Origin and Use of Generational Theories
This chapter reviews the history and use of generational theories, as well as the creation of such generational labels as “baby boomers” and “millennials” that are used to describe people born in a certain time period or of a certain age. While the notion of generations has a long history of scholarly consideration, attention to generational differences among individuals has become increasingly prevalent over the past 20 years. An implicit assumption of generational thinking is that people who were born around the same time have similar values and attributes that differ from those of people born at a different time. This chapter provides background on how the concept of generation is used and has evolved in both the scientific and popular literature. The next chapter reviews the existing scientific literature related to generational differences in the workforce.
EARLY SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES OF GENERATIONS
In the mid-1800s, Auguste Comte described social progress as the product of generational change (Cours de Philosophie Positive, 1830–1840). He posited that just as individuals mature and change throughout their lives, societies progress through stages, which he termed “theological,” “metaphysical,” and “positive.” According to Comte, progress through these stages is driven by generational turnover, with each successive generation bringing new and innovative ideas and practices to replace those of older generations.
The modern scientific usage and understanding of the term “generations” can be traced back to sociologist Karl Mannheim’s The Problem of Generations (1952). Mannheim theorized that generations provide a basis for understanding social movements—how social change is possible while cultural traditions and identity are preserved. He identified five processes through which generations facilitate social change: (1) new participants in the cultural process emerge, (2) former participants in the cultural process disappear, (3) members of any generation can participate only for a limited time, (4) cultural heritage is transmitted from generation to generation, and (5) generational transitions are continuous. Subsequent sociological theories similarly highlighted the importance of generations in facilitating social change. Ryder (1965), for instance, described the succession of birth cohorts (a construct similar to Mannheim’s formulation of generations) as a process of lending flexibility and providing new perspectives to address social problems.
According to Mannheim (1952), generations are formed through two important elements: a common location in historical time, such that there are shared events and experiences, and an awareness of that historical location. Mannheim clarified that a generation is not a “concrete group” of people who share physical and social proximity and are aware of the existence of the other members. Thus, a generation is similar not to a club, in which one could identify who is in and out, but to a person’s social class. Notably, Mannheim stressed that birth year alone was insufficient to place a person in a specific generation; rather, the person needed to experience and participate in the defining events of the generation. He also noted that the same historical events will not affect people from different cultural backgrounds and social classes in the same way. To use a modern example, the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, might be expected to have significantly affected the thinking and attitudes of Americans who were alive to witness these events. But such an event might not be a defining moment for people living in countries in which terrorism is more frequent than is the case in the United States, and it would be expected to affect the thinking and attitudes of New Yorkers differently from those in other parts of the country. Even within the United States, people of different education levels, wealth, and culture may have experienced or interpreted these events differently.
Both Mannheim (1952) and Ryder (1965) rejected the idea that generations emerge at regularly spaced intervals, noting that the rhythm of generations depends on the timing of historical, social, and cultural events that affect people’s experiences. Ryder further noted that historical events occurring during young adulthood are particularly influential, as young people are “old enough to participate directly in the movements impelled by change, but not old enough to have become committed to an occupation, a
residence, a family of procreation or a way of life” (Ryder, 1965, p. 848). Later generational theories in sociology highlighted the importance of not only historical events that happen during especially salient developmental stages, but also significant culturally bound life stages (e.g., education, marriage, building family, working years) that influence goals and values (Riley, 1973, 1987). These sociological theories of generations did not focus on understanding individual behavior, but on an aggregate concept of generations as facilitating social change (Rudolph and Zacher, 2017).
Another major figure in the sociological tradition is Glen Elder. Building on his large-scale longitudinal studies of child and adult development produced during the early to mid-1900s (Elder, 1974, 1985), Elder formulated a life course perspective (Elder, 1998; also see Elder, Kirkpatrick-Johnson, and Crosnoe, 2003) positing the process through which social and historical contexts, particularly during childhood and adolescence, affect the trajectory of an individual’s development through the life span. Specifically, he argued that “historical events and individual experience are connected through the family and the ‘linked’ fates of its members” (Elder, 1998, p. 3). That is, an individual’s childhood and adolescent experiences are critically important in setting the stage for the subsequent developmental adult trajectory. In contrast to sociological traditions emphasizing the impact of events on social change, Elder focused on the mechanisms and consequences of social and historical context with respect to an individual’s values and transition into adult roles, most notably those related to work.
Elder argued that an individual’s family resources, values, and strategies for adapting to the broader external context exert a stronger effect on that individual than the historical context per se. Thus, within a generation or cohort defined by historical period, one could expect great heterogeneity within that population segment as a function of both more proximal familial and social interdependencies. In a similar vein, MacLean and Elder’s (2007) review of the literature shows that the effects of different historical periods on military service are moderated by person-related attributes (e.g., family and friend resources).
Elder’s life course perspective extended the sociological approach to generations in two ways. First, by focusing on the individual and lifespan development, his ideas helped shift attention from impacts on social change to impacts on individual behavior and adult development. Second, along with the work of Riley (1987) and others, Elder’s concept of “linked lives” emphasized a possible process or mechanisms by which unique events that often characterize a generation come to affect an individual’s values and behavior (Elder, Kirkpatrick-Johnson, and Crosnoe, 2003). However, Elder consistently noted that the variability associated with different “linked lives” in turn yields nontrivial variability in how individuals who live through a similar time period develop different values, interests, and occupational trajectories.
INFLUENTIAL POPULAR THEORY OF GENERATIONS
Like the researchers of the sociological theories described above, Strauss and Howe (1991) focus on generations in the aggregate in their popular book Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069. Their approach, however, departs from scientific theories in two important ways. First, they delineate a specific span of time—about 20 years—associated with the emergence of a generation. Second, they posit that four generational personalities (idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive) emerge every 20 years or so in a cyclical pattern that repeats roughly every 80 years, driven by a generational reaction to the prior generation. According to Strauss and Howe, for example, idealists are an indulged and narcissistic generation of adults who raise a generation of underprotected and alienated reactives; who then raise team-oriented, overprotected but society-minded civics; who then raise an adaptive generation that comes of age in a time of crisis with an ethos of personal sacrifice. Although this pattern supposedly repeats every 80 years or so, the authors allow for significant historical events, such as the Civil War, to disrupt the cycle.
Although their work is thought-provoking, Strauss and Howe (1991) present essentially no empirical evidence for their theoretical perspective. Rather, they highlight individual case studies in making their claims regarding prototypical representatives of each generation’s personality type throughout history. Although these case studies are compelling, they were selected specifically to provide examples of prototypical members of a generation (i.e., selection bias). One might also easily provide counter examples of people within a cohort who do not exhibit the prototypical traits associated with a generation or who exhibit traits belonging to a different generation (e.g., people who should be adaptive given their birth year but who exhibit the traits of an idealist). Nonetheless, the work of Strauss and Howe has been highly influential with respect to both their thinking about the timing of the emergence of generations (i.e., every 20 years or so) and their labels for generations, which have influenced popular ideas about generational differences (Brooks, 2000).
In the modern era, generations are often described by labels and defined as a group born between specific years—for example, the “millennial” generation, born roughly in the 1980s and 1990s. Generations tend to be assigned these labels through a somewhat messy process led by journalists, magazine editors, advertising executives, and the general public (Raphelson, 2014). Usually, a variety of labels are used until one sticks in the common vernacular, because of either a seminal book or article, a historical event,
or simply general consensus. As noted above, Strauss and Howe’s (1991) work was highly influential with respect to how it described and labeled the various generations in America. The labels they used for each of the generations have become—with one exception—the common vernacular in discussions about generations. Although they did not create the terms, their labels of the “silent,” “boomer,” and “millennial” generations have stuck.
The term “silent generation” notably appeared in a 1951 article in Time magazine, but it is unclear when the term originated.1 The labels “baby boomers” and “millennials” are linked to historical events, but it is also not entirely clear who created these terms or how they came to be the “official” names for those generations. “Baby boomer” was given to the generation of individuals born between mid-1946 and mid-1964, after World War II (Hogan, Perez, and Bell, 2008). The term denotes the baby boom in the United States following the war, when the birth rate rose significantly and then fell. The label was notably used in a 1963 newspaper article about the new wave of college applicants.2 The term “millennials,” referring to the turning of the millennium, appears to have first been coined by Strauss and Howe.
“Generation X” (called the “13ers” by Strauss and Howe) is a striking example of how generational labels are largely the product of popular culture. Photographer Robert Capa first used the title Generation X in the 1950s for a photo series of young people after World War II. In 1964, a collection of interviews with teenagers was published in a book titled Generation X (BBC News, 2014). The phrase was again used by musician Billy Idol in the early 1970s for his punk rock band. The label finally achieved its modern meaning after being popularized in a 1991 novel by Douglas Coupland, a Canadian author and artist. Interestingly, Coupland’s choice of the title Generation X was meant to signify that this generation did not want to be defined (Raphelson, 2014).
Finally, the popular label “generation Z” is used by many writers for the youngest named generation. It recently appears to have won out over other contenders (Dimock, 2019), such as “postmillennials” (Fry and Parker, 2018), “iGen” (Twenge, 2018), and “homelanders” (Howe and Strauss, 2007).
1 See the “People: The Younger Generation” piece in Time (November 5, 1951) at http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,856950,00.html.
2 See clip from Daily Press (Newport News, VA, January 28, 1963) at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/19690752/daily_press.
WIDESPREAD USE OF GENERATIONAL TERMINOLOGY
The topic of generations and generational differences is discussed in a wide variety of contexts, including the popular press, business and human resources advice, and research,3 both in the United States and internationally.4 In these contexts, authors and consultants make use of the generational labels and associated birth years as an easy way to categorize groups of people, primarily by age (see Table 3-1 for examples). That is, generational categories are used commonly as a heuristic to reference a group of people around a certain age.
The use of generational categories in discussions about workforce management has become particularly prominent in the past 20 years in the popular press and in businesses and human resources advice. This growth in the use of these categories with respect to workforce management suggests anecdotally that employers are taking a serious look at generational differences. While the committee could find no evidence of enacted employment policies and practices directly tied to generational issues, we did find opinion pieces, commissioned reports, and training aimed at addressing personnel concerns from a generational perspective (see Box 3-1 and the discussion below).
It was beyond the scope of the committee’s charge to review comprehensively the coverage of generational issues in the popular press. In conducting this study, however, we could not help but notice the vast amount and array of advice on generational issues in the workforce that is available to the public. Here, we offer our observations after reading many of these articles.
3 Government agencies that collect population-level data, often used by researchers and the public, sometimes report these data by age groups using generational categories. Notable agencies include both the Department of Labor (BLS, 2019c) and the Census Bureau (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015).
4 Given the claim that generations are formed through shared experiences of events that occur during a developmentally significant period (i.e., late adolescence/early adulthood), it is curious that labels for generations that were generated in the United States have also been used to describe and explain behavior for people and cultures outside of the United States, who arguably do not share the same cultural experiences. For example, Pew Research draws the line between millennials and generation Z as 1996 based on the timing of a few events: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 election and economic recession, and the adoption of such technologies as the smartphone (Dimock, 2019). However, these events, which mark the lines between generations in the United States, would have been experienced differently or not at all in other countries around the world.
TABLE 3-1 Illustration of Different Labels for Generational Categories and Associated Birth Years from Various Sources
|Relative Age of Worker in 2020||Fry (2018)||Howe and Strauss (2007)||Campbell, Twenge, and Campbell (2017) and Twenge Website*||Variations in Birth Years among Researchers (Costanza et al., 2012)|
|Under 25||Postmillennial or generation Z (1997 or later)||Homeland (2005–2025?)||iGen (1995–2012?)|
|26–40||Millennial (1981–1996)||Millennial (1982–2005?)||Millennial (1980–1994)||Millennial (1976/1982–1999/2000 or later)|
|41–55||Generation X (1965–1980)||Generation X (1961–1981)||GenX (1965–1979)||Generation X (1961/1965–1975/1981)|
|56–74||Baby boomer (1946–1964)||Boom (1943–1960)||Baby boomer (1946–1964)||Baby boomer (1943/1946–1960/1969)|
|75 or older||Silent/greatest (1945 or earlier)||Silent/GI (1942 or earlier)||Silent (1945 or earlier)|
* See FAQs What are birth year cutoffs? at http://www.jeantwenge.com/faqs.
Most articles in the popular press, as well as television news stories, that refer to generations report on the likes, dislikes, habits, and attributes of various generations. For example, a Google news search of the word “millennial” yields more than 50 million results, with articles and stories from the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, NBC News, The Washington Post, and many other sources. The topics of these articles and stories range from a generation’s thoughts about religion and pets to their values and behaviors in the workplace. Much of the discussion of these topics in the popular press is descriptive in nature and reports demographic statistics, such as the percentage of millennials in the workforce.
Most of the research and data referenced, if any, in these pieces is cross-sectional, drawn from either published cross-sectional research or some informal survey conducted by the reporting outlet. Findings from these surveys can be misleading because the findings are often reported as generational characteristics but may just be reflecting age differences at the time, and because of the small convenience samples on which the findings are based are not representative of the generations the surveys seek to characterize. Issues of cross-sectional designs and representativeness are discussed further in Chapter 4.
As the group of individuals known as the millennials have aged (now in their 20s and 30s) and become a dominant proportion of the global population, an entire industry on generational differences has developed in an effort to understand the expectations of this target group and capitalize on those expectations economically. In many cases, generational labels are presented as heuristics with which to better understand differences in work-related values and other attitudes of different age groups. Many of these articles use headlines to highlight large differences among generations, but the further one reads, the more generational differences are described as somewhat trivial. Moreover, many authors include caveats that highlight either heterogeneity within generations (e.g., not all millennials are always on their cellphones) or evidence showing similarities between generations (e.g., millennials and generation Xers use their cellphones equally). The committee observed trends in the popular press of “myth busting” some generational claims, reporting discord among individuals who feel they do not belong to or identify with common stereotypes of a given generation, as well as growing instability in the concept of easily generalizable groups based on either birth year or shared historical events (e.g., Casey, 2016; Wall Street Journal, 2017).
Business and Human Resources Advice
A plethora of discussion and advice concerning generations in the workplace is available in books, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs, and surveys and from a growing number of consultants who provide training and perspective on these issues. For example, Deloitte, a large international consulting firm, conducts an annual “Millennial Global Survey” to look at attitudes, perceptions, and characteristics of young people around the world.5 This survey is administered to around 10,000 people from dozens of countries, all of whom were born between 1983 and 1994, and includes questions related to work, the economy, technology, and similar issues. Business-centered organizations and publications have numerous articles and courses on managing different generations. For example, there are hundreds of articles about generations in the workplace on the website of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and the American Management Association offers articles and several courses about managing
5 The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey uses the same birth cohort (1983–1994) to examine “millennials” from 42 countries, including Nigeria, Australia, Malaysia, China, and South Africa. Deloitte is not alone in applying U.S.-based generational categories to the global population (despite the definitions linking generations to significant social events and lack of relevance to international populations). Numerous popular articles report on work-related characteristics of people around the world using such U.S. categories as generation X, millennial, and generation Z (Bresman and Rao, 2017; Miller and Lu, 2018).
generations. There are even a handful of business school courses centered around issues related to generations.
Much of this advice focuses on the challenges of managing workers of multiple ages in the workplace and often includes broad descriptions of each generation, with little reference to evidence supporting these descriptions. For example, an article on the American Management Association website describes the silent generation as loyal and dedicated, baby boomers as distrusting authority and having a sense of entitlement in the workplace, generation X’ers as independent and placing a lower priority on work, and millennials as resilient and team-centric (Jenkins, 2019). While the article does not explicitly acknowledge potential heterogeneity within generational groups, it goes on to say that employers should seek to “create a respectful, open and inclusive environment where workers of all ages and cultural backgrounds can share who they are without fear of being judged, ‘fixed,’ or changed.” Other articles use headlines that appear to claim large differences among generations, but the articles themselves often state that workers of all ages generally want the same things out of work. For example, the main message of an SHRM article titled “Employers Say Accommodating Millennials Is a Business Imperative” is that workplaces in which flexibility, work–life balance, and wellness are emphasized are able to attract and retain workers of all ages (Wright, 2018). Taken as a whole, this advice often is self-contradicting, identifies similar values among workers (e.g., seeking respect on the job and personal growth), or boils down to the assertion that workers should be assessed individually and not by generational group.
As the idea of generational differences has grown in popularity, so, too, has the number of studies in this area by think tanks, scientific organizations, and researchers. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, collects and analyzes data on such issues as work attitudes, use of technology, and economics; the Pew website lists hundreds of articles relating to age and generation, some of which look at data using age categories and some of which use generational categories.6 The American Psychological Association (2017) conducts an annual survey on Work and Well-Being, which compares generational groups on a number of work outcomes, including work stress, job satisfaction, and plans to change jobs. The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) has published white papers on the millennial culture in the workplace (e.g., Graen and Grace,
6 See resources from the Pew Research Center at https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/generations-and-age.
2015) and has featured such talks as “What Millennials Want from Work” at its annual conferences. The information provided by these scientific organizations, however, also tends to include perspectives that examine the quality of evidence behind generational stereotypes (see, e.g., the September 2015 special issue of Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, Volume 8, Issue 3).
Psychological research on generations typically attempts to link such individual outcomes as work-related values, attitudes, and behaviors to generation membership. Notably, this research tends to use existing generational categories (see Table 3-1) to define groups in its samples. The committee was tasked to review the body of literature on generational attitudes and behaviors in workforce management and employment practices, and we identified more than 500 research articles on the topic. Appendix A details the committee’s literature review, while Chapter 4 presents the findings and conclusions that resulted from the review.
Research has explored the concept of generations for decades as a way to understand social change. New approaches have taken ideas from the sociological literature and applied them to understanding attitudes and behaviors of individuals. The idea of categorizing people by their generation became popular, and generational terminology has now taken hold in the common vernacular. Numerous articles and discussions and a growing industry of consultants and management resources focus on generational differences and the management of generations in the workplace, and employers and managers are being urged to make decisions and develop policies based on generational differences. However, careful examination of the empirical support for generational differences is essential before significant, costly decisions are made. Findings from existing generational research on work-related outcomes are examined in the next chapter.
Conclusion 3-1: As popular use of generational terminology expanded, the concept of generations developed decades ago in sociology to understand social change has taken a new research trajectory in an effort to classify individual differences in values, attitudes, and behaviors, notably those in relation to work. This new trajectory has been fueled in the past 20 years by greater attention to changing workforce demographics and the potential utility of understanding generational differences with respect to work.
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