Chapter 1 A History of Uncertainty – The Generation Myth

CHAPTER 1

A History of Uncertainty

When U.S. Senator John McCain passed away in 2018, his one-time political opponent, former president Barack Obama, began a written statement by stating “John McCain and I were members of different generations, came from completely different backgrounds, and competed at the highest level of politics. But we shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher…” (Pennell 2018). This statement illustrates just how pervasive the idea of generational differences has become. President Obama could have opened his statements by listing a number of differences between himself and Senator McCain including, most notably, their differences in political ideology. But, seemingly, their differences in generation were more salient in how President Obama differentiated himself from the late senator. Such a salience possessed by an individual who has held the highest elected office in the United States is mirrored throughout our society.

As an informed society, we presume that we know a lot about generations; yet much of what was known from past theorists has been forgotten. This chapter begins with a reintroduction of how generations were discussed decades ago from a sociological perspective and then suggests that the original complexity of intergenerational phenomena has been overly simplified with time; hence, the need to further examine the “generation myth.”

Mannheim’s Perspective

Karl Mannheim’s work has been extremely influential in the field of sociology (Pilcher 1994). Though many of his influential works were written in the 1920s, most were not widely published until after his death in 1947. According to Mannheim (1970), a generation is an illusion whereby an “identity of location, embracing related ‘age groups’ in a historical-social process,” creates a “gestalt” (Mannheim 1970, p. 382). I take “gestalt” to mean “oneness.” Individuals and society might perceive oneness within a generation and believe that the collective characteristics of a generation apply to all individuals who they perceive to be members of a particular grouping. This definition of generation emphasizes a common location in terms of an historic time period, as well as having a collective consciousness (whereby generational members share similar understandings and interpretations of the world around them—more on this concept later in this book; Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011). However, it also suggests that generations are not strongly defined. In fact, Mannheim refers to them as “illusions,” and perhaps this is an acknowledgment of the variations within a generation that are likely to exist.

Other sociologists were influenced by Mannheim’s initial concept and support his definition in their research. For instance, sociologist Dr. Jane Pilcher (Pilcher 1994) states that the term “generation” is used for making sense of the differences that exist between members of various age groupings and, along with professors June Edmunds and Bryan Turner (Edmunds and Turner 2002), notes that cultural change is reflexively created and reinforced through such groupings. From this perspective, thought leaders help to provide a generation with its own unique philosophy, which ultimately leads to changes within society as the ideals and philosophies of prior generations lose sway. Such societal changes can thereby reinforce individuals’ concepts of themselves as members of a particular generation. In other words, some individuals who identify with a particular thought leader, her or his values, and the cultural shifts seemingly brought about by this person (or persons) are likely to consider themselves to be part of a particular generational group.

However, it is possible that not all people of a same certain age define themselves by the same generational label. Though useful, Edmunds’ and Turner’s view (Edmunds and Turner 2002), which explains how a concept of generation is reinforced, does not consider whether (or how) some individuals associate with a generation if they disagree with or are unaware of the ideals that are stated by the generation’s thought leaders.

Not identifying with a generation makes sense when considering Mannheim’s initial theory. Though it is labeled a gestalt and Mannheim suggests that generations possess a collective consciousness, he also alludes to the fact that individuals of particular age groups (i.e., generations) also show great uniqueness. Therefore, individual traits are often overlooked due to the illusion of oneness within a generation.

Oversimplifying “Generation”

The popular discourse on generations serves to conceal the fact that much extant research (at least within the realm of scholarly business research) has not examined generational phenomena under the guidance of a clear and distinct “generation concept.” That is, the way that researchers have defined a “generation” has varied over time and between researchers. Though attempts have been made to clarify and better define what the concept of generation represents (see Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011 for example [and more on their approach in the next chapter]), most business research falls back on examining the differences between age cohorts in the workplace. Unfortunately, this approach is often taken by popular press publications and common daily conversations that surround the topic of generational phenomena, including President Obama’s statement at the beginning of this chapter. It is quite possible, though, that “generation” is a more nuanced and distinct concept, as Mannheim hints. A purely age-based concept is clearly not what he suggests in his references to time and location, as well as the perceptions of a “gestalt” (i.e., considering the illusion of oneness or sameness) among members of a generation.

Pilcher (1994) states that Mannheim’s initial concept has been so overly simplified that the idea of “generation” is now cloudy and ambiguous. When concepts become too simplified, their usefulness diminishes. Cloudiness in generational understandings has significant implications for researchers and, perhaps even more importantly, for both the workplace and society. On the research side, researchers who study “generations” could actually be studying different phenomena, though they may be labeling them similarly. For example, one researcher might use the term “generation” to analyze differences between members of particular age groupings, while another researcher might use the term to describe a group of employees who were hired into an organization at the same time (i.e., a generation of employees to enter an organization), and a third researcher might use the term to describe how people within a family relate to each other (i.e., lineage). All of these potential meanings of “generation” are noted by organizational researcher Aparna Joshi and her colleagues (Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011; Joshi, Dencker, et al. 2017) and have been leveraged by scholarly researchers (albeit some more than others), but only the first (i.e., a strictly age-based approach) has been, as of yet, widely used in the popular press.

This approach is problematic because the ultimate role of academic research is to inform the public about important phenomena from a scientific perspective. If academics cannot agree on, or at least clearly specify, what a generation is, it is unlikely that public knowledge (which should be influenced by academic research) will also have a concrete grasp on the concept of “generation.” Similarly, if an academic’s definition is unique from the common societal understanding of “generation,” that person’s research results might not be well received by a nonacademic audience.

The cloudiness of the term “generation” is problematic, not just for researchers and academics, but also for business people in the workplace and for society as a whole. Employees who must attend training related to generational differences might not have the same understanding of a generation as fellow participants. In a sense, this could lead to training attendees speaking a different language from the training facilitator. The same issue might occur when individuals read publications on generations without the same definition as the one that the author assumes. In both cases, having a number of competing meanings for the term “generation” weakens the usefulness of the term and the phenomena that it represents. Even more troubling, the overuse of differences and stereotypes to describe somewhat arbitrary age-based groupings to discuss generations (as has been done often in popular discourse) can create an abundance of problems. Some of these problems are discussed in the next section and later in this book.

Use in the Discourse of Popular Culture

The term “generational differences” has become buzzworthy within the United States and throughout the world, as interest at a superficial level on generational phenomena has seemingly continued to rise. Improving the quality of intergenerational interactions at work is so important that many organizations feel the need to offer employee training in this area (Society for Human Resource Management 2005). Many practitioner-oriented publications have focused on the issues of generations in workplace contexts. One example of an important issue that has arisen is that, as older employees continue to work longer instead of retiring and younger employees join the workforce (and are sometimes expected to quickly assume leadership or decision-making roles), members of various generations need to communicate and function effectively together (Zemke 2001). A quick search through a bookstore or Amazon.com on mainstream popular publications related to generational differences, especially those directed toward working professionals, shows evidence that generational concerns are a significant issue.

When reading through the titles of these books and other articles on generational differences, I’m often struck at how many refer to conflict or views that members of particular generational categories behave problematically in some way. Note that many of them set up an “us versus them” conflict or power struggles to influence us to expect generational differences when we encounter someone from another generation. Some of the most extreme cases include titles that reference “age rage” or note that members of younger generations are “strangers.” Most of these titles focus on assumed differences that have not been academically confirmed. In essence, we are spreading lies or half-truths and setting up our culture to assume that intergenerational conflict is inevitable. Some stereotypes that I have heard of, though that are not necessarily “proven” by academia, seem to stress the differences between groupings, as shown in Table 1.1. Note that the purpose of providing such a chart is not to show my own agreement with these descriptors, but to merely show the ways in which generations have been popularly discussed. Also, while I include birth years from the cited references, these may vary depending on if you read a different reference.


Table 1.1 Popular stereotypes of generational groupings

Generation label and approximate birth years

Typical descriptors

Veterans/silents/traditionalists/mature (1922–1943)

Respectful of authority; work is an obligation; likes structure; follows rules; respects experience; distrust in technology; nonforward thinking

Baby Boomers (1943–1960)

Focused on career; self-absorbed; unchanging; conservative

Generation X (1960–1980)

Disrespectful of leadership; independent; the forgotten generation; careers are an irritant

Millennials/Generation Y (1980–2000)

Demanding of respect; comfortable with change; technology-focused; creative; entitled

Generation Z/Makers (born after 2000)

Entirely dependent on technology; prefers security and stability; multitaskers; focus on crowd-sourced solutions


Adapted from (QuotesGram n.d.) and (Generational Differences Chart n.d.)


How pervasive is the topic of generations in popular discourse? Let me share a personal story as an example. In December 2017, I attended a training seminar that was officially sponsored by a large international professional organization near Washington, DC. It was a three-day session attended by about 40 business professionals, and I was the only professor or academic in attendance. The session was on a topic that was completely unrelated to generational differences in the workplace—and yet, the instructor referred to popular stereotypes of generations that were mostly inaccurate or unsupported by research nearly 120 times (I started counting after an hour into the first day and lost count by the afternoon of the third day)! As the attendees considered this instructor to be an authority, I wonder how many walked away believing his statements about generations. I will note that I shared my research with him following the session in the hope that he would stop leveraging unfounded stereotypes in his sessions.

While popular discourse often focuses on the differences among generations and on both the positive and negative stereotypes associated with specific generations (for example, that Millennials are good with technology or that members of the Baby Boomer generation are likely to have long tenures with their employers), few publications or training events address the nuances of the generation concept that have been previously noted. They also do not address how or why individuals choose to act or not act in a manner that’s consistent with a generation’s stereotypical expectations. For example, consider those individuals who do not personally fit their generation’s stereotypes, yet act in a manner that supports those stereotypes. Imagine a member of a younger generation who is not comfortable with technology but who volunteers for a tech-related task; or a member of an older generation who wants to leave her role for a better opportunity, yet does not do so in part because she’s afraid that another organization will ask why she is leaving her current job, since Baby Boomers are assumed to prefer stability in their careers. In both situations, these employees engage in behaviors that might make them personally uncomfortable (e.g., volunteering for a tech role or staying in a job that leads to unhappiness), yet they act in these manners when these actions are supported by expectations that others have of them in a ­professional context despite not feeling a personal fit with these generational expectations.

Throughout my research, I’ve noted the following: (1) academic research does not support many of the stereotypical attributes associated with certain generations; (2) the concept of generation is often used to help individuals make sense of perceived differences in age-based groupings; and (3) individuals may come to either identify or dis-identify with the gestalt of perceived generational stereotypes, even those that are not supported by research. In other words, some individuals adjust their behavior to either conform with or distance themselves from stereotypical generational expectations. From this analysis, two questions become apparent:

  • Why do individuals enact or adopt generational ­stereotypes even if they do not fit their personalities, beliefs, or ­personal values?
  • How are generational identities that enact stereotypes encouraged to continue in society, even though research has found them to be inaccurate?

As I note in an article published in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships (Urick 2014), I believe that both of these questions can be informed by the theories of Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the last century. In particular, Goffman’s dramaturgical theory (Goffman 1959) is useful when considering generations as this theory illustrates why employees might engage in what organizational behavior researchers have termed “impression management” (Bolino, et al. 2008). Using dramaturgical theory can help make sense of why an individual might “act” (by which I mean behave as an actor on a stage does) or perform in a way to make others within a given context think that they either fit or do not fit a generation’s (as Mannheim puts it) “illusion” of oneness. When an employee engages in behaviors that fit with a generation’s stereotypical expectations—even if they don’t personally feel comfortable doing so—this supports the illusion of oneness and allows for generational stereotypes to continue. For example, consider the newly hired member of a younger generation who does not like to leverage technology at work, yet takes on technology-oriented assignments in her workplace. Because she is expected to volunteer for these types of assignments in her work context based on her age, she feels that taking on these roles will help her achieve a positive outcome, such as an eventual promotion. In other words, she “acts” according to the expectations that coworkers perceive are typical of her generation, even though she does not personally feel comfortable engaging in these activities. In doing so, she perpetuates the belief that all members of a younger generation enjoy working with technology. This type of behavior is precisely what Goffman considers.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Goffman 1959), Goffman explores the roles that individuals perform when engaging in actions. He argues that individuals are “on stage” when they are “acting” out roles in order to fulfill societal expectations. When considering generations, these expectations can form from Mannheim’s “illusion” of a gestalt, which creates expectations on how an individual should behave based on their membership in a certain generation.

The theory that the way that a person acts can change depending upon the context or situation has been supported in research on generational phenomena in organizations. Perceived stereotypes of incompetence may lead older workers to resist accepting assignments when they are viewed as challenging (Maurer, et al. 2008), for example. Perhaps unsurprisingly, if a mature worker is expected to fail in an assignment because of the generation that they belong to, they will likely act in a way that supports such societal expectations. By not accepting such an assignment, organizations could be missing out on the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are necessary to complete such a goal. In essence, dramaturgical theory has an impact on organizational performance: the individual will act in a manner so as to more effectively play to an audience. Once the situation is defined, the individual will seek to act in accordance with expectations that will make them appear in a positive manner to others. But how does an actor define the situation? In other words, how do they discover what the expectations might be of their generational role?

Often, one’s understanding of generational expectations comes from age-based stereotypes that are commonly discussed in popular discourse. Having an understanding of generational discourse can manifest itself in various behaviors in one of two ways. As previously noted, the first is that individuals might choose to act in accordance with common generational stereotypes when doing so within an organization will produce positive consequences, such as achieving a higher salary, or places them within a social collective within an organization that has power or prestige of some type (known academically as an in-group). The second manifestation is that individuals might choose to act in a manner that distances themselves from generational stereotypes if they perceive that doing so will produce positive consequences in cases where extreme generational biases might exist that limit the potential positive experiences that an individual might have. This is related to the concept of psychosocial age where individuals may seek to act in ways to cause them to be perceived to be either older or younger (Kooij, et al. 2008) in order to fit within a certain context or meet specific stereotypical expectations. The bottom line is that, according to dramaturgical theory, individuals will use their knowledge of generational expectations from how they’ve already heard generations discussed to adjust their behaviors to achieve positive results.

As such, a key point of Goffman’s approach (Goffman 1959) is that individuals act in certain ways in which they see a benefit within a given context. From his approach, one’s behaviors are adjusted within her or his context for the purpose of controlling an impression on an audience. In other words, even though an individual might act in accordance with generational stereotypes (supporting Mannheim’s illusion of the gestalt) in one situation does not mean that he or she will support these stereotypes in all situations. For example, consider once again the Millennial generational stereotype of technology proficiency. When a member of the Millennial generation is on a team tasked with rolling out a new software system, this person may seek to act in accordance with the often-positive Millennial stereotype of being good with technology in order to impress upon others that they are members of this generation. After all, doing so could likely lead to positive outcomes for that individual: respect within a multigenerational work group, self and others’ confidence in the person’s ability to perform, and perhaps workplace advancement opportunities.

Alternately, this same person may seek to act in ways that are dissimilar from Millennial stereotypes, such as having limited work experience, when sitting on an executive leadership team where its members are expected to possess practical decision-making experience. In this situation, a younger employee might arrive early to a meeting, dress more conservatively than might be expected of members of their generation, or shy away from taking notes on an electronic device to distance themselves from Millennial stereotypes. Some stereotypes that this person is actively seeking to avoid could include a lack of concern with deadlines (i.e., perhaps related to laziness or a sense of entitlement), informal preferences in appearance and attitude, and (in this case, perhaps the negative stereotype of) proficiency with technology. By acting in ways dissimilar from these stereotypes, an individual actor is essentially trying to send a signal that they are more mature than how a typical member of the Millennial generation is stereotyped. In essence, by using impression management techniques to either act in a way that supports or does not support membership and oneness with a generation, the individual will choose to draw or not draw on accepted generational stereotypes to give the impression to the audience of belonging or not in order to benefit their goals in a given situation.

What is meant by “context” or “situation?” Although context is a broad term, this partially refers to the generational discourse to which a person is exposed. Such discourse is not only encountered at the societal and interpersonal levels, but also at the organizational level, and thus could be unique for each organization. As a result, it is likely to be heavily influenced by an organization’s culture. In a workplace setting, context or situation could include an organization’s culture or structure, as well as nuanced aspects of the industry. For example, consider a tech startup in which a majority of employees belong to a younger generation. Youthfulness, an entrepreneurial and innovation-oriented attitude, and tech-savviness are often assumed to be related to age and valued within a culture of such an organization. For a Baby Boomer who is perceived to not want to change, to be out-of-touch with current technology, and to have an old-fashioned attitude, impression management techniques, including changing one’s appearance to look younger, consistently discussing successful tech-oriented roles during an interview, or taking the lead on working on highly technical tasks are ways in which they might “act” in order to fit in within this particular work setting.

As each culture values different things and each industry requires different skills to successfully compete, each workplace context is unique. Certain generations might be perceived to possess or lack the required skills (such as technology proficiency) that are needed to help an organization remain competitive. Some aspects of workplace context might include the following:

  • The importance and acknowledgment of generational ­categories: This includes the generations of the audience and other actors, as well as the amount of influence that actors attribute to generation as a gauge of status, knowledge, or expertise; for example, do most organizational members belong to a certain generation that is perceived to possess important skills?
  • The pervasiveness of generational stereotypes and expectations: Pervasiveness leads to preconceived notions of how generational members will act; for example, does the organization provide “company-approved” training on “generational ­differences” that reinforces stereotypical (but perhaps not academically supported) generational characteristics?
  • The skills required for job or task completion: This includes their relationship to the perceived skills that are inherent in generational stereotypes; for example, is innovation important within an organization’s industry, and are Millennials perceived to excel at “pushing the envelope” to help develop new products?
  • The strength of other demographic descriptors, roles, and identities of actors: This may encompass race, ethnicity, gender, ­family situation, and work or nonwork roles among others; for example, is belonging to a certain age or generation overshadowed by a common goal of being a contributor to the organization, thereby lessening the negative effects of multiple generations working together?
  • The values of the organization and nation/geographic region: These may include the need for representation of generational “tokens” for diversity programs; for example, do mature generations feel that they are part of an organization primarily because the organization wants older generational categories to be represented in a workforce solely to fill quotas, and not because they possess needed skills?
  • Personal characteristics of the actors: This encompasses personality, prior experiences, the knowledge and skill of acting in accordance with stereotypes, one’s values, and the personal level of investment in a generational category; for example, have employees regularly interacted with members from other generations, such that they have firsthand evidence that ­supports (or does not support) generational stereotypes?

Using these aspects of context, organizational actors will analyze their environment and try to manage their impression so that they will receive favorable outcomes, whether for the individual or for the organization. Examples of individual favorable outcomes include raises, promotions, being assigned to prestigious projects, and gaining the respect of coworkers. Examples of organization-wide favorable outcomes include attracting more customers, increasing profits, enticing additional investors, and becoming an attractive workplace for potential employees.

A more detailed hypothetical example is presented here to serve as a further illustration. Consider an employee in a younger generation who was recently hired at a law firm on the basis of her law school grades. However, when she enters the firm, she notices that a majority of the employees belong to an older generation. Furthermore, discussions of generational stereotypes are common. Among these discussions are anecdotes that younger generations do not possess the skills needed to be successful in representing clients because they do not have the same experience or personal network within the legal community as members of older generations. In a typical day, it is not uncommon for this employee to hear jokes about her age. She is consistently passed up for promotions and high-profile assignments (despite outperforming her older colleagues), and she attributes these occurrences to her membership of a particular generation based on her experiences with the organization’s culture.

This particular employee does not conform to the biased and stereotypical representation that her coworkers have of her generation (back to Mannheim’s “illusion” of its perceived oneness) and feels anger and frustration within her workplace. Like her colleagues, she has the skills needed to be successful and desires to achieve promotions and work on prestigious projects. However, instead of resigning due to this frustration, this employee decides to enact a different generational identity. She may change her physical appearance by changing her hair style, wearing glasses, or dressing more conservatively to make herself seem “older.” She consistently discusses her recent court case successes with colleagues from an older generation. Though each of these activities take some level of effort beyond what could be expected of other employees (and beyond what should be expected of her), she perceives that all of these new ways of “acting” will help others to not see her as a member of a younger generation, but instead as a solid contributor in the workforce. As a result, she hopes that she will be given the next high-profile assignment.

Introducing the “Generation Myth”

The premise of this book is to suggest that much of what we know about generations, intergenerational interactions, and generational differences is, in fact, not accurate. Thus, I’ve formulated what I call the “generation myth.”

What is a myth? Several years ago, I went to a “Bigfoot convention” with a friend of mine that was full of enthusiasts of the legendary beast. I went because I’m intrigued by this animal and the people who insist that they’ve had an experience with it. While there, I noted many presenters attempting to share evidence that shows the existence of Bigfoot. As someone skeptical of the existence of Bigfoot, the evidence was not compelling—but to those in attendance who believed that they had encountered the creature, the presenters were convincing. Thus, myths can help affirm what we already believe.

Myths also help us to make sense of the world we encounter. The ancient Greeks believed in the myths of the gods of Mount Olympus to help them understand natural occurrences, including the weather and astral phenomena.

However, myths can also contain an element of truth. My favorite author is J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote many myths. Tolkien believed that all myths had an element of truth if they resonated with the human spirit (Tolkien, Tolkien, and Carpenter 2000). While the specifics and details of each mythical story might not be exact, the spirit of the story contains truth if it resonates with something deep in people’s psyche (and, as ­Tolkien might say, “soul”).

From these statements, then, the concept of generation as myth makes sense. Believers in generational categories and differences look for evidence and toss out pieces of data that do not confirm their bias, just as believers of Bigfoot believe in spurious evidence of its existence. Yet, people are drawn to common generational categories because they help us make sense of and create order in our world, just as the ancient Greek myths helped to explain phenomena that they did not understand. On the other hand, examining generations can help us pay attention to potential challenges and difficult workplace interactions, which suggests that there may be some elements of usefulness to exploring generational categories and differences as suggested by Tolkien’s perspective on myths.

Furthermore, I define the “generation myth” in much the same way that Mannheim discussed the concept of generation before it was overly simplified to focus primarily on age-based stereotypes, when he referred to it as an “illusion” of oneness. While there may be some similarities between members of a certain age grouping, the idea of clear generational groupings is a myth, because of the following:

  1. There is a lack of agreement on the exact years in which generations begin and end. Read a few popular press or even academic articles on the topic and you will see that each likely has different demarcations for when generational groups begin and end.
  2. Given that some generational groups have decades-long spans of birth years to indicate membership, those individuals on the cusps of generations are perhaps similar to individuals who may only be a few birth years apart but may be labeled as part of a different generation. They also might not share much in common (in terms of generationally dictated values, ideals, or behaviors) with others who are potentially 20 years older or younger but are also labeled to be part of the individual’s generation.
  3. Given the above discussion, there are likely many instances in which individuals do not fit well with the assumed characteristics of their birth-year–related generation.

To formally define the “generation myth,” I suggest the following:

The elusive connection between birth year, or belonging to a ­particular generational label, and most of an individual’s behaviors or values.

I explore the concept of the generation myth and continue to question the explanatory power that one’s generation possesses throughout this book.

Summary

This chapter introduced the idea of the “generation myth” and questioned how much we actually know about generational phenomena. It further addressed the following:

  • Classic conceptualizations of “generations” from sociology suggest complexity: They consider a generation to be based on more than just biological age but included “location” and an “illusion” of oneness while suggesting that a great deal of variability can exist between members of a generational group.
  • Yet, the complexity of “generations” has largely vanished from popular discourse, which has overly simplified a “generation” to an age-based group.
  • This simplification has led to (often negative) perceptions of particular age groups that influence how people act and ­interact.
  • The “generation myth” suggests that we know less about generations than we may think and asks us to reexamine what we know to improve interactions, knowledge transfer, and ­mentorship.

What does the “generation myth” mean to real-world business professionals? Awareness goes a long way in improving interactions. For business people who are reading this, understanding that generational categories and differences are not necessarily exact or 100 percent accurate can go a long way toward reducing generational biases in the workplace while improving interactions. Thus, it is my hope that we can begin to question what we think we know about generations, so that we can build an approach to interacting with work colleagues that is based more on individuals and less on generational stereotypes.

Improving what we know can become difficult because, as we will see in the next chapter, the definitions and understandings of “generation” and “generational categories” are likely to be different for each individual. The next chapter helps us to explore a myriad of definitions.