Generational Profiling: Shared Experiences Don’t Make Us the Same


Have you heard? Millennials are the “me” generation and can’t make a decision without Mom or Dad!

Gen Xers don’t want rules! Boomers are loyal and love structure and hierarchy! Research tells us that each generation is made of creatures very different than the other generations. But, are we taking it too far?

There is valuable research to consider on generations. But first, picture your high school lunch room. If you were like most teenagers you openly – or covertly – stereotyped that group to simplify the jocks, cheerleaders, emos, stoners or the band kids. Yet, all were from the same generation.

Shared experiences don’t make us the same

When you consider this group of students, would you agree that they are motivated the same way, have the same interests, and definition of success? Of course not. Yet no matter your age, this high school lunch room represents a tiny microcosm of your generation, and with big diversity, even within the same hometown.

Yes, generations share common world experiences that bind them together. Millennials have grown up with social media and sharing their lives hour by hour. Generation X experienced a changed life after 9/11. Some Boomers experienced the civil rights movement firsthand.

Yet, these shared world experiences don’t make us the same. Millennials and even Generation X have generally grown up expecting personal choice.  But, so do many of the Boomers who are ready for their second act. So, what do we make of the generational research based solely on our birth dates?

Research certainly reinforces the changing expectations of work and careers, and the Millennials are pushing that trend. The traditional organizational practices used in business today have roots in the 1960?s and 1970?s when the goal was to create structure, hierarchy, and make careers more the same than different. Lifetime employment or the corner office was once the carrot if you paid your dues.

If generational habits and trends cause us to relook at how we do business and careers,  it’s a needed impetus to change. Too much of what we do in organizations today to grow talent is past its “sell by” date.

You can’t profile an entire generation

The downside of these general stereotypes is that we shortcut and oversimplify the conclusions by individual. There are too many broad generalizations that give the “Five easy steps to connect to Millennials” or  “Read what Gen X wants.”

Each generation is made up of individuals. There are new graduates who love the structure of the business world  as I was reminded in a conversation this week. There are also many 40+ early adopters who have embraced social media and experiment with the latest technology. Just like we should never assume that a woman isn’t tough enough to be the CEO, or that someone with a disability lacks the stamina to do the job, we can’t profile an entire generation either.

In the last few weeks, these comments have given me pause: “The new grads can do all their onboarding online – they don’t care as much about individual conversations,” or, “Honestly, we need someone new to the workforce who’s really comfortable with technology.” When these generational profiles and stereotypes make their way into specific decisions, it will undoubtedly affect the best outcome.

So, read up and absorb the generational research as it may give you the push you need to kick off needed change. But, stop short of believing that a generation is homogeneous and one size fits all.

Look hard enough and you may find some selfless Millennials who thrive on in-person connections. If you have any doubts, pause and consider how much standardization you experienced back in your own high school cafeteria.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

  • Joe Baker

    Patti, the lunchroom scene is a great picture to remind us of these important truths – thanks.

  • PeopleResults™

    Indeed. One size does NOT fit all.

  • Marta Steele

    Archetypes are useful and help us make sense of the world but don’t give the full picture. Each human has their own experiences, traits, preferences, quirks – no matter what year he/she was born. 

  • Kristi Erickson

    I think the high school cafeteria example is a perfect way to illustrate this.  Generations do, broadly, have differing characteristics that make for a diverse environment – in a good way, in my opinion.  In the end, it comes down to personalization and workplaces better get on that bandwagon, quick!

  • Barbara Milhizer

    So true. Shared experiences give us indicators for preference, but true talent management will be individualized.

  • Martha Duesterhoft

    Good advice to keep a watch-out for these generalities/stero-types that are so easy to get our heads wrapped around when thinking about “generations” in the workforce.

  • Sheri Browning

    Stereotypes exist for a reason, for sure…but one size never really fits all. Well said Patti!!!