How Millennials and Gen Z differ from each other and from older generations such as the Babyboomers or Gen X have been hot topics amidst marketeers for quite some time. Today, the subject frequently makes it to the viral list, thanks to social media. From blogpost or newspaper article to video interview or lecture on the subject, generational thinking seems contentious enough to spark conversation between Believers and Non-Believers. Which side are you on?
First of all, it’s totally justifiable to have mixed feelings about generational thinking. For every argument that is pro generational thinking, there’s probably a counterargument that debunks it.
One of the latter is that there are just as many similarities as differences when you compare two generations with each other. For instance, it’s not uncommon that a 45 year old Gen X recognises himself in a list of Millennial characteristics or that a Babyboomer concludes he or she has a lot in common with a Gen Y colleague. It’s also not a surprise when people don’t feel accustomed by the generational characteristics used to define them, either.
The thing about generational thinking is that it’s all about generalisations. And the problem with generalisations is that … they generalise. It’s about averages and means, median and modal values, statistics and age norms. So, off course, some people will refuse to be labelled as an average sample of their generation - we’re living in a hyper-individualistic era after all - while others will feel left out or find unruly examples or stories in their own families or entourage. To every rule there is an exception. But that isn’t a reason to shoot off the whole idea. Instead, consider cherishing the idea that you’re just not average.
The little consensus about when one generation starts and ends is a second challenge. Can you have a Millennial mind-set when you’re born in the late seventies? Aren’t generational characteristics more linked with the life stage you’re in than the time frame you were born in?
Of course, your current life stage will have an impact on your behaviour and state of mind. The worries and responsibilities you get when you graduate, hook up with someone, seek a job, become or lose a parent will partially determine your actions. Just as the childhood and cultural context you grew up in and the DNA you inherited from your parents.
But like it or not, on top of your personal traits and your childhood context, your life is also influenced by issues linked to the time in which you were born.
As such, many of the Silent Generation (born before 1945) consciously went through the Second World War. They experienced the climax and the aftermath of the war followed by the golden years of the ‘60s. People born in that time frame knew hardship and wealth. The Baby Boomers (1946- ’64) mainly experienced prosperity and lived through a time of innovation – television and the moon landing, to name just a couple of technological ones – and revolution (emancipation, sexual and civil rights). They grew up in a time when not even the universe seemed to be off limit. Gen X (1965-’79) had to contend with mass youth unemployment, The Cold War and experienced the end of sexual freedom through the risk of HIV. Indicative of Gen Y (1980-’94) is the emergence of the internet, the democratisation of mobile telephony, the launch of MTV, the fall of the Berlin wall and the removal of internal borders within the EU, but also the attacks of 9/11 embarking the West on a War against Terrorism. While previous generations grew up in a global economy, Gen Z (1995-...) developed a global state of mind. They have no recollection of a world without wifi access and social media or one without multiculturalism, daily headlines on climate change and overall information abundance.
Technological tools, scientific discoveries, political and economic events as such will affect one’s chain of thoughts and actions today and in the future. Of course, they will affect all generations living at the time when they occur.
Some will be early-adopters while others will follow later on, but the major behavioural impact will be on those who are still building their identity at that time: the youngsters of that era. And that’s why they share values, ideas and characteristics all together as one generation.
Besides, it’s not because one is growing into an other life stage that he or she will adapt to the norms set by previous generations. Well on the contrary: people just love to rebel against the generation that precedes them. Hence the classic swinging movement between generational ideas and values that sparks innovation.
So, yes generational thinking is and will keep on being contentious, but in the mean time it’s a great tool to figure out and approach your employees, colleagues, clients, customers or even your framily members. When put in the right perspective, it might help you put their actions, thoughts and ideas in a broader world view and understand why they do the things they do. You might even predict their (future) behaviour.
But remember: handle generational characteristics with the same care as for statistical results: it’s not because 60% of your customers share an idea, that the whole world does.
© Image by Gerome Vivant via Unsplash.com