The generation myth

Aug 29, 2022 | Development, Opinion

Do generational differences really exist and should employers do anything about them? Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute, King’s College London, explains the generation myth.

Marketing and workplace research are two of the noisiest engines of generational myths. This is a real shame, because understanding real generational change is vital to businesses, because they need to understand current and future needs among their customers and workforce.

My book, Generations, takes decades of research to show that much of what passes as startling new insights about generational change is likely to be misleading or wrong – but if we can get beyond that, there is real value.

For example, articles abound suggesting Millennials are destroying whole categories of consumer goods – soap, napkins, you name it. It is asserted that they want fundamentally different things at work from older generations, and that you need a Millennial Council to represent them. Goldman Sachs claimed Millennials are fitness fanatics – ignoring the fact that they actually are more obese than Baby Boomers or Gen X were at the same age. 

Gen Z, on the other hand, are often made out to be obsessed about ‘brand purpose’ and climate change – but it’s actually older people that are more likely to boycott brands, and, in Ipsos MORI’s tracking of the most important issues facing the country, older people are now also more likely to see climate as a key issue facing the country. In contrast the young are worried about more immediate issues like low incomes and housing. 

This raises an interesting question. Why would businesses, who have a wealth of data on real consumer and worker behaviour, seem to be so obsessed with caricaturing large swathes of the population? It really comes down to two main explanations: cash and clicks.

Generational consulting

‘Generational consulting’ has become its own mini-industry: even back in 2015, US companies spent up to $70 million on it, according to the WSJ, with some experts making as much as $20,000 an hour.

Over 400 LinkedIn users now describe themselves solely as a ‘Millennial expert’ or ‘Millennial consultant’.  Of course, you may also call it, as a contributor to the article on the phenomenon suggested, “a racket’ built on ‘pseudo-expertise, playing to executives’ anxiety that they don’t have their fingers on the pulse”.

The problem is that much marketing, advertising or employee research too often mistakes these huge demographic groups – everyone born in a 15-year period for example – as targeted segments that are both internally coherent and completely different from other huge demographic groups.  

Laughable examples include Air France, who claim Millennials are “epicurean and connected… opportunistic in a positive sense of the word as they know how to enjoy every moment and are in search of quality experiences that they want to share with others.”

Impact of clicks

Clicks are important too. Endless spurious research reports and press releases talk about generational difference because they have become a headline-friendly shorthand that we’re attracted to, particularly when they paint one generation as weird, or in conflict with the others.

The web of communications created by our incredibly competitive media and social media actively promotes the most extreme views and conflict, giving as a very distorted view of reality. Conflict is clickable, and generations are often in the frontline.

What does the average employer do in the face of all this? 

The real, valuable task is to separate the three effects that explain all change among consumers and workforces.

First, which patterns are simple ‘lifecycle effects’ – for example people tend to be more likely to be physically active or want more development opportunities at work when they are young, and all generations go through this life stage. 

Second, which are ‘period effects’ – for example living through a war or a pandemic affects all generations.

And finally, which are ‘cohort effects’, where we can see that a new generation is different from others at the same age, and is staying different. If we do that, we can predict the future in a much more meaningful way.

Consider, for example, the idea that young people today are fickle employees, prone to switching jobs casually: a Forbes article, for example, declared that Millennials marked “the Death of Loyalty.”

It is true that younger people change jobs more often than older people—but that’s always been true, and young people today are no more flighty than in the past. In fact, it’s older workers who are moving more frequently than past generations of old, and, if anything, the young are holding on to their jobs tighter than in the past, given the tougher economic environment.

Similarly, it’s true that young people today work fewer hours than they did in the past, but that’s because the working hours of all age groups have seen a long-term decline (a period effect, not a cohort effect).

What generational differences truly exist in the workplace?

Virtually none. As a meta-analysis of 20 studies that focused on differences in job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and intended job moves concluded: “The pattern of results indicates that the relationships between generational membership and work-related outcomes are moderate to small, essentially zero in many cases.”

And as Jennifer Deal, author of Retiring the Generation Gap, concluded in a Harvard Business Review podcast, fundamentally today’s young workers “want what older generations have always wanted: an interesting job that pays well, where they work with people they like and trust, have access to development and the opportunity to advance, are shown appreciation on a regular basis, and don’t have to leave.”

Some academics have had enough, and think we should stop all reference to generations: there is an open letter to Pew Research Center signed by 180 professors and lecturers calling on business to stop using generational terms as it gives them a legitimacy they don’t deserve.

While I agree with the diagnosis, I can’t agree with the suggested response. My one sentence summary of the book is that generational thinking is a truly big idea that has been horribly corrupted by terrible stereotypes and cliches. But the real value remains, if we discard the fake arguments.

There is real insight about our past, present and future we can only get from truly understanding generations. We should defend the big idea and call out the myths and exaggerated divisions, not abandon the field to the Millennial consultants.

Bobby talked about generation myth at this year’s ISE Student Development Conference. Read more blogs from ISE event speakers.


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