The Dangers of Generational Labels

Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA
Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA

How do you like being called a millennial or boomer? I can certainly agree that being called a Globalist would be cool as it would kind of mandate that you have to travel around the world to maintain that moniker.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure to hear Anna Liotta, the current president of the National Speaker’s Association speak to the local Pittsburgh chapter about her work in what she calls the “Generational Codes”TM    She detailed the 5 different generational groups

  • Traditionalists—1927-45; Loyal, hard working and humble
  • Baby Boomers-1946-64; Optimistic, status motivated and driven
  • Gen Xers-1965-77; Skeptical, independent and blunt
  • Millenials (Gen Y) 1978-99- Tech savvy, collaborative and entrepreneurial
  • Globals (Gen Z) 2000-2016-Inclusive, tech dependent and cause driven

Anna’s presentation was filled with lots of great tips about how to navigate the complexity of generational differences. For example, when dealing with a Gen Xer on a phone call or in a meeting, plan to just engage in small talk for about 2 minutes and when you hear their magic word….”so”, that means it is time to get down to business. Or perhaps you are trying to relate to your friend’s teenage global son. You might want to ask him about what he sees happening in the world that has him “troubled and excited.” Getting him talking about how he plans to change the culture will definitely lead him asking his parents why they can’t be as cool as you are. I like the Generational descriptions. I find them explanatory and helpful to recognize that people from different eras have different perspectives and that by respecting those perspectives, we can understand each other better. Putting people into categories is a simple and easy way to explain our world but may not be completely fair and even worse may wind up pigeonholing them into have to be someone who they are not. Furthermore, we need to find ways that we can bring each other together rather than apart. One way we can do this in the workplace is through reverse mentoring. Mentoring, as we define it in our new book Strategy Driven Leadership, is one of four ways you develop people along with coaching, peering and bossing. Mentoring is about imparting wisdom and for the digital natives raised with technology (regardless of their generation) learning new techniques and tools is an easy way to bridge generations (in yesterday’s session I learned about Linkedin “Find Nearby” feature from Anna (who is actually a Boomer!). Finding ways to connect is much more important than finding ways to be different. The danger of labeling is that we reinforce the expected behavior for people when they believe in that description. My preference is to give people more options not fewer so while I’ll still be thinking for myself about the generation someone was born into, I’ll probably hold off saying…”Oh you’re a Gen Zer…that explains it”, and will instead opt for “Oh you were born during the Gen Z time frame, what is your perspective on that?’ What do you think?

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