Talking about generational differences is such a waste of time

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The amount of breathless navel-gazing over the differences between millennials and Boomers, Boomers and Z, Silents and X, Boomers and Silents, etc. could choke to death probably every single horse in Asia. I am not sure how many horses are in Asia, but it’s a large land mass, so I assume there’s a good amount of horses over there.

We talk about generational differences so much, and yet it means so little in the grand scope of things. I realize that a lot of times, someone needs to make an editorial deadline, and it’s relatively easy to vomit up 800 or so words about “young people today” and their “relentless attitude towards undeserved promotions” or whatever. I could literally write that article while going to the bathroom, and possibly at the bar. Heck, I am pretty sure I have written that article at the bar.

We have some new research, seemingly out of Rice University, about how dumb a topic all this is.

What does the research say?

You can start here. I will pull out a few things for you. Here’s №1:

For example, a thorough analysis of 20 different studies with nearly 20,000 people revealed small and inconsistent differences in job attitudes when comparing generational groups.

That’s kind of the “big one” to know. “Small and inconsistent differences.” Got it. But see, there is this problem too:

People’s stereotypes of older workers were largely positive and included words like “responsible,” “hard-working,” and “mature.” Yet older workers themselves worried that others might see them as “boring,” “stubborn,” and “grumpy.” The stereotypes of middle-aged workers were largely positive (“ethical”), and they believed the other age groups would see them as positive (“energetic”).

The reason we discuss this stuff is because it feels important to discuss, but it’s not actually important. Work is supposed to be about getting shit done, right? That’s what they tell us at least. So who cares how old you are or what music you listened to at 17 if you can get shit done, right?

Last place I worked the team I was on had a 72 year-old (Silent?), me (xillennial), 28 (millennial), and 52 (squarely X). Yes, there were differences among conversations and approaches, sure. Were they massive, work-defining differences? Absolutely not. Shit still broadly got done. Now, I have other issues with that place about the process of how shit got done, but that has absolutely nothing to do with age cohorts. Most of the people at that job making the trains run were 28–30 (millennial), and all the owners/bosses were squarely X to the point that I saw a few Nirvana t-shirts up in the halls. Place still got shit done, made money, etc. All the generational discussions are largely pointless navel-gazing.

There is a study linked above about teaching people to use Google Chat. If you perceive the person you are teaching to be older, your training quality goes down because you’re walking through stuff at a basic, plodding level. I could see that. If you perceive the person to be 26, your quality goes up. So, that’s a potential repercussion where age cohort does matter — but I’d put that more in the bucket of “Making assumptions about people you know nothing about,” which is essentially the rocket fuel on which most offices fly towards their moon.

Could we make less generational assumptions?

So long as Forbes and Fast Company are still posting about it every day? And so long as middle managers at HR tech vendor companies think they need to do “personas” by age cohort?


We’ll be in this mess for a while. But you, dear reader, at the individual level? Just realize none of this matters as much as you think.

I know Boomers who slay on text and even Snap. I know 26 year-olds who can’t turn on a laptop. Everyone is their own unique little snowflake, and generalizations at the broadest levels, about cohorts constituting millions of people, do nothing but allow us to make assumptions and say generic shit that won’t move “the biz” forward much at all.

Your take?

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