Friday, April 9, 2010

Talkin' Bout My Generation (and Yours)

Casey Chandler--"Lost Generation" (mp3)
Richard Hell and the VoIdOiDs--"Blank Generation" (mp3)

A colleague sent around a intriguing little quiz today that spurred a bit of generational interest, at least on my part. Designed by Pew Research, the survey attempts to show us how simpatico we are with the current generation on the rise, the so-called Generation Y or Millenial Generation. It asks questions about television, newspapers, video games, interracial marriage, desire for a well-paying job, among other things.

I scored a 57 out of a possible 100. I went back through it and reversed all of my answers as best I could and scored an 83. So, clearly, I'm not too in-sync with the younger generation that I teach. We also happen to be reading The Beach right now in class, a book that has been characterized by several critics as "the first great novel" of Generation X and "a...novel about the search for genuine experience among the members of the so-called X Generation." I had told my students in class the other day that I suspected that, as topical and hip as The Beach is, I suspected that it was already a little too old to connect with them as much as it might. We'll see.

In case you didn't know, I'm a Baby Boomer, so, in broad strokes, what we're talking about are the three generations that have come since the end of World War II. The oldest of the fourth generation are about 10 years old right now, and I will be interested to see what they are named and what they are like.

After some simple research at, I offer you some of the basic characteristics of each of the three generations. These traits, of course, are neither perfectly-rendered nor absolutely definitive, but I do find them, from my experiences, both instructive and true to the generations they describe.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964): Work hard. Motivated by position, perks, and prestige. Define themselves by professional accomplishments. May criticize younger generations for lack of work ethic and commitment to the workplace. Question established authority systems and status quo. Dedicated and career-focused. Not afraid of confrontation. Welcome challenging projects. Strive to make a difference. Equate work and position with self-worth. Believe in "face time" at the office.

Generation Xers (born 1965-1980): Were "latch-key" children, and, therefore, independent, resourceful, and self-sufficient. Value freedom and responsibility in the workplace. Casual disdain for authority and structured work hours. Dislike being micro-managed. Technologically-adept. Less committed to one employer and willing to change jobs to get ahead. Adapt well to change. Tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Want to accomplish things on their own terms. Work to live rather than live to work. Appreciate fun in the workplace and espouse a work hard/play hard mentality.

Millenialists (born 1981-2000): Plugged in 24/7. Prefer to communicate through email and text-messaging. Willing to trade higher pay for fewer hours, flexible schedules, and a better work/life balance. Prioritize family over work. Nurtured and pampered by parents. Confident, ambitious, and achievement-oriented. Have high expectations of employers. Seek meaningful work. Value teamwork and seek the input and affirmation of others. Wants to be included and involved. Crave attention in the form of feedback and guidance.

You may be tempted to do what my students did in class--pick out various phrases and show anecdotally why they don't fit. I don't find that to be particularly useful, but, so be it.

However, there is a pattern here which is hard to overlook or to challenge, and that is the shifting attitude towards work. From the work-defines-me-and-I'll-sacrifice-everything-for-the-job attitude of the Boomers to the needs for more freedom and flexibility on the job for the Generation Xers to the I-want-to-make-a-good-enough-salary-but-I-want-my-life-and-family-too outlook of the Millenials, there is a continuing shift away from loyalty to a company and career to a "balanced" perspective.

If you are in any kind of job where either you work for someone or someone works for you, which includes nearly all of us, you encounter these clashes of ideals on a daily basis. For example, here at a school where all of us administrators, save one, are Baby Boomers, there can be a real confusion about the attitudes of younger faculty. Why? We simply don't understand where they are coming from. We can't grasp why someone wouldn't want to work as hard as he or she possibly could during his or her best years to make as much as possible. What do you mean you don't want to do anything in the afternoon? What do you mean you want to give up coaching football to coach Middle School cross country so you can get in shape for a marathon?

From both the Generation X and Millenial perspective (and mine, since I'm at the latter end of the Baby Boomers), micromanagement does not make sense and does make for an extremely frustrating work environment. Why does the administration get so stressed out about little things that happen at school? Why are we expected to sacrifice so much time to the job?

And that's just the smallest bit of it. It's been pretty illuminating to do the kind of generational surfing I've done today. I see a fair amount of overlap. While I don't claim any expertise and I am not in the process of making a checklist for my wallet so I can categorize anyone I come in contact with, I do feel a little bit more of the how and why of the differences driving much of who we are, especially at work.


TrendsMatter said...

Interesting blog, Bob, but it’s left out a key part of the picture: Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten lots of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press' annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. And most analysts now see generations as getting shorter (usually 10-15 years now), partly because of the acceleration of culture. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
Generation Jones: 1954-1965
Generation X: 1966-1978
Generation Y/Millennials: 1979-1993

Here are some good links about GenJones I found:

Bob said...

Thanks, I'm Jonesed about being a Joneser trying to keep up with the Joneses!

George Dyer said...

An interesting and useful question worth exploring is: What is it about one generation that generates the next?

Tockstar said...

Generation Jones sounds legit to me. I think of my parents as Baby Boomers, but anyone who's too young to have been drafted in the Vietnam War seems to be in another group entirely.

As for myself, I remember reading articles when I was a kid saying that teens in the mid-90s (me) were breaking with Gen X and forming their own collective mentality. According to Pew, that's not the case and I'm lumped in with folks born in the mid-60s, which just seems weird. I guess I defy categorization.

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