Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation(s): Why We Should be Careful with Age-Based Generalizations.

Generational differences are used to explain pretty much anything and everything in our society. Whether you’re a Millennial or a Gen-Zer, a Boomer or a member of Gen X, these broad categorizations based on birthdates are cited as a major factor in everything from workplace behavior to home-buying preferences to spending habits. This hasn’t always been the case. As historians have noted, the concept of generations as groups that spanned entire societies was largely unheard of before the 19th century and only really caught on in the early 20th century. Despite their current prominence, the U.S. Census Bureau officially recognizes just one generation: the Baby Boomers. The idea of generations as distinct groups of people who share well-defined traits has a certain appeal. It reinforces easily-digested narratives about why our world is the way it is—that millennials are “narcissists,” that Boomers are out of touch with the challenges faced by those younger than them, or that Gen-Zers are addicted to technology and social media. Defined generations’ ability to serve as categorical shorthand makes their ubiquity in our media easy to understand.  These associations have come to exert significant influence on the ways organizations market to and communicate with different generations. Some businesses now pay consultants eye-popping sums to help sharpen their understanding of the Millennials who’ve grown to become the largest generation in the workforce. But how wise is the “conventional wisdom” about generations, really? As communicators, any attempt to build generational thinking into our efforts is fraught with challenges. Fuzzy age ranges Outside of the aforementioned Census Bureau example, no one group or individual seems to be able to provide definitive age ranges for each generation that enjoy broad consensus. Millennial birth date ranges, for example, can be anywhere from 1980 to 2000, to 1982 to 1996, depending on who you ask. This lack of agreement makes anything approaching a “scientific” conclusion about generations seem dubious. Contradictory descriptions As workplace culture researcher and consultant Jessica Kriegel has noted, many of the claims experts make about generational traits are vague, based on flimsy evidence, and, most damningly, self-contradictory. For example, efforts to determine which generation is most given to volunteering have led different authorities to award that honor to Millennials, Gen-Xers, and Baby Boomers at different points. Age as a confounding factor As even the Pew Research Center (a leading purveyor of generational research) concedes, “An individual’s age is one of the most common predictors of differences in attitudes and behaviors.” Age is not necessarily a stand-in for generation though. If young adults today like to dine out more than their parents, but their parents exhibited the same pattern of behavior in their youth, that isn’t a generational difference per se. It’s just an age difference, one easily explained by factors like varying financial, time, and family commitments. Why does this matter? Generations are a tempting construct for communicators; they allow us to neatly and easily categorize, putting millions of individuals into discrete little boxes. The trouble starts when efforts to tailor communications to match those assumed generational preferences fail to resonate with the millions who don’t feel they fit the mold. Case in point: the countless Millennials who have reacted with scorn and ire when told that their financial struggles are due to frivolous spending habits like a penchant for avocado toast, rather than broader societal challenges like the Great Recession or huge student loan burdens. As the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently puts it, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This applies to generational stereotypes as surely as it does many others. Whatever observations we might feel confident making about each generation, we must always be careful to remember that at best, these can only ever be broad generalizations. Any efforts to communicate to large, diverse groups need to account for in-group variations just as much as they do inter-group differences.


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