Why do we talk so much about the differences between generations?

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Lots of mindless chatter over the past few years about generational differences, especially millennials (“They need feedback, Gary!”) vs. Boomers (“They’re holding on until retirement, Neil!”). Most of this is trifling garbage. I myself am guilty of contributing to the noise, however. To wit on generational differences:

Now we’ve got some new research and context on how overrated generational differences are.

Generational differences and the job search

This feels like an important topic. If you look at unemployment numbers, one of the concerning elements is guys who simply dropped out of the work force. Usually it’s someone who was making X-amount of money pre-2008, then couldn’t get a job at that level again. Second issue: job-hopping is pretty much the only way in modern business to make more money. Yet, HR departments tend to have a stigma associated with job-hopping. So if you hop a few times to get 3–4 better salaries for your family, some HR flak will eventually deem you “unstable” because you did that. It’s a nice little cycle out there.

Here’s an article called “What Millennials Want From A New Job.” When I first opened it, I cringed. I figured it would be the same trite buzzword-laden bullshit about generational differences. In many ways, it is. But look at this graphic:

There’s not much difference, really. Boomers are blue, and millennials are orange. The only area with a lot of gap is “opportunity to learn and grow,” which is logical — millennials are younger and would (should) need that. Overall compensation is a bit different, which is also logical — Boomers probably have mortgages and kids/grand-kids, which is less a concern for millennials. Otherwise, almost all the numbers are the same. (Boomers maybe didn’t vote on informal work environment, oddly.)

What does this tell us about generational differences?

That they’re mostly BS and don’t exist as much as we think, especially around “what people need/want from a job.” Think about it like this: I worked for a 60 year-old once who had absolutely no idea about technology, digital, mobile, etc. Everything was over his head. By contrast, my former father-in-law is almost 60. He has the newest version of every Apple product under the sun and knows how to use all of them. Same age range, very different approaches. I know social media influencers in their late 50s killing it on Snapchat, which is supposedly the domain of early-2osomethings. We love to discuss generational differences, but they’re not as prevalent as we think.

So why does this happen?

Easiest answer: many human beings are pretty lazy when it comes to thinking about things, and it’s easier for our brains to group people into boxes. We do this every day with a thing called “confirmation bias,” and that thing pretty much explains why work sucks for a lot of people (or why your parents still think you’re incapable of doing adult things).

The other thing is that these cycles always happen. Older generations always characterize and stereotype younger generations. It’s only become more confusing with more technology everywhere, and faster ways of doing business. The older generations are like “Whoa, what’s happening? What is Basecamp? Why does this intern know more about where files are than I do?” Rather than learn and embrace, a lot of people choose to point fingers and put people in roles/boxes. It’s lame, but psychologically and brain evolution-wise, it makes a lot of sense.

The third reason is that comparing and contrasting generational differences makes for easy journalism, book topics, speeches, and “thought leadership.” If you can make $2,000 on a speech breathlessly discussing millennials, hell, who wouldn’t?

In short: laziness wins.

What should we be doing about generational differences?

I wouldn’t say ignore them, because there are aspects that need to be considered. But I would say “talk about them less.” Instead, manage people as individuals — it doesn’t matter if they are 25 or 65, it matters what their strengths are and how they can benefit the company. Ryan Holmes, the CEO of HootSuite, blows up the idea of generational differences and says we’re all “Generation C,” or the connected generation. You could be 70 or 26. But if your work requires OneDrive and Asana and Basecamp and Box, well, you need to learn those things and embrace the collaborative elements. We’re all in the game together, at least in a work (“we work for the same company”) context.

Most so-called managerial tools just allow managers to be lazy as hell and hide behind them. Good examples include:

  • Email
  • Once-per-year performance reviews
  • Team meetings that never change format despite broad ineffectiveness
  • Etc.

Lazy, bad management costs you $144,531 per day. (Or $15.5M per year.) It’s time to stop it. And always discussing generational differences just plays right into that.

Brief funny story

Had a job recently where everyone was clueless about social/digital/mobile. It was an old-school company that made money other ways. For social, they were tracking “impressions,” which is miserable. Impressions barely mean anything. 24,000 impressions on a Facebook post and a subway pass might not even get you on the subway. Anyway.

The CMO of this joint stands up at a meeting once and talks about how great social is going. Everything is ideal and perfect. Butterflies! Utopia! Why? “Well, we hired a millennial to manage social, and millennials know social the best…” This is complete and total horse manure. I sat next to that millennial. She was nice, smart, and I liked her. But most of what she did all day was dictated by her boss’ boss, who was not a millennial. This millennial chasing impressions was mostly doing box-checking assigned by a late Gen-X’er, but the easier narrative was this: “Generational differences explain this growth based on useless metrics.” There are more holes in that story than in a frat boy’s underwear come finals time, but we all buy into this nonsense.

A 2017 resolution!

Let’s stop discussing generational differences so much and instead treat people as individuals with pros and cons for our business model. Isn’t that what millennials would want? Oops! I messed up!

What else would you add on generational differences?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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