Generational Reductionism










Today is Mark’s birthday, he turned 52. He shares his birthday with his Uncle Peter who turns 70, a cause for much family celebration.

Peter has been retired for 5 years. He was a partner in an accountancy firm and is enjoying a relaxing retirement thanks to a generous pension – splitting his time between his London mews home and his beachfront villa in the Algarve. As a baby boomer he has benefitted from unprecedented property price inflation, and also from the fact that his children all went to university before tuition fees became payable. He was able to downsize his property a few years ago and give his two children a very handsome deposit for their first homes. He has little time for computers, having been lucky enough to have had someone to ‘do all that computer stuff’ for him when his accountancy practice felt the need to fully embrace technology.

Mark is also a baby boomer and also an accountant. He has worked for different companies, but has been restructured out of his last two roles. After each redundancy he’s had periods of unemployment followed by day rate contracts. His ‘pension pot’ is shrinking and this, along with the need to keep his skills up to date and worries about financing his children’s university education, help to keep him awake most nights. He happens to be pretty good with computers, something that helps keep him employable.

Mark’s wife Jane is luckier. She is a year younger than him so is a Generation X type. Not for her the riches of the baby boomers, but being born into the digital revolution age means she has a greater understanding of digital concepts. She was allegedly part of the ‘me generation’ of the 80s (although she was already in her 20s), something she shares with her 34 year old niece, Joanna. Although 17 years apart, their adolescent years clearly shared similar ‘slacker’ style influences. However without Mark’s computer skills she wouldn’t have any idea how to pay a bill or send an e-mail.

Their 14 year old son Paul is in Year 9 and has just had a ‘business’ day at school. A number of large organisations sent their graduate recruiters in to educate the boys and girls in employability. He was intrigued by the one of the presentations from a woman who said she was 31 but then also said ‘I can help you, after all I’m a Gen Y’er just like you so I know what it’s like’. He thought it was particularly funny when she said that Facebook wouldn’t be allowed in the workplace because it was just for silly pictures of babies, weddings, parties and pets, when all Paul’s classmates use it to keep in touch with each other, to find out what has been missed at school and to help each other out with homework and research.

Paul found it even funnier when he heard that the lady had spoken very differently to Year 8 (his sister Lucy’s year) by telling them that their lifelong use of digital communication, social networking and mobile sets them apart. When Lucy got home she teased Paul about how she was a digital native and he was just part of the ‘boomerang generation’. She found it odd because without Paul she wouldn’t have the first idea how to use her iPhone or iPad nor how to download or connect…


Barely an hour goes by without a link appearing in my Twitter timeline to an article that goes something like ‘6 things you need to do if you want to hire Gen Y’ or ’10 reasons Gen Y don’t want to work for you’ or a personal real favourite ‘Why Every Social Media Manager Should be Under 25’.

Of course it’s largely tosh. To draw uniformity of influences for people born in a 17 year timespan and then turn that in to some kind of HR or workplace wisdom is foolish. But people do it. People seem to make some kind of living out of packaging it up as consultancy.

The demographists, pollsters, and social and cultural historians know differently of course. They like to draw conclusions from the social, economic, cultural and parental influences that someone is exposed to in adolescence, particularly between 13 and 18, and I can understand this. Experiences within this 5 year age span tend to shape expectations, values, ambitions and aspirations that we carry forward in to adult life. My sons are bound to be different to mine, as will be those between someone who grew up in the 80s and the 90s.

They  have different generational classifications in recognition of the fact that influences change every few years – for example Generation Jones are the ones who grew up in the 70s…though I still think Generation Bowie is better 😉 They are currently the key demographic targeted by pollsters and marketers.

One of the best research presentations I’ve seen on this came from Decode. They didn’t see age as the signifier of attitudes but life stages. Within the ‘traditional’ Gen Y age demographic they found a variety of attitudes dictated by life stage.

Taking work/life balance as an example (something that older generations think is of great importance to Gen Y) they found that it was a number one priority for students just entering the workplace. For the young independents it was of very low priority, whilst for young families its importance had increased, but not to the level of students. All of these attitudes from a sample group in the age range 21-29.

As Pew Research Center recently concluded

“Generational analysis has a long and distinguished place in social science, and we cast our lot with those scholars who believe it is not only possible, but often highly illuminating, to search for the unique and distinctive characteristics of any given age group of Americans.

But we also know this is not an exact science. We are mindful that there are as many differences in attitudes, values, behaviours and lifestyles within a generation as there are between generations.”

Just ask Peter, Mark, Jane, Joanna, Paul and Lucy…

6 thoughts on “Generational Reductionism

  1. How very true – a classic example is, during the boom time I had to recruit 20 fabulous grads for an IT consultancy, competing against all the big boyz. I decided to offer an enticement of a 3 month paid sabbatical after 2 years. However, you could trade it in for a 3 month bonus if you preferred.

    18/20 said they would have the sabbatical. Except, two years later….not one of them took it. They all had rent, london living expenses etc and they were caught up in the classic presentism of the work environment. Which still exists.

    Moulded by their work life, not their generation. Depressing.

    1. Nice experiment Julia, the triumph of the land of penguins! Work can shape us a lot, but what about adverse selection on hiring? Probably people that took that sabbatical were more prone to work (therefore knew they would need a sabbatical). 🙂

  2. Generation Bowie is the best. But then again, there is Generation Bolan …

    I find it also irritating that my kids must pay for the lash ups of ‘my generation’, even though, speaking personally, I’ve never borrowed more that I could pay back and so on. It does worry me that we seem to think it OK that all 21 year olds start their lives in debt. Am I getting old?

  3. What bother me on reductionism is people applying worldwide without further studies. For example, I live in Brazil. This brings too problems: internet etc that links back to GenY arrived later (so did downsizing), but multiply that for all the bad income distribution that we have… Boom!, you end up having different unchartered worlds… So I do think we can apply some generalization, but with some thought on it.

  4. Great post, Mervyn. And I agree with what you say. I am a cultural studies student (from way back) so am interested in the way cohorts of people are packaged up and given attributes which we then market to in any number of ways (including recruitment). We do this to help make sense of the world but it is fraught because of the diversity that exists in, for example, a generation of people. I think it is more useful to think in terms of what is common to groups of people. We have a group of 21 year olds who have grown up only with digital technology for communication. What that means for them, for those who haven’t, I don’t know. What we do need to understand is what that might look like in work, at play etc. That’s where ethnography is really useful. Aside from that, we need to question our assumptions and just ask people about things – that way we might start to have some real understanding which will help challenge stereotypes.

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