A Better Way to Understand Generational Differences Blog Feature

By: Rex Miller on September 02, 2015

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A Better Way to Understand Generational Differences

Culture | Millennials

On an early, parched Texas summer morning, I drove a few hours south of my Dallas-Forth Worth home to an intentionally aged Texas Hill Country retreat center. I would be releasing mindSHIFT’s new research on workplace engagement and the office of the future to a group of clothing manufacturing executives, who ranged in age from mid-40s to early-60s.

As I unpacked the research, I shifted into our findings on Millennials (18- to 30-year-olds). I could feel the temperature in the room shoot up. Several pent-up opinions bounced around the table like a beach ball punched back and forth in the air. Clearly, I had hit a hot button.

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I’ve noticed that the word “Millennial” has become a sort of Rorschach test: It tells us more about the mindset of the group we are speaking with than the subject itself. As the executives aired their grievances about what’s wrong with today’s youth, it didn’t take long for the “memes” to come out: Millennials are—“Disrespectful, entitled, anti-social, selfish, uncaring, digital natives who never answer their phones or email and are represented by the likes of Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Jersey Shore, and Teen Mom.”

And yet, when I worked on a recent project to explore the workplace of the future with a group of 45 corporate leaders, 15 were Millennials. They were anything but disrespectful, entitled, anti-social, selfish, and so on. Working with younger adults was engaging, innovative, and collaborative. I learned as much, possibly more, with them about how to tackle a complex topic and dive deep into problem solving together, and find productive results together.

With older leaders, though, I have found it much harder to help them overcome the biases they have about Millennials so that they can begin to think more productively about how to leverage the strengths of this younger generation. That was until the light bulb turned on in my conversation with Daniel.

A Different Conversation

Daniel Homrich was one of the Millennials on the team of 15 I mentioned earlier. He’s also a consultant to organizations about how to market to his age group. I received a call from Daniel on a Friday night: “I’ve got a presentation to 30 companies on Tuesday. Are we ready with any of our material so I can use it Tuesday?”

I sent him a slide deck and the most recent progress on the manuscript we had been collaborating on. What ensued was a 48-minute conversation that crystallized both of our frustrations with the conventional approach to the topic of Millennials.

Daniel was feeling like the whole focus on generations was becoming far too abstract and complicated for leaders. He’s frequently asked questions like, “What are the age ranges, again?” and “How do I really know what range someone fits into?” These conversations were leaving people sidetracked around descriptors and details without creating any true insight. The research I had been doing indicated a need to shift the conversation from talking about generations to cohorts, and Daniel’s questions helped solidify the need for this shift.

Talkin’ Bout My Generation

William Strauss and Neil Howe masterfully articulated how we think about generations in their 1991 book, Generations. They define a social generation as the aggregate of all people born over a span of roughly 20 years or about the length of one phase of life: childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age. Generations are identified (from first birth year to last) by looking for cohort groups of this length that share three criteria: Members of a generation share what the authors call an age location in history—they encounter key historical events and social trends while occupying the same phase of life. In this view, members of a generation are shaped in lasting ways by the eras they encounter as children and young adults, and they share certain common beliefs and behaviors. Aware of the experiences and traits that they share with their peers, members of a generation would also share a sense of common perceived membership.

The Generations model has been most used to explain distinct behaviors and friction between the generations. It also became a tool for understanding the unique aspirations and concerns for each collective. This has cascaded into elaborate programs training and marketing efforts aimed at their unique psychographics.

The theory postulates that generations evolve around four distinct archetypes. There is the pioneer generation that emerges out of a deep crisis of either war or economic hardship to remake a new era. The next generation grows up more secure, aiming for greater intellectual and self-actualized opportunities. Their outlook is more utopian. The third generation is to some degree a shadow generation, more independent, highly pragmatic, and less driven than the second generation. The fourth in the cycle inherits the gradual decline from the pioneer generation, more dystopic in outlook and sensitized to the growing decline and the need to restore and rebuild.

Consider the Cohort Model

The Generations model explains the past well. However, in the early 2000s, sociologists began to notice that generational distinctions were decreasing from 18 to 20 years to closer to 14. In a 2013 presentation at the World Future Society, Erica and Jared Weiner shared that their research revealed generational distinction as early as 7 years. One of the drivers of this compression is the accelerating shift in media landscape. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans reveal a distinct brain pattern for those whose dominant media landscape is print vs. broadcast vs. digital network, which now includes a growing mobile experience.

Our society’s new complexities no longer fit Strauss and Howe’s criteria for distinguishing one generation from another. For instance, here are some of the factors about the era Millennials’ live in that make it obsolete to understand them through the lens of the Generations model:

  • The rapid shift in new media creating new groups with different media mindsets
  • The self-organizing nature of social media
  • The fragmentation of the traditional family unit
  • Gender and sexual identity
  • Third culture kids
  • Wider economic gaps among youth
  • A shift from traditional education to a more diverse educational experience
  • A loss of a national consensus around character and moral education
  • The loss of traditional community
  • The urbanization of America

All of these factors make any attempt to label or create one-sized programs to reach the next generation a failed exercise. For that reason our team, as well as other social researchers, refer to this next generation as Mosaics. Jessica Stollings, in her talk on “Building a Multigenerational Ministry” at Aspen’s Pastors Lunch describes the Church as a unique canvas that brings this diversity together, the one place in our world where every generation meets and interacts under one roof. So what can churches do that are trying to reach Millennials and younger and bridge generations in healthy, productive ways?

The good news is that there are great examples all around us of organizations that have been successful at attracting, engaging, and retaining these younger audiences. Trending organizations (think Facebook, Uber, Apple Genius Bar, among others) are effectively leveraging the unique traits of Millennials. There is much the Church can learn from their strategies that will help us better understand how to integrate every age group at church.

Understanding the times and knowing what to do in them is complex, for sure. But there is simplicity on the other side of complexity if we’re open to re-imagining how to reach and engage all people, regardless of the differences that set us apart.