I’ve been reminded recently that there is still a whole lot of crap out there on generations. Pardon my French, but I would have thought that today, a full six or seven years since the Millennials brought our attention (again) to generational differences (remember the early 90s when Gen X hit the scene?), we’d be past the oversimplified generalizations, the confusing and contradictory research findings, and the randomized wheel of generation start and end dates.

But we’re not.

Eric Lanke pointed out an interesting article that pegged Generation Xers as “generally comfortable working within the systems established by their employers and, like the boomers before them, are more willing to let work cut into their personal lives.” Seriously?! Now, I will say that I think Gen X might be working more than they used to, but that is an issue of life stage (hitting prime earning and responsibility positions, as kids become less the focus)–not generations. I would think Generation X would still maintain some cynicism about their systems, even if they are running them. And more hours doesn’t mean as many as the boomers did at their age, and the hours are probably spread out each day to allow for more family time. Cynicism and work-life balance are bred fairly deep in Generation X, a product of what was going on when Gen X was coming of age. That won’t go away as Gen X grows older.

That is how generations work. It is big-picture, socio-historical stuff. Not the results of the survey that economist did of 2,346 individuals aged 36-49. It’s rigorous thinking about values and what parts of history are more definitive than others. And it is most decidedly NOT about simple answers. But that’s what the books and speakers tell us. These are best-sellers, too, that randomly assign Generation X to those born between 1965 and 1977 (c’mon guys, Gen X is small enough as it is, but now we only span 12 years?!). I really thought we could do better than this.

The whole point of generational discourse is not to generate answers, but to improve our conversations. We need more workplaces where people understand the genesis of the differences, not so we can develop catchy new recruitment campaigns that will score us more Millennials, but so we can ask better questions of our coworkers, experiment with more flexibility in our systems, and solve tough problems in ways that work better for everyone. That means we have to dig into generational theory a little and cut through the hype, and open up our conversations rather than closing them off with simple answers.

Jamie Notter