6. Generational Differences: Fact or Fiction?

If you manage a team, odds are that you have faced the difficulties of managing multiple generations. Seventy-five percent of the managers in a survey conducted recently by Ernst & Young agree that “managing multi-generational teams is a challenge.”1 You might even have experienced some fairly strong feelings on the topic yourself. The odds are also good that you have been bombarded with all kinds of advice for how to manage your team. The media is full of horror stories, opinions, “true stories,” and even...survey results.

Despite the buzz, however, some critics say that the issue is not worthy of attention. In this chapter, we show why it is, and we review two perspectives2 from the social sciences—the maturational and life course perspectives—to explain why Millennials, Xers, and Baby Boomers bring different values and expectations to the workplace.

The Maturational Perspective

We frequently hear that the current generation gap is simply the result of a new group of young people challenging authority, rethinking the status quo, and experimenting with different lifestyles, as all groups do when they enter adulthood. It is natural to wonder if generational differences really exist or whether all the noise is just part of a stage that each cohort goes through when it’s their turn to enter the workforce. After all, the Baby Boomers shook things up during their early years but are now known for their corporate loyalty.

The idea that everyone has similar experiences and expresses the same views, moods, and attitudes during the same life stage is known as the maturational perspective, or sometimes maturational theory. The maturational perspective views biological development as the major determinant of behavior. According to this perspective, people’s values, attitudes, goals, preferences, and abilities change as a function of age. Crawling, walking, and speaking are all normative at specific stages of early development. A six-year-old has the coordination and balance to ride a bicycle, but a two-year-old does not. In the same way, attitudes and values emerge, as appropriate, at each life stage.

According to this view, it’s normal to defy authority and experiment with alternative lifestyles during early adulthood. Expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo is normative at this stage. In his 1995 book Managing Generation X,3 Bruce Tulgan lists a number of behaviors and attitudes that sound a lot like what people are saying about Millennials today. According to Tulgan, Xers were characterized in the mainstream media as “sullen and contemptuous,” “impetuous,” “naïve,” “arrogant,” “short on attention,” and “materialistic.”4 There were no “Managing Generation Baby Boom” books written in the 1970s, but the media from the period was full of similar descriptions of Baby Boomers.5 As we show in the next chapter, the image of Generation X has changed significantly over the last 20 years. It’s easy to conclude, then, that each cohort simply goes through a maturationally determined “awkward stage” as they emerge into adulthood. The life course perspective provides a richer understanding.

The Life Course Perspective

The life course perspective is more comprehensive than the maturational perspective. It evolved from cohort theory, also called generational theory, and extends it with a multidisciplinary approach to human development. In life course theory, demographers, historians, developmental psychologists, and sociologists look for the interactions between sociological phenomena and developmental processes. According to cohort theory, our worldview is heavily influenced by significant events that occur during our teens and 20s. Macro-scale events create experiences shared by most individuals within an age group and form the basis of common outlook and shared values, attitudes, and beliefs.6 People who experience a sociological context at the same point in their psychosocial development are likely to forge a common perspective or mind-set that stays with them throughout their entire life.

One obvious example of a major event that left an imprint on an entire generation is the Great Recession of 2008. Clearly people of all ages were impacted by the banking crisis and the stock market crash that precipitated the recession. Many people in or near retirement lost significant portions of their retirement savings, and workers of all ages lost jobs. Major banks and car manufacturers came close to collapse, and there was widespread fear that the economy was heading toward a depression similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s. People who were finishing school during this recession and entering the economy were unable to find jobs. The jobs that they did find tended overwhelmingly to be low-paying and underutilized the skills they had developed. This experience has left Millennials with a sense of diminished expectations. As a consequence, they tend to buy smaller cars and houses—if they buy at all—and to place greater emphasis on savings than did Boomers or Xers at the same age.7 Their financial habits resemble those of the Silent generation who survived the Great Depression 80 years ago. They are skeptical of financial advisors, and despite their smaller incomes, Millennials on average have a savings rate nearly as high as those of Boomers and Xers.8 However, unlike the Silents, Millennials are optimistic about the future and expect the economy to return to a state of rapid growth.

Additional examples of historical events that had powerful cohort effects are World War II, the Cold War, the Space Race, the Beatles, the civil rights movement and the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle, the Columbine massacre, 9/11, the rise of the Internet, and the dot-com boom and bust. All of these events are social markers that frame life experience and shape values, beliefs, and attitudes. The transition to delivery drones, self-driving cars, wearable computing, and continuous data collection will likely have a major impact on the worldview of the next generation.

We don’t really know the younger Millennials yet, in cultural terms. The youngest Millennials are just turning 15 this year. We expect that they will share many of the imprints of their older cohort-mates. But the younger ones have 10 or more years to go before their attitudes and outlook have solidified. We have no way of knowing what major events or crises might occur in the next decade. The number of possibilities is infinite. Perhaps the rising level of racially motivated violence in the United States will galvanize the younger Millennials into a 2030s reprise of the civil rights movement. We can’t guess what form the movement might take, only that it will be a reflection of the times in which it takes place. No doubt some communications technology such as social media or wearable streaming devices will play a significant role, unlike the original Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Generational Subcultures

Life course theory can be extended by thinking of generations as distinct subcultures. To an anthropologist, a culture is more than just the language, art, cuisine, and festivals of an ethnic group. Each culture has its own set of assumptions about the universe, as well as values and beliefs about how life and the world work. For an anthropologist, these are the things that distinguish one group from another. The celebrations, rituals, art, and language are reflections of the deeper meanings shared by members of the group.

In his Organizational Behavior class, Joel likes to show his students a photograph of a three-year-old boy sitting in a plastic tub, scrubbing a snake that could easily swallow him. The picture was taken in Cambodia or Thailand and can be found in various places on the Internet. The snake is a python that could very well have been more than 10 feet long at the time the picture was taken.

There are gasps and snorts from the class when they see the picture. Obviously, part of the reaction is based on the fact that the python is a formidable predator, capable of swallowing antelopes and even crocodiles. Some students question the parents’ judgment. The image clearly challenges our assumptions and attitudes about snakes. In Western culture, we see snakes as evil. In the biblical book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are tricked by a snake into disobeying God. We have no positive imagery of snakes. There are no traditional stories in which the hero is a snake. When we do consider snakes, it is to warn other hikers of rattlers on the trail or provide “fun facts” about how quickly the bite of a water moccasin can kill a person.

If you are a Millennial and your parents are Baby Boomers, the idea that you belong to a different culture from them might seem strange at first. Obviously, you share your parents’ ethnic background. However, there is no rule that says a person can belong to only a single culture.

Suppose that you grew up in the United States, but your parents emigrated from Taiwan. They speak Mandarin, and most of their friends are Chinese—many of them also born overseas. You eat mooncakes with your parents, grandparents, and their friends at Chinese New Year. So which culture do you belong to—American or Taiwanese? Both.

It is not much of a stretch, then, if we follow the anthropologists’ definition, to say that people who grew up in a specific period share an understanding of the world and a way of relating to it and to each other that is different than for others born in the same place 20 or 40 years earlier. Culture is a system of shared meaning. As we show below, each generation has its own system of shared meanings, resulting from its time and place in history and the critical events that impressed themselves on the psyche of those who were coming of age when those events occurred.

Defining the Generations

In the remainder of this chapter, we summarize the differences between the Baby Boom, X, and Millennial generations. These three generations comprised over 95% of the workforce in the United States as of 2014. We also provide a brief description of the Silent generation, which constituted the remaining 5%.

There is no precise definition for the generational cohorts. Demographers define the Baby Boom generation to include anyone born between 1946 and 1964, Generation X as people born between 1965 and 1977, and Millennials as those born between 1978 and 1999. These years correspond to changes in the birthrate. They do not take into account the shared beliefs and attitudes of the people born in those years.

We use a different approach. We are interested in understanding how different groups of people think and behave. We want to know which groups share attitudes based on a shared belief about how the world works. The demographers’ birth year groupings are close to ours, but they don’t quite fit our definition. Following Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak, we use the years 1943–1960 for Boomers, 1961–1980 for Generation X, and 1981–2000 for Millennials.9

We offer a brief overview of the events that shaped the cultures of the different generations. There are a number of books that do a very nice job of getting even more deeply into this. For excellent descriptions of the world that shaped each of the generations, see Generations, Inc. by Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson10 or Generations at Work by Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak.11 For a very detailed and entertaining description, see Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe,12 who published their book in 1991, the same year that Doug Coupland’s book Generation X came out. Strauss and Howe call Xers “13ers,” in reference to the fact that they are the thirteenth generation of citizens of the United States. Despite this, Strauss and Howe provide an insightful and accurate description of the group we now refer to as Generation X.

The Silent Generation

The Silent generation (also called the Traditionalist, Veteran, or Builder generation13) is the smallest generation of the past 125 years, with roughly 20 million people alive today who were born between 1925 and 1942. Silents now make up roughly 5% of the workforce in the United States, and so we devote somewhat less attention to them in this book than we do to the other generations.

Unlike the Baby Boom, X, and Millennial generations, as well as those that came before, the Silent generation did not create dramatic upheavals when they came of age. There were no riots or demonstrations on campus. Nor were there angry or bemused members of older generations. Instead, Silents entered the workforce doing their best to emulate their elders. Their failure to make the kind of noise expected of a young cohort earned them the mocking nickname the Silent generation.

They grew up during the Depression, when unemployment in the United States exceeded 25%, and they were therefore grateful for their jobs. Their ethos was to work within the system rather than to change it. Their loyalty to their employers dominated the work environment until the 1970s.

It seems fair to say that the Silent generation valued not making waves while at the same time valuing authenticity. Even though they did their best to fit in at college and work, they were nonetheless known as nonconformists. The Beat Generation of the 1950s emphasized nonconformity, exploration of Eastern religions, spiritual and artistic expression, and rejection of materialism. Andy Warhol’s famous tomato soup can paintings were an example of the anti-materialist Beat sentiment. The Beat culture later became the genesis for the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

The Silent label was applied prematurely. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles were all from the so-called Silent generation. Without them, of course, there would be no rock and roll.

Similarly, without the Silent generation, we would not have had the civil rights movement. The Silent generation produced almost every major figure of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez. Vaclav Havel, writer, leader of the Velvet Revolution, and first president of the Czech Republic, was also a Silent.

Perhaps because of their patriotism, members of the Silent generation waited until after the dire business of World War II was complete before making their noise.

Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers are primarily the children of members of the Silent generation who fought in World War II. The war prevented young families from getting started, but when the soldiers returned from the war, they settled down and began having children.

During the war, almost all industry had been directed toward the war effort. Food, clothing, and automobile manufacturers had all been enlisted to help defeat the Nazis in Europe and Imperial Japan in Asia. With the end of the war in 1945, all of these industries reverted to civilian manufacture.

Civilians had forgone all but the most essential consumption so that all available resources could be used to help win the war. Fabric was reserved for uniforms, tents, and other military applications. The same was also true of most basic materials. This created a huge unmet demand for goods that skyrocketed as soon as the war was over. In addition, all of the new families that were just starting out needed cribs, furniture, lawn mowers, kitchen appliances, and cars. The economy grew rapidly as manufacturers expanded production to meet this new demand.

The GI Bill made it easier for couples to buy homes, further fueling the economic expansion. Home ownership in the United States jumped from under 44% in 1940 to 62% in 1960. Most of this growth took place in the new suburbs. As home ownership for new families soared, so did the birth rate.

Baby Boomers were raised during a time when the economy was expanding. They were raised with permissiveness, as prescribed by Dr. Benjamin Spock, many by stay-at-home moms whose full-time homemaker status was made possible by the booming economy. Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care was published in 1946.14 Spock’s advice was revolutionary. Instead of following the prevailing opinion of the time, which was that emotions and affection should be withheld from children in order to avoid spoiling them, Spock advocated emotional openness and authenticity. He encouraged parents to express affection toward their children and to trust their own judgment rather than listen to the so-called experts.

The oldest Boomers were in their teens when Sputnik was launched and the Space Race began. They were just entering their 20s at the start of the Vietnam War and the free speech movement.

Boomers were raised by parents who valued their jobs and shared their work ethic with their children. Silent generation parents had experienced life without work, and it was painful. Baby Boomers came of age at a time when demand for labor was high: Jobs were plentiful, and employers took care of employees. Employers might not have been motivated by a benevolent philosophy (some were), but it was in their interest to act as if they did. Boomers came of age in a time of plenty and were taught the importance of a solid work ethic, they witnessed the rebuilding of Europe following the devastation of WWII and the beginning of space flight, and they were fully aware of the ravages of polio and measles and also their near eradication. It should therefore not be surprising that Boomers expected to be able to accomplish pretty much anything if they put in effort. Having been raised according to the self-esteem-building teachings of Dr. Spock only enhanced the world-changing optimism of this generation.

Finally, Boomers were socialized to, uh, socialize. Membership in social clubs, fraternities, and sororities grew during the 1950s and were an important focus for social life through the 1960s. It was a time when parents taught their children “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

Generation Xers

Xers grew up during a less optimistic time. The first Xers were born at the height of the Cold War. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world dangerously close to nuclear destruction. The following year, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy followed shortly. The Vietnam War escalated, claiming the lives of nearly 60,000 U.S. military personnel. In 1974, President Nixon was forced to resign for his role in the Watergate scandal, and the OPEC oil embargo caused gasoline prices to quadruple. Long before YouTube, television crews filmed fistfights in gas station lines and carried stories of people cheating on the new rationing schemes. It was at this time that the Honda Civic was first sold in the United States.

Businesses downsized, either in response to worsening economic conditions or in the wake of leveraged buyouts. Many Xers saw their parents lose jobs with companies to which they had been loyal. It didn’t matter that the parents had worked late many nights to make sure a project was completed on time. Xers’ worldview, therefore, is that employers cannot be counted on. Loyalty does not buy job security. In fact, one should expect that the company one works for will be chewed up and spit out in a leveraged buyout or bought out just to take the competition off the market: It’s nothing personal, just business.

Xers were often referred to as “latchkey kids.” As children, they often came home from school to empty houses. The divorce rate in the United States surged in the 1970s, and many children grew up in single-parent households. Married women were also working, either out of economic necessity or because they were exercising the newfound freedom for women to enjoy a career of their own.

As a consequence, Gen Xers seek closeness from friends and surrogate “tribal” families. The TV sitcoms Friends and How I Met Your Mother are two well-known examples. In both series, many of the parents are either absent or too self-involved to provide the kind of emotional support and closeness the main characters get from one another.

Xers entered the workforce during a period of high inflation and poor job prospects. In the words of Doug Coupland, from whose novel Generation X gets its name, the only jobs available were “McJobs.” Coupland refers to the general feeling about their prospects of young adults as “lessness.”15

The 1970s brought a steep decline in the economic welfare of children. By 1990, roughly 20% of Xers lived in poverty. Traditionally, the age bracket with the highest poverty rate were people over age 65. However, because of changes in public policy and the skyrocketing divorce rate, the age bracket with the highest poverty rate shifted abruptly.

This distinction followed Xers into their 20s. Whereas in 1967, male 20-something Boomer wage earners took home 74% as much as older males, in 1988 Xers were earning only 54% as much as older males. Between 1973 and 1988, the median income of households headed by someone under 25 fell by 18% (adjusted for inflation and family size).

Because of these conditions, Xers view work as transactional. Work is for earning money, not for forming emotional attachments.

Millennials

Millennials grew up in very different circumstances than Generation Xers. Most parents of Millennials are younger Boomers and older Xers who vowed that their children would not grow up as latchkey children. Although they typically work as much as, or even more than, their parents did, parents of Millennials found ways to spend more time with their children. A study by Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey, economists at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed multiple surveys, conducted by other researchers between 1965 and 2007, on how Americans spend their time. The results show that the amount of time spent on child care has risen dramatically since the mid-1990s. The study found that between 1995 and 2007, the amount of time mothers in the United States spent attending to the needs of their children rose from an average of about 12 hours a week to 21.2 hours a week for college-educated women.16 Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks, economists at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, also found that college-educated fathers increased the amount of time they spent with their children to 9.6 hours a week, more than double the pre-1995 rate of 4.5 hours. Non-college-educated fathers showed nearly equal gains to 6.8 hours, up from 3.7 hours. The phrase “quality time” came into usage in the mid-1970s, and by the late 1980s or early 1990s, parents were using it to differentiate between time on maintenance activities like getting the kids to brush their teeth and time spent reading together and playing catch in the backyard. During this same period, parents’ focus shifted from instilling obedience in their children to engendering friendship and understanding.

While these changes were happening in the parenting sphere, the self-esteem movement that started with Benjamin Spock took hold in the educational and youth sports systems. Elementary school curricula began to emphasize self-esteem in the 1980s. Sports programs, which had previously been highly competitive, became inclusive. Trophies were awarded for participation as well as achievement. Although teachers are still authority figures, the nature of the relationship has changed. Students are now encouraged to question that authority.

The net effect of the changes in parenting style and availability, and in the educational system, was to create a generation of young people who believed that their preferences and opinions mattered, and were equal in value to the viewpoints of others. Members of older generations, who were raised to respect authority and the opinions of elders, were taken aback when Millennials didn’t automatically accept whatever they said.

The Millennial generation entered the workforce at a challenging time. At first, it appeared that the new millennium would get off to a great start, but the enthusiasm that drove up the stock market at the end of the 1990s was exaggerated, and when the bubble popped in late 2000, those expectations were reset. The first decade of the century experienced two recessions, one of which was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Jobs have been scarce since then and wages low, even while employers often ask employees to be on call at any hour, accept jobs without benefits or security, and “recommit” to the company and its mission. As a result, Millennials maintain some distance in their transitional jobs and continue searching for an employer offering better terms.

All Together Now

Traditionalists, Boomers, Xers, and Millennials all had markedly different experiences of life during their formative years. The Silent generation (aka Veterans or Traditionalists) experienced the Great Depression and WWII, times of scarcity and sacrifice that no other generation in the workforce today experienced or can even imagine. They chose not to make waves and were grateful to have work in the 1940s and ‘50s, and they still are today. Boomers, on the other hand, grew up during a period of unprecedented growth and progress and were encouraged to socialize and to explore themselves. The growth that fueled the optimism came to an abrupt end just as Generation X came on the scene. Left to fend for themselves in one-parent homes after school, Xers graduated into “McJobs.” Not wanting a repeat of what had happened to the X Generation, Millennials’ parents spent as much spare time with their children as possible.

The next chapter looks at some of the challenges created by having members of these different age-cohort-cultures working together in age-diverse teams.

Endnotes

1. Ernst & Young, LLC. (2013). Younger managers rise in the ranks: EY study on generational shifts in the workplace. http://www.ey.com/US/en/Careers/Fall-2013-Edition-of-EY-Navigator---6---Younger-managers-rise-in-the-ranks.

2. These are sometimes referred to as maturational theory and life course theory. Strictly speaking, these are not theories. The popular and academic literatures use both “theory” and “perspective.” Accordingly, we use both terms.

3. Tulgan, B. (1995). Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent. Santa Monica, CA: Merritt Publishing.

4. Tulgan, B. (1995). Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent. Santa Monica, CA: Merritt Publishing, p. 18.

5. Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York: AMACOM.

6. Mannheim, K. (1952). Essays in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

7. Wells Fargo Bank. (2014). 2014 Wells Fargo Millennial study. https://www08.wellsfargomedia.com/downloads/pdf/com/retirement-employee-benefits/insights/2014-millennial-study-summary.pdf.

8. Ehley, B. (2015). “Irresponsible” Millennials saving more than almost every other group. http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2015/02/25/Irresponsible-Millennials-Saving-More-Almost-Every-Other-Group.

9. Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York: AMACOM.

10. Johnson, M., & Johnson, L. (2010). Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work. New York: AMACOM.

11. Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York: AMACOM.

12. Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: Quill.

13. In Managing the Millennials (Espinoza et al., 2010), we refer to this group as the Builder generation. Very few authors currently use the Builder label. In this book, we use Silent in deference to the emergent trend in the field.

14. Spock, B. (1946). Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. New York: Pocket Books.

15. Coupland, D. (1991). Generation X. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

16. Ramey, G., & Ramey, V. A. (2010). The rug rat race. National Bureau of Economic Research. http://www.nber.org/papers/w15284.

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