What is and how to measure a generation

Written by richard a. webster
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The differences between Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers

What is and how to measure a generation
As multiple generations with distinct characteristics converge in a working environment, common ground can be difficult to find. Take heart, though. It's always been this way, and always will be. Every generation is different. (Getty Thinkstock)

This is the system of correction and compensation that keeps society renewed. If we always did more of what the last generation did we would have gone off a cliff thousands of years ago.

— Neil Howe, social historian

Today’s workplace is a generational mash-up: experienced baby boomers working with mid-career Generation Xers, who are coping with an influx of upstart Millennials. At times it can turn into a generational disaster. “I had colleague who said to me it’s like the school bus pulls up in front of the office every day and drops off these strange kids,” said Diane Thielfoldt, who, with Devon Scheef, co-founded the Learning Café, a company that specialises in corporate education and intergenerational communication. “Not only do they look different, but they seem to act different. I don’t think the baby boomers were prepared for that, and it can cause conflict.” To some, these disagreements might seem like the natural flow of life: Older adults struggling to understand the foreign ways of younger adults. But to social historians, it has little to do with age and everything to do with environment. Each generation grew up in a unique time that shaped the way its members see and interact with the world around them. Sometimes those worldviews don’t translate across generational lines.

What makes a generation

Generations are not media creations driven by pop culture or technology, said Neil Howe, a social historian who with fellow author William Strauss coined the term "Millennials." There is no such thing as an iPod generation, and Generation X existed long before Douglas Coupland called it by that name in "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" in 1991.

Generations are sociological markers used to determine future trends based on the experiences of people in their childhood and formative years. Generations typically consist of people born within roughly a 20-year period, a span of time chosen because that’s how long it takes to come of age, from birth to young adulthood, Howe said.

For example, Generation X consists of people born between 1964 and 1981. The majority grew up in the 1970s, when the divorce rate skyrocketed, creating many single-parent homes.

That unstable experience instilled in Gen Xers some of their most identifiable characteristics, such as being cynical, independent, entrepreneurial and resilient, said Scheef and Thielfoldt. Members of Generation X, which coined the term “don’t micromanage me,” grew up as survivalists, often fending for themselves.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Millennials, born between 1981 and 2000. They grew up in stable homes during the dot com boom of the 1990s, which coincided with a new emphasis on child care. Their baby boomer parents, who adore and dote on them, told them to reach for the stars and never to take no for an answer, said 27-year old Ryan Paugh, co-founder of the Brazen Careerist, a career management website for young professionals. As a result, Millennials are confident, ambitious and team-oriented.

How they made their marks

By studying the environment in which people are raised, sociologists can predict future behavior and how each generation might affect the world.

“Who created Facebook and Twitter? The Millennials,” Howe said. “They wanted to move technology back to the group and the community based on how they grew up. It came as a surprise to older people, who thought that from now on all technology would move in the direction of increased individuality. But for those of us who study generations, it wasn’t a surprise at all.”

Some people looked at Generation X and predicted the next generation would simply be a more severe version, more cynical, introverted and rebellious. They imagined super-predators turning cities into killing zones, but their theory wasn’t based on sociological facts, said Howe, who, with Strauss, predicted that the juvenile crime rate would drop based on the more loving and communal atmosphere surrounding the Millennials.

And they were right. In 2007, the annual rate of serious violent crime in U.S. schools, 40 per 1,000 students, was less than half the rate of 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Generations typically look at each other with a certain level of suspicion and disdain, based on specific attitudes developed during their formative years. In the workforce, the independent Generation Xers have little patience for the more needy Millennials, whom Gen Xers dismissively dubbed the “bubble wrap” or “trophy” generation.

Paugh thinks the characterization is unfair.

“The idea we’re looking for constant feedback, a lot of people see it as needing to be coddled, but it’s more that we want to learn and know where there is room for improvement," Paugh said. "We’re really ambitious and looking for mentors, and it’s hard to find older people who will take the time to do it.”

The baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are the elder statesmen, occupying positions of leadership in the workforce, though many are approaching retirement. They grew up in a time of significant cultural and social change, but it was also an era of great wealth and opportunity, where hard work, prestige and corporate loyalty were valued.

When Generation Xers came of age, they struggled to find a place in the workforce because of the economic downturn and looked at large institutions and companies with suspicion. Baby boomers dismissed them as unprofessional slackers, another unfair description, Thielfoldt said.

“I don’t think the boomers realized the Gen Xers were really well-educated, but when they went into the workforce there wasn’t a welcome mat rolled out for them because of the economy,” she said. “They weren’t slackers. It was hard to find employment commensurate with their abilities and talents.”

Ironically, the baby boomers were seen in a similarly negative light by their parents in the GI generation, born between 1901 and 1924, who served in World War II and were famous for their civic engagement.

Prospects for the future

And this is where the story comes full circle, Howe said.

New generations often look to fill roles not occupied by current generations, and Millennials are living in a time when the GI generation has all but died off. Generation X, defined by its individuality, had no interest in filling that vacuum, so Millennials stepped into the void. Like the G.I. generation, they are politically active, have a strong sense of community and are expected to change the world, Howe said.

“This is the system of correction and compensation that keeps society renewed. If we always did more of what the last generation did, we would have gone off a cliff thousands of years ago,” he said.

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