Generational Diversity in 50 Minutes

That’s all the time I was allotted to present on Generations at the Florida Society of Association Executives meeting last week: 50 minutes. So I had to cut some material, because lately I’ve been doing three-hour trainings on the topic. But hey, I like constraints! It forces some creativity out of me. I knew I wouldn’t have time to cover all of the basics about generations, but I wanted the presentation to mean something to people. So I boiled it all down to three main points:

  1. Theory matters
  2. Learn about millennials
  3. Embrace change

Theory. As I said last week, there’s a lot of weak material on generations, and the thread that connects the weakness is the avoidane of theory. There are some academics out there who have identified what I think is a pretty compelling theory behind the creation of generations, and most people skip that part. They just pick random years to assign generations (or assign them based on demographic trends, like number of people born in a given year) and then do an analysis of survey data. We need to raise our standards. In the presentation I went over the basic theory of generations–one that puts Baby Boomers as those born between 1943 and 1960 (and yes, I KNOW the literal boom in births was 1946-64, but that is not what actually creates a generation).

Millennials. I knew I couldn’t go over all four generations in today’s workplace in such a short amount of time, so I chose just one: the Millennials. And I chose them not to make fun of them or to blame them for their unrealistic expectations. I chose them because NO ONE really knows what is driving them. Again, back to the theory, but we can’t really identify the true driving forces behind this generation while we are currently living amidst those driving forces. We can certainly talk about it and make educated guesses (which is what I’ve done), but we have to take it with a grain of salt. So the main lesson here is, be curious. Learn about them. Don’t immediately declare their approach to be incompatible with the workplace–consider changing the way things are done.

Change. Which brings me to the last point. If anything ever proved the never ending cycle of change in life, it’s generations. The younger generation always freaks us out, so I’m beginning to wonder why, every twenty years, we act so surprised. Then I started looking at organizational cultures, and noticed that a lot of them looked and felt very much like the oldest generation in our workforce, the Silent generation. Even though 99% of that generation has retired, the cultures are alive and well. That’s how bad we are with change!! Generations change every twenty years or so, but that’s still too quick for our culture change efforts.

The world is running out of patience with our glacial adaptation skills. I’ve always said that the real purpose of knowledge about generations is not to give us answers. Knowing the difference between Boomers, Xers, and Millennials won’t tell you how to structure your benefits options or choose a business model. You’re going to have to get everyone in the room and figure those things out yourselves. But knowledge of generations will help you have better conversations about it. And hopefully it will help us take action based on those conversations BEFORE the next generation exits the workforce.

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