a strong orientation for work.

One last thought—you’ll never be able to collaborate with your co-workers if you view them for their weaknesses. Negative stereotype abound for each of the generations. Don’t fall into that trap. Lean in to the positive aspects each generation brings to the workplace.

Warren Wright