Chapter 2 Defining “Generation” – The Generation Myth

CHAPTER 2

Defining “Generation”

Hebrew Scripture tells the story of the Tower of Babel. This story represents a myth about how and why people around the world speak different languages. The story recounts that people (who had all previously communicated using the same language) tried to build a tower so high that it would reach heaven so they could become divine. But, through the process of building the tower, their speech became confounded so that they could not understand each other, and as a result, different languages were created.

The study of generations at work is similar to this myth in that, though one definition of generation has been advanced almost exclusively in popular discourse, there are a number of other ways that the idea of “generation” can be understood. Just as in the story of the Tower of Babel, confusion and misunderstanding can occur when people fail to speak the same language when they discuss generational phenomena. As this chapter will show, it is possible that each individual has a somewhat nuanced understanding of generations, despite the pervasive age-based definition that workforce training events, popular business publications, and everyday conversations rely on constantly.

The previous chapter explored the history of how both researchers and society at large have understood and studied generations. At its conclusion, the chapter highlighted the idea of the “generation myth” that suggests that we actually know less about generations than we think; or, rather, that what is often considered to be accurate knowledge about generations is inaccurate. Perhaps individuals intuitively know quite a lot about generations. However, the way generations are discussed in popular culture is often overly simplified, such that common discourse influences society to think generations are less complex than they actually are (and less complex than our individual instincts tell us that they are). As individuals abandon their own complex views for the adoption of the oversimplified versions that they often hear, more problems are created. Therefore, this chapter explores the complexity of the generation phenomena by suggesting a variety of ways in which “generation” has been understood. It begins by articulating a strictly biological age-based approach, which is the simplest and most common understanding of generation found in popular discourse.

In research that I’ve worked on with my colleagues, we’ve identified seven different ways that “generation” can be understood. They are listed in Table 2.1 (and are elaborated in this chapter). The table includes some representative quotes from interviews that we conducted during the course of our research.


Table 2.1 Categories and examples of ways to understand “generation”

Category of understanding

Details

Illustrative quotes

Collective consciousness

Growth ­time/environment: Individuals in generations grow up during a similar time and in a similar place, which helps to set their collective understanding

“I belong to the generation that grew up in the 1940s with the wars and in the 1950s, from an educational point of view, in a small town where everybody knew you.”

Historic events: Members of a generation experience and understand specific historic events similarly during their formative years, which leads to trends within their generation

“Baby Boomers, they had their Woodstock; they had their ‘free’ period, and now they’re focused. I would imagine Baby Boomers are a bit scared because of retirement funds and their savings and things like that [which] are not as stable as they thought they were. So they thought they could retire sooner rather than later and that’s not the case.”

Media influence: Members of particular generations are characterized by how they’re portrayed in the media, or by types of media that were influential at certain times

“The music of the current generation is basically monochromatic—the same. I define some of it as bang and scream and it’s the same notes over and over again and it’s the same words over and over again. That’s one distinction I make that I see. Another generation I see is my own generation. They perceive the 1950s as the Rock and Roll Generation…Everybody talks about the 1950s being the Elvis era.”

Genealogy

Lineage: Generations are defined by lineage within a family or organizational structure (parent-child, third generation born in the US, second CEO)

“It’s a simple word: ‘generations.’ I’m one generation; my parents are another one, and my grandparents were another one, so nothing fancy.”

Placement within context of other generational groups: Generations are defined by their interface with other generations; one knows one’s own generation based on the borders of an older and/or younger generation

“Well it means, to me, people that are one generation younger than I am … or a generation older”

Life stage

Life stage: One’s generation is defined by the maturity of its members

“I don’t think I would ever lie about my age, but I would like them (older colleagues) to perceive that I am more mature than how old I am.”

Age-based

Common categories: Generations are understood primarily by the four biological age groupings (Y, X, Baby Boomers, and Veterans)

“Generation Y … they don’t want to work ... They don’t want to move out from mom and dad. They want to stay as long as they can. They feel entitled a little bit. I wouldn’t say there’s something overly great about the characterizations of Generation Y … You’ve got the Baby Boomers who have such a huge reputation and they’re in the news all of the time. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot being said either positively or negatively about Generation X.”

20–30-year span: A new generational grouping occurs every 20–30 years

“I tend to go with the actuarial 20-year span of groupings of people.”

Younger/older: Generations are best understood as two distinct groupings: young and old

“I think the younger generation, their mothers were—they had a little bit more respect for—we weren’t just pregnant and cooking dinner, not to them. So I think I get more respect and consideration from the generation behind me.”

Identity

Generational identity: Salient generational categories or groupings can be labeled as “identities,” which individuals can draw upon

“I almost think of (Generation X) as being a generation without a great sense of identity, just like the name Generation X.”

Identification: Individuals identify (or not) with the stereotypical traits of a particular generation

“For me, Generation Y—I feel like I’m a little too old for it. But, the part that I identify probably most with Generation Y is the idea of … independence within the workplace seems to be a theme within Generation Y. That’s something that I identify with. The thing I don’t identify with is the sense of entitlement.”

Contribution

Contribution: Generations are understood as groups of individuals who make some distinguishable impact on society

“Our dedication to work and to goals. I think that stands out in our generation … as far as ‘the common good of society.’ Donating time, volunteering.”

Ambiguous/ Irrelevant concept

No (or limited) value: Examining generations has limited practical value

“When you spread it (the concept of generation) to broader social issues, you have to come up with some way to do it … But I’m not sure they really hit the nail on the head.”

Intrageneration variation: There are many differences that exist between individuals within the same generation

“I see some older people who act very immature and I see younger people who act very mature. I don’t think I can (define generation)—again, I don’t stereotype by age or by attitude or belief or whatever you want to call it.”

Personality: Individuals’ personality has greater explanatory power than a generational grouping

“I think it’s all based upon the values that are inherent within the person no matter what the generation is.”


Adapted from (Urick, Hollensbe, and Fairhurst 2017).


Age Cohorts

Most attention on generations, especially from a pop-culture perspective, has focused on a biological age—based approach. In this approach, individuals of certain ages, dictated by the year in which they were born, encompass a generation and are given a generational label. Perhaps this seems obvious as a definition of generation; but, as will be discussed later in this chapter and as Table 2.1 suggests, there are quite a number of ways of defining generation. Not all of these definitions exclusively draw on age, though all use age as at least a partial component of understanding the concept of generation.

As discussed in Chapter 1, popular generational groupings or categories based on birth (from youngest to oldest) currently in the workplace include the following (Smola and Sutton 2002):

  • Generation Y (also commonly known as Millennials): born between early 1980s and early 2000s according to most sources; stereotyped as lazy, entitled, and tech-savvy
  • Generation X: born between early 1960s and early 1980s according to most sources; stereotyped early on as slackers, now considered a “sandwich generation” who may best serve as conduits of knowledge between generations (Urick 2017); often thought to seek work–life balance
  • Baby Boomers: born between early 1940s and mid-1960s according to most sources; often currently stereotyped as conservative, unchanging, and stable, though this is a marked difference from earlier stigmas, when the generation was identified as “hippies” in their earlier years
  • The Veteran Generation (often occasionally called “Silents”): born before the mid-1940s according to most sources; there are comparatively few members left in the workplace.

Some researchers and popular press articles also discuss Generation Z (who are known by a variety of other names as well, since a consensus has not emerged yet on what to call this group), born after the early 2000s. Stereotypes are still swirling around as to what expectations society and workplaces might have when considering Generation Z. As this group has not entered the workplace (at least not yet in force) at the time of writing this book, I won’t mention this label or grouping much here. As for other writings on generations at work, most have not yet discussed this group either, but instead focus on the first three generations noted in the bullet points above, as these are the most prevalent in modern workplaces.

Much of the research done by business academics has focused on defining samples of workers that they study based on the age groupings that have been suggested by the previous popular generational labels (Lyons and Kuron 2013; Parry and Urwin 2011). In these research pieces, researchers seem to somewhat arbitrarily select cutoff years while largely sticking to the conventional popular generational categories, as noted earlier. Though it would appear from the popular press that generational differences do exist based on these groupings, in a comprehensive analysis of generational differences regarding job satisfaction, commitment, and turnover intentions (aspects that are often assumed to be different between generations by business academics/researchers), generational researcher David Costanza and his team (Costanza, et al. 2012) found few significant differences among members born within the common generational categories, a finding that suggests that categories based on age alone may not be the most useful way to understand generations. Nevertheless, a strictly age-based conceptualization defined by birth year is common. While other definitions of generation (noted below) recognize a time-based aspect to understanding the concept of generation, this approach brings age to the forefront. In the following, I’ll note other approaches to understanding generation that assume characteristics in addition to age.

Collective Consciousness, Family, and Maturity

Beyond age cohorts, generations have also been defined by collective consciousness, family, and maturity level. I group these together in this section because, though they are not the most common way of understanding generation, they’ve been discussed somewhat frequently (at least in sociological academic literature). They were detailed in Table 2.1.

Based on Mannheim’s sociological theory (Mannheim 1970) discussed in Chapter 1, society and members of a particular generation perceive oneness with a generational “gestalt” and believe that the collective characteristics of a generation generalize to all individuals who are encompassed by the generational label. In this view, members of each generation (as a collective) encounter some event(s) early in their lives that ultimately shape their understanding of the world and distinguish them from other generational groupings (Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011). According to this theory, this shared experience of events occurring during formative years sets a generation’s values, motivators, and characteristics, thus demarcating where the generation begins and ends (Schuman and Scott 1989). Such a demarcation may or may not fall in line with specific birth years. After all, people may respond to the same event as a formative experience, yet be of a different biological age. Examples of such events can range from shocking (9/11, the Challenger explosion) to deeply affecting over the long term (Vietnam War, Great Recession) to the mundane (gas prices, popular motion pictures).

The genealogical definition of generation represents generations as a lineage. As with the concept of lineage in a family, one’s generation is determined by where she or he fits with regard to familial succession (Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011). The concept of lineage has potential usefulness in a business environment (even in nonfamily businesses) such as when describing the succession of a role. For example, CEO succession, in which the title, responsibilities, and perhaps some values passed from one CEO to another can represent an organizationally based nonfamilial lineage. A CEO might be described as “third generation” if they are the third CEO of an organization.

Generations have also been defined according to common or shared rites of passage. In this view, individuals at a particular life stage experience events that contribute to their maturity (Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011). Such events or rites of passage influence membership of a generation by including all those who experienced such events together or nearby in temporal proximity to be a part of a particular generational grouping. In the workplace, this might occur when a group of people (a generation) enter an organization and complete orientation at the same time (Joshi, Dencker, et al. 2017).

Identities

An alternative to the above definitions is to view generations through an identity framework. According to renowned researcher Aparna Joshi and her colleagues (Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011), from an identity perspective, generation is based on the way in which individuals define themselves (or others) by drawing on their membership in various social groupings that are significant to them.

A key feature in Joshi’s and colleagues’ (Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011) definition of generational identity is “membership,” which is related to how people classify themselves (Tajfel and Turner 1985) and perceive identification, belonging, or oneness with a group (Ashforth and Mael 1989). Generations can be seen as social identities, “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership in a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership” (Tajfel 1979). In forming a generational identity, individuals often leverage some of the other understandings of generation that have been previously noted.

Thus, unlike other definitions, generations as identities are not confined to particular events, roles, cohorts, or age groups—though this perspective suggests that individuals might draw on any of these in informing their generational identity. In fact, it is likely that individuals draw upon multiple aspects in defining their generation. They incorporate these aspects into their definitions of self or others. Also (as will be shown later in this chapter) individuals often discuss aspects of belonging and self-definition when describing generation as further evidence that an identity basis to understanding generation could be useful. Since such social identities are pivotal in the development of how people and groups interact both inside and outside organizations (Hogg, van Knippenberg, and Rast 2012), understanding generations as social identities allows us to understand why people make “us versus them” comparisons between perceived generational groups. Keep in mind that, just because research has shown that clear differences were not always found between the common age-based generational categories in the workplace, people are likely to continue to use stereotypes associated with these labels to inform their generational identity, because they are common in both organizational and societal discourse.

Individuals may identify closely with a particular generation as a result of seeing the membership with a certain group’s related discourse/stereotypes as being consistent with their views of who they are as a person. For example, when defining themselves, individuals could draw on an age group (such as “Baby Boomer”) in which collective memories are shared (like Woodstock, for example) to form a generational identity that draws extensively from the age-based understanding of generation that was previously noted. Membership in a social group of individuals who experienced Woodstock (assuming that these individuals are of a similar age) could therefore become the basis of their definition of their generation.

Individuals can also identify with roles and, more specifically, with how roles relate to each other (Ashforth, Harrison, and Corley 2008; Sluss and Ashforth 2007). When individuals draw on relationships with those who have preceded or succeeded them in a particular role (related to the genealogy-based generation noted above) in defining themselves, this generational membership category forms the basis for their definition of generation. For example, in the realm of science fiction, Captain Picard and his team in the popular “Star Trek” series were defined as “The Next Generation,” as they followed Captain Kirk and his team as the crew of the USS Enterprise.

Finally, when individuals draw on a set of organizational experiences and outcomes that they share with a group of new recruits in an organization (such as experiencing orientation together, which is a life stage-based generational identity) (Ashforth and Mael 1989; Brickson 2000), this membership forms their generational definition.

Such social identification stems from several things, including the categorization of individuals as members of certain groups or roles; the distinctiveness and prestige of the group or role to which an individual perceives their own membership (known as the in-group); and the recognition and salience of other different nonoverlapping groups or roles (known as the out-groups) (Ashforth and Mael 1989). Note the relevance to the dramaturgical approach that was discussed in the previous chapter. People will try to enact expected generational behavior only if that group is valued in a context; that is, it’s likely that the group is perceived as an in-group to influential individuals and decision makers in an organization. If one’s generational identity is perceived as an out-group to those with power in an organizational context, individuals may either begin to disidentify (more on this later) with this identity or try to act in a way that disconfirms its associated stereotypes.

With the possibility of crafting an identity in an organizational context in a manner that is perceived to be positive, could it also be the case that the more an individual understands discourse on generations so that they enact expected behaviors the more they actually begin to identify with that generational category? It’s entirely possible. Identification occurs when an individual values a group or role, possibly because they see a benefit to being a part of this group, and furthermore, they might begin to perceive this group as contributing to a sense of self. Because of the attachment of value and emotion to a group or role is part of identification (Ashforth, Harrison, and Corley 2008), individuals may begin to perceive similar values between generational members and themselves, which will continue to make their identification with a given generation stronger and encourage them to continue to enact expected behaviors. If one highly identifies with the group or role, the individual will readily draw on it as an identity in defining the self (Haslam and Reicher 2006) and will act accordingly. Of course, this usually occurs only when an individual is exposed to discourse that is related to an identity, such as a generational category.

With regard to generations, while an individual might draw upon the various generational understandings noted above to define self and others, individuals often use the most socially accepted generational understanding of the age-based approach, whose generational labels would include the Baby Boomer or Generation X designations. From these categories, individuals can group themselves and others into certain generational designations. Various researchers (Ashforth, ­Harrison, and Corley 2008) postulate that such categorization fulfills the two basic human needs of inclusion and differentiation (Brewer and Brown 1998) and, because some generational stereotypes are so strong and well-understood, a generational label can help to fulfill these needs. Thus, people classify themselves and others into generational groups as a result of their perceived oneness with the thoughts, values, and stereotypes popularly associated with their members to benefit them in some way, including the hope of achieving both belonging and uniqueness.

Individuals can perceive a psychological bond (or identification) with a generational group in the absence of physical contact (Deaux 1996) with others in that group. An individual may closely identify with the prototypical characteristics of a particular generation, but may not have much interaction in the workplace with others who belong to that generation. As Mannheim (Mannheim 1970) notes, even though there may not be a close personal social bond between members of a generation, individuals may identify with a generation because of a shared consciousness stemming from similar experiences within a larger social group such as the workplace as a whole or society at large.

The above discussion might sound theoretical, but it has been supported by real-world practical research. I’ve worked extensively on research related to generational identity with colleagues from various universities throughout the United States and Canada (as well as throughout the world) to study such issues. To examine generation through an identity framework, one of my major projects entailed conducting a qualitative study with researchers from the University of Cincinnati, in which we began by asking a sample of professionals who were diverse in age, occupational role, industry experience, educational level, gender, length in the workforce, and career stages to tell us about how they defined generation. The individuals we studied were drawn from two different pools: a young professional sample participating in a leadership training program conducted by a large Midwestern United States chamber of commerce, and a group of mature professionals who volunteered at a not-for-profit small business consulting organization with a chapter based in a mid-Atlantic city. In total, we analyzed interviews from nearly 60 individuals.

Though age varied greatly among the members of our sample, the majority of our interviews were with individuals from the oldest and youngest generations that are currently in the workforce. This is beneficial to learning more about generational phenomena, because one generation is the source of most new job entrants, while the other is the source of significant cumulative organizational knowledge. Examples of some of the interview questions that were analyzed to understand how our interviewees understood generations include:

  • When someone says the word “generation,” what do you think of?
  • What does this word mean to you?
  • What are some ways to describe your generation?
  • Does this fit you or not fit you?
  • What do you believe are some differences between ­generations?
  • What are some similarities?

In the interviews, I deliberately did not define the term “generation,” yet the idea that generations could be identities that are readily used to define the self or others clearly emerged in the interviewee responses.

In each interview, I found many passages related to generation identity and identification with generations (among other phenomena, which we will explore further later). Some major themes emerged regarding generations as identities, including the findings that generations can be strong identities, clear evidence of identification with generational identities, and disidentification with and de-prioritizing of generational identities. I explore each of these areas below. For the sake of brevity, I’ll paraphrase the quotes and stories from our discussions in the presentation below while maintaining the spirit of what was stated. For a more elaborate presentation of our study’s data on generational identity beyond that included in Table 2.1, including presentations of interviewees’ statements in their own words, I suggest that interested readers examine the 2014 book chapter I co-authored with Dr. Elaine Hollensbe, an expert on qualitative research from the University of Cincinnati, in Generational Diversity at Work: New Research Perspectives edited by Dr. Emma Parry, one of the preeminent scholars on generational phenomena in the workplace, from Cranfield University in England.

Generations as Strong Identities

There are at least two parts to the term “identity”: it answers the self-referential questions “who am I?” (individual identity) and “who are we?” (collective identity) (Ashforth, Harrison, and Corley 2008). As previously mentioned, individuals draw on group membership, such as a generational group, to develop a sense of who they are (Tajfel and Turner 1985). In order for an individual’s identity to be influenced by a generation, that group must have features that resonate with an individual’s beliefs and values; or, at the very least, possess features that benefit the individual in some manner by being a member. My research team and I found that individuals perceived generations as having unique identities that were quite strong (i.e., clear, easily recognizable). For example, several interviewees noted varying levels of strength when discussing age-based generational descriptors.

To illustrate, one of the study participants, a 26-year–old male, plainly noted that the Veteran and Baby Boomer labels have clearer identities than do younger generations, such as Generation X, due to being anchored to major historical events (such as Woodstock). In his elaboration, this participant drew on multiple generational understandings when describing identity strength. In his response, he leveraged both age-based categories and collective consciousness by suggesting that events (like Woodstock) help form an identity while, at the same time, describing age-based generational labels (i.e., Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X) through an identity lens (i.e., associating both with membership and self-definition). The larger point, however, is that from his and others’ perspectives, some of the popular generational designations have clear identities.

As an example of younger generational categories not having clear identities, one older male participant noted that Generations X and Y are completely man-made labels that he has heard discussed, but that he does not accept. His statements reinforce the idea that popular categorizations of generations are a collection of labels that, though “man-made,” are recognizable social groupings made familiar through understanding societal discourse. Though this particular participant does not accept these identities as useful or accurate, he recognizes them all the same. Such recognition can unconsciously set expectations for how generational members are believed to behave, despite the potential for individuals to not consciously accept the generational groupings as legitimate.

With some exceptions, such as the statement detailed in the previous paragraph, most interviewees clearly articulated various traits and characteristics that are associated with generational identities and agreed with such characterizations. For example, some common descriptors of “younger generations” including “entitled,” “me-focused,” and “short term-oriented” were noted by interviewees and tended to agree with many of the stereotypes of age-based groupings present in organizations and society. In particular, the perceived identities of younger generations were most often based on stereotypical traits or characteristics that members of the groups were often assumed to possess, despite there being no clear evidence of these traits (Costanza, et al. 2012; Parry and Urwin 2011). Therefore, when considering at least some generational identities, attributes that people might believe to be defining features of a generation may, in fact, be based on perceptual errors. This occurred more frequently in my interviews for members of younger generations who have often had negative stereotypes used to describe their group characteristics (by all ages of interviewees, not just the older participants).

Participants reported various characteristics of particular generations as defining salient generational groups. Identities of generations have been reinforced either through perceptions (or misperceptions) of specific traits, behaviors, or linkages to historic events. However, some generational groupings did not have as strong or recognizable identities as others, which suggests that there is some variability in the strength of generational identity.

Identification with Generations

Identification occurs when individuals attach part of their own self-definition to a larger group. They perceive themselves as having characteristics similar to the prototypical characteristics of that group (Ashforth, Harrison, and Corley 2008; Ashforth and Mael 1989). When asked to discuss their definitions of generations, some participants in my study noted that generations are groups with which individuals can identify or find a connection.

As an illustration, a 76-year–old female participant noted that generation is more than just age. To her, it included identifying with a place, significant life events, and historic societal events. While her statements include age-based and collective conscious-based aspects of generation, they include many other complex elements of generation, including physical location, as a basis for identification. This makes sense when considering whether or not similar generational categorizations exist in different geographic regions (the United States and Turkey, for example; Urick and Arslantas 2018) as generational perceptions, generational groupings, generational characteristics, and even the definition of the word “generation” are likely to differ based on physical location. Additionally, it is often assumed that generations are based on formative years or when an individual “grew up.”

As another example, one of the participants from the younger sample (age 25), linked his perception that Generation Y is adept at using technology with his own self-definition. He identifies with this generation because he is also personally good with technology. In his and other participants’ statements, he regularly used “we” when discussing a generational grouping as evidence of his own generational identification. Participants regularly discussed various traits or collective characteristics that they associated with particular generations, as well as the extent to which they accepted and internalized those traits and characteristics and used these to enact stereotypical behaviors. In other words, if a generational category has expected characteristics that are appealing or familiar, individuals will draw on these characteristics in defining themselves. In my interviews, I consistently noted instances in which participants clearly stated that they identified or connected with a particular generation, which were often evidenced by discussing their own generational group membership.

Based on the prevalence of using age as a basis for defining generations (Costanza, et al. 2012; Joshi, Dencker, and Franz 2011), it is perhaps logical that age would also be a basis for identifying with a particular generation. However, some of our interviewees indicated that they do not identify with their particular birth-year generation, but that they identify more with a generation other than the one into which they were born (i.e., someone being a Millennial by birth, but identifying more with the expected values and behaviors of the Veteran generation). In other words, they viewed the concept of generation as fundamentally an identity issue.

As an example of alternate (non-birth-year) generational identification, a 30-year–old female participant noted that, though she has a biological age suggesting her membership in Generation Y, she instead identifies with Generation X. Even though this individual understands herself as being part of an age-based generational grouping (Generation Y), she does not feel that she closely identifies with its assumed characteristics; rather, she identifies with another generational grouping. Thus, in some cases, knowledge of other generational groupings’ perceived characteristics allows individuals to identify with generational groupings other than those that one’s biological age might suggest.

As a personal example, I am technically on the cusp of Generation X and Generation Y (depending on which particular birth cut-off years are used in the publication that you read) but identify with neither of their stereotypical traits. Though I don’t necessarily identify with the label Veteran (or other terms for this particular older grouping, including Silents or the Mature Generation), I am drawn to elements that I associate with that generational category. For example, I was close with my grandfather while growing up and I believe that he passed on a lot of his values to me, with which I closely identify. Furthermore, in addition to my academic career, I lead and perform with a swing band that often plays big band music from the 1940s or earlier (a style popular with individuals with birth years that correspond to the Veteran generation)—this is something that I consider unique to someone such as myself who grew up in the 80s.

In many instances, individuals tend to identify with generations with which they are both familiar and that might be of benefit to their career in some way (note again the connection to Goffman’s dramaturgical approach discussed in the previous chapter). In determining the generation that an individual will identify with, it may be the case that those generations with the strongest collective identities in the minds of the individuals are likely candidates to serve as a basis for identification.

Disidentification with and De-Prioritizing of Generational Identities

The opposite of identifying with a generation is disidentifying with a generation. Disidentification is when an individual defines oneself as not having the same attributes that he or she believes define a particular group (Elsbach and Bhattacharya 2001). Several of the interviews that my research team conducted highlighted individuals criticizing, rejecting, or disavowing aspects of a generation into which they saw themselves falling (usually with regard to the generational grouping that corresponded with their biological age). In many cases, interviewees made statements along the lines of “that’s what my age group is like, but it doesn’t describe me.” Some people may do this because, as Goffman (Goffman 1959) suggests, disavowing one’s generational membership may allow an individual to benefit within a given context. As a result, a person will try to engage in behaviors to overcome particular negative generational stereotypes.

For example, one 69-year–old male participant who has been involved with technology throughout his career described his generation as shying away from computers and technology; yet, in his statements, he distanced himself from others of his age by suggesting how much he used technology, thereby disidentifying with this generational attribute. He was not alone with his statement in distancing himself from a trait that some would perceive to be a negative characteristic of a generation. In my research, I’ve seen many participants, especially those of younger age groups, clearly using tactics to disidentify with their generation on the basis of contradicting their own personal level of laziness, negative job performance, and lack of community involvement, as well as other particular traits often ascribed to their generational age group. In every instance, participants would state that their generation behaved in a certain manner, but that they personally did not.

In other examples, some participants even disidentified with their generation on the basis of how they interacted with other generations. For instance, a 78-year–old female interviewee criticized others in her generation for not supporting, mentoring, or respecting younger generations, which are crucial activities necessary for organizations to continue to succeed, as will be noted later in this book. Throughout our conversation, she clearly provided examples of how she personally did support and attempt to understand those in younger generations, thus disidentifying with and distancing herself from her perceptions of her own age-based generational grouping.

Generational identities can be so well recognized that individuals might acknowledge their prototypical traits, yet distance themselves from these characteristics. Again, I suggest that distancing oneself from the traits of a generation is most likely to occur when doing so will benefit the individual in some way. In some cases, rather than disidentifying outright with a generation, interviewees established a hierarchy of identities where they valued some memberships more than others.

For example, a 33-year–old male participant described how he would feel if someone criticized his generation. He noted that one’s generation is just one of many ways in which a person might define him- or herself. In his response, this participant placed generation low on the list of things that are important to who he is. Thus, by establishing an identity hierarchy, individuals may disavow association with a generation’s perceived features in lieu of other more valued identities. Another participant, a 28-year–old female, elaborated more on deprioritizing generation by stating that her generation is less important than other ways she would describe herself. In particular, younger interviewees repeatedly distanced themselves from Generation Y (and its other label “Millennials”) in their list of groupings that they would identify with, often because of some of the stigmas associated with being young or inexperienced in the workplace.

Individuals do not solely define themselves by one group to which they belong, but instead maintain a variety of social and personal identities upon which they draw to create their concept of self. According to the research team of Glenn Kreiner, Elaine Hollensbe, and Mathew Sheep (Kreiner, Hollensbe, and Sheep 2006) who investigate identity-related issues in the workplace, personal identity boundaries can overlap with those of group identities and individuals pull from multiple groups to which they belong in order to create a holistic understanding of their identity. This, of course, causes an individual to prioritize some groups while deprioritizing others; in effect, creating an identity hierarchy. Many of the conversations in my group’s research included individuals who deprioritized their generation with regard to defining self when considering multiple identities or groups in which they might be a member. However, these same interviewees often prioritized the generation of others by emphasizing stereotypical generational values or behaviors when attempting to make sense of their perceptions of workplace colleagues.

It is clear that many of the interviewees in my research included membership in particular generations in their own self-definitions. In some cases, they discussed generation as a strong identity, identified with various generations (though not necessarily those based on their own birth year), or chose to disidentify with or de-prioritize generation as part of their identity. Yet, adding an identity discussion to other ­potential ways of understanding generation is not the only way that complicates an in-depth understanding of generation. Below, I discuss some additional findings from the research that I conducted along with Dr. Hollensbe. In interpreting the results, leadership and communication scholar Dr. Gail Fairhurst (also from the University of Cincinnati) was instrumental in helping to make sense of our findings. The below additional ways of understanding generation were relatively new to the academic literature and, as such, were not widely discussed until our 2017 article in The Journal of Intergenerational Relationships (Urick, ­Hollensbe, and ­Fairhurst 2017).

Other Ways of Understanding “Generation”: Contribution and Irrelevancy

Continuing with the research sample described above, an additional understanding of generation emerged in statements that were primarily made by older interviewees. This additional understanding not previously explored in academic literature was that of “contribution,” meaning that a generation emerges when a grouping of people makes a particular impact that is usually positive in nature, either on society or within organizations. Perhaps older participants in our study were more likely to have been a part of making a societal contribution than younger participants who have, to date, had less of an opportunity or a shorter amount of time to create positive change. As a result, younger interviewees were not likely to define “generation” in this way.

An example might illustrate how “contribution” informs one’s generational identity. Mature participants (meaning those who had been in the workplace for many years or decades) of various ages identified with the generational category Veterans, although they were not necessarily born at a time that places them in that particular age-based generational category. This was due to their contribution of serving in the armed forces, with the positive view that they kept the country safe during times of crisis. This differs from the previously addressed concept of collective consciousness, because this understanding as contribution emphasizes that a generation has actually accomplished something or added in some way to the progress of society or organizations in a positive manner. The idea of collective consciousness could be more passive, whereby generational members just witness an event or occurrence during formative years.

However, military service was not the only contribution that my conversations suggested could be used to define a generation. Several interviewees also discussed heavily influencing industries, products, and services that are now taken for granted. One example statement from a member of the older interviewees noted making a contribution to the airline industry, which influenced society by changing the speed at which people could travel. Some other specific examples include volunteering to improve communities and creating structure and procedures for their employers that have guided workplace practices in subsequent years.

Viewing generation as being based on a contribution is in line with research that suggests that groups of people become more cohesive when they accomplish something together (Dion 2000) or, perhaps, are at least knowledgeable of the contributions of people that an individual perceives to be similar to one self. However, this was not the only new understanding of generation to emerge in my research.

The second new understanding of “generation” also came primarily from the older interviewees. A large number of the mature participants in my study stated that understanding generations is of little use. In fact, to them, the idea of “generation” is as an ambiguous or irrelevant concept; the concept of generation is not important because it is meaningless. Though past researchers have pointed out that the concept of generation is unclear (Costanza, et al. 2012; Parry and Urwin 2011), much of society’s discussions on generation are based on an assumption that understanding generational phenomena is both important (Lyons and Kuron 2013) and that the definition of generation is clear. In contrast, many of my research conversations called these assumptions into question, as several of the older interviewees noted the media’s role in propagating age-based generational labels, though they were meaningless to some of the people I spoke with.

Similarly, several interviewees stated that “generation” is an ambiguous concept because there are many differences that exist between individuals with similar birth years. It would seem to these individuals that a certain generation marked by common birth years is not homogenous in nature. Some participants cited personality differences as an example of individual traits that suggest the uniqueness of each person within a generational age grouping.

Though individuals of various ages noted that individual differences exist, it was interesting to see that our younger interviewees were more likely to discuss stereotypical generational traits, as though generations were a strong concept with only a few individuals who did not fit into the typically accepted generational stereotypes. On the other hand, it was mostly the older interviewees who stated that individual differences were more important than generational categories or labels. Perhaps this could be related to more exposure to media sources that emphasize generational stereotypes for younger interviewees and less exposure for older interviewees. Alternately, the older interviewees may have had more experience in working with a variety of generations, so that they had examples of colleagues whose personality did not match the stereotype. Interestingly, though, the older interviewees were equally likely to leverage generational stereotypes in interactions and conflicts, even though several reported that they found generational categories to be of little use in their statements.

The fact that generation remains a “fuzzy” concept, which includes many aspects that may or may not be drawn on when considering the characteristics of individuals of different generations, makes interpreting intergenerational phenomena difficult. Still, many popular press reports (and indeed some academic researchers and empirical studies in the business realm) largely ignore the complexities of the generation concept and focus on age-based cohorts, perhaps because doing so is common to popular societal and organizational discourse. However, one of the major purposes of the book is to suggest that this overreliance is inappropriate, as it can create several negative outcomes.

Thus far, I have clouded the concept of generation quite a bit—so much so that we seem far removed from popular discourse on the topic. I will not resolve this cloudiness herein, as this is not the task of this book. However, what I will suggest is that the popular discourse on generations is not accurate. Yet, practically speaking, such discourse sets perceptions that people act on in various situations within the workplace. Therefore, it is useful to understand generation from the perspective of popular culture in order to consider others’ (and our own) potential expectations of perceptions of individuals of certain ages/generations. The concept of generation becomes even more complex when considering that each individual is likely to draw on several of the above meanings in unique combinations and ways, which means that everyone’s personal definition is likely to be somewhat different.

Nuanced Understandings

The people who I spoke with drew articulately upon the understandings noted above. However, there were obvious differences in the understanding of “generation” from person to person. While this lack of consensus clouds the definition, popular discourse has moved on with a simplification of the term “generation” that draws from age alone—perhaps since, as I note below, age seems to be the only common aspect of each person’s understanding. Therefore, even though there are several distinct ways in which people understand generation, “generation” is still a “fuzzy” concept, because of the nuances of understanding. Similar to the concept of leadership (Kelly 2008), generations likely represents a “blurred” concept with different meanings that share a vague commonality: age ­(Wittgenstein 1953).

Nearly all participants drew from more than one of the meanings from Table 2.1 in describing their understanding of generations (for example, age and identity were often used in combination). One participant in the older sample summarized this well upon being asked for his definition when he explicitly said that he thinks about generation in a number of ways. Similarly, others drew from multiple perspectives, which signals the use of more than one way of understanding the broader concept.

In one example, an interviewee in the older group describes generation as an identity by suggesting that it’s something that can be identified with. Additionally, she discusses generation as a collective consciousness by understanding history due to experiencing the same events during their formative years. Similarly, she also draws on lineage when she places the understanding of her generation in the context of where she falls in her family (i.e., her parents and her children).

While some participants tended to accept multiple ways of understanding “generation,” others were aware of multiple meanings, but chose not to accept them (thereby further illustrating the understanding of generation as an ambiguous or irrelevant concept). Several participants reported being aware of media influences on generation (including labels and categories), but rejected them (ambiguous/irrelevant understanding) in favor of focusing on the genealogy concept of generation. Thus, even those who defined generation as ambiguous or irrelevant often relied on additional definitions, even though they rejected the overall concept of generation. As a result, each person is likely to have a unique definition of generation: a point that has been oddly overlooked in much of how generation is discussed in popular culture.

There were some additional differences in how interviewees in both samples defined generation. Specifically, older participants were more likely to view generations as a reflection of the genealogy definition, focusing on family. Additionally, while both samples relied on “age” as a basis for defining generation, they did so in very different ways.

Genealogy

As noted above, genealogy is the understanding of generation in which generation is defined as being within the context of a family—but this understanding was not understood by interviewees of all ages. In fact, this definition of generation was primarily identified by older individuals, as it was not typically mentioned by younger participants. One reason is that perhaps the genealogy concept of generation might not be salient to younger individuals because many have not started families of their own yet, which was a point stated by the younger interviewees. In contrast, many of the participants in the older sample were clear that, to them, generations were synonymous with family life. Similarly, participants in the older sample used a genealogical definition to state that they can only be familiar with their generation by knowing the generations that precede and follow them. While this is apparent within a family, it can also occur in an organization. It is likely that a jobholder has knowledge of those who were previously in the role and maybe even those who will succeed them in that position.

Age

Though both samples used age as a method to categorize generations, they did so in distinct ways. In conversations with younger interviewees, the four-generation categorization scheme (i.e., Millennial/Y, X, Baby Boomer, Veteran/Silent; Society for Human Resource Management 2005) was widely discussed.

Though younger participants did use age-based generational labels, these age-based categories were not salient to members of the older sample, who either incorrectly explained or mislabeled their membership in one of the four categories, if they heard of these categories at all (one individual whose birth year fell squarely within the Veteran category was adamant that his date of birth reflected an individual born in the Generation X age range). However, a lack of familiarity with common generational designations does not mean that the older interviewees did not draw on age to help understand “generation.” Instead, they were often likely to define a new generation as occurring roughly every 20 to 30 years without articulating a clear age-based label.

Though all interviewees of all ages referenced age in different ways, there were some commonalities evident in nearly all our conversations. The most frequent commonality was labeling generations dichotomously as either “younger” or “older.”

The finding that age can be relied on in a number of ways in order to understand generations is of utmost importance because, when organizations provide training on generations that references age-based categories (or when books are published leveraging these labels), some individuals may not be aware of these labels or cannot clearly understand the timespan that they indicate. These labels are often presented in such trainings and publications without them being completely clear about their definitions, though such presentations often seem to instruct others that their currently held definitions are inaccurate. Thus, this simplification brushes over the complexity inherent in each individual’s intuitive understanding of generation. This is what sets common discourse: people forget their own intuitive complex understandings of generations and abandon them for less complex stereotypical presentations, since these are prevalent in training, the popular press, and society at large. By suggesting that individuals understand generation using simplified age-based categories instead of capturing a more complex approach, discourse surrounding generations is doing a great disservice to the workplace and society. The broader implications of this simplified discourse are discussed in the next chapter.

Summary

Myths are “fuzzy” with their details. They attempt to explain some ­phenomena, but exact dates, locations, and other specifics are often not provided in the stories. Likewise, definitions of “generation” seem to be fuzzy, at times drawing on different aspects of understanding in unique and individualized ways. As such, people are speaking different ­languages, like what happened in the Tower of Babel myth after the builders attempted to build a tower to heaven. Societal and organizational discourse has emerged that simplifies such complexities by considering generations solely as age groupings.

This chapter illustrates the multiple ways in which people understand generational phenomena. Specifically, I highlight:

  • There is a predominance of age cohorts in defining “generation” in popular discourse.
  • Other understandings of generation might be useful to understanding the complexity of generations. Such understandings include relating generations to collective consciousness (members of a group have had similar experiences and perspectives because they were exposed to common events, despite potentially possessing different biological ages), family (generations are understood in the context of lineage), and maturity (in which generational members emerge because they experience a similar major milestone or life event at the same time, despite their biological age).
  • Even more emergent in research is the understanding that generations could be viewed as identities in which individuals can strongly define themselves by a generational label. Alternately, individuals can reject a particular generational label, thereby disidentifying with or deprioritizing this aspect of their self-definition.
  • Research has also shown that some individuals intuitively view the concept of generation to not be useful when explaining behaviors, values, and differences among and between people, while others state that a generation emerges when a group of people have made a major contribution to society or organizations.
  • Most individuals tend to incorporate age in some manner with several other approaches to understanding generation in unique ways. Thus, each person’s understanding of generation can potentially be nuanced from others’ understandings.

Managers might be interested in gaining knowledge of how their workforce understands generation as they attempt to guide related discussions and potential training on generational differences. Furthermore, business professionals should use the complexities presented in this ­chapter to help them examine the truth in statements on generations that they see or hear in popular use. Questioning whether or not such statements fit one’s own generational understanding can go a long way toward creating positive interactions and workplaces, because doing so requires individuals to move beyond a superficial understanding of generations based on stereotypes alone.

In the next chapter, I explore how both nuanced understandings and an overreliance on age stereotypes can be detrimental to multigenerational organizations.