Are generations that different?

Driving to a funeral seven hours away, my wife and I caught an interesting NPR discussion on the misconceptions about generations. The only thing I can recall about the guest is he is a King’s College professor in London and had researched this topic over fifteen years. Yet, his key conclusions were counter to how various generations are labeled.

Here are a few I recall, but please forgive the lack of citing his data, which he sprinkled in throughout.

  • There is not that much difference in generations; the key differences that occur among people are based on where they are in their life cycle – are they young and single, are they married with children, are they retired?
  • To this point, we layer on what generations are like based on observations of where many are at that time. If you looked at Gen Xers or Baby Boomers when they were younger, the same generalizations could be made about Millennials.
  • One of the issues about these generalizations that make headlines is sources are way to quick to judge and name a generation, that it is not really a data driven exercise.
  • He was quick to point out there are trends that have and will occur, but we need to let them play out more to see if that particular trend is a causal one that created change.
  • He also noted we have tended to segregate people more, when we should be doing the opposite, so there can be more cross-pollination of ideas and approaches. He said this segregation is the absolute worst thing we can do, as it contributes to misconceptions.

The interview was peppered with examples of misconceptions. Rather than highlight those, I would rather focus on the overarching comment. Painting any group with a broad brush is unfair. We tend to paint people based on the actions of the more demonstrative members of a group, not recognizing that the demonstrators may be from several groups.

We do this with generations, we do this with decades, we do this with political tribes and we do this with significant events. It makes for interesting discussions, but the key is to challenge that way of thinking. This is especially true when the generalization paints with a repeated slogan that its creators want you to be influenced by.

The “we” is a collective we as we all have tended to do this. So, the next time we paint with a broad brush, we should stop ourselves and think is this true or just a clever remark? Often, it is the latter, but it is not based on supportable evidence.