Are Generational Stereotypes Ever True? A Millennial and a Baby Boomer Discuss Intergenerational Prejudice and Dialogue.
I was instantly intrigued when Professor Karl Moore offered to let me interview him and get his thoughts and perspectives on Millennials since I, by definition, am one myself. There was one problem, however: I don’t like monolithic views on generations nor being labeled as “Generation Y” or “Millennial”. He was giving me the outside view of a Millennial.
When I did my master in public health, I had been taught to keep seeking a thorough understanding of any population’s diversity, to identify their sub-populations. So, for me, the idea of attributing traits to members of a generation as a whole has as little intuitive charm as any other form of stereotyping. There’s an excellent talk by comedian Adam Conover in which he makes the case that “generations, in general, don’t exist” and that generational thinking has always been reductive and condescending. In fact, it even seems to highlight differences and obscure similarities, as this Harvard Business Review article argues.
But regardless of how I feel about this generalisation, I am still faced with it at work and beyond. And there are clearly some substantial differences across age groups, influenced by the new technologies, media, politics, and other elements of the social environment that shaped our upbringing and current lives. Hence I saw an opportunity in Karl’s offer to understand these stereotypes that we ‘Millennials’ are tagged with, where these assumptions might even be right, and how we can best deal with them. Karl is currently writing a book for “Boomer” executives that aims to teach them how to work with us Millennials.
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly, all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.”
– Hesiod, apparently, in the 8th century BC
In my opinion, there is no better place to start than to challenge Professor Karl on the founding assumption that there are inherent differences in beliefs and attitudes that separate Millennials from Boomers. Here, we share our conversation with you and are curious to hear your thoughts about it.
Every Generation was the ME generation
Sven: Karl, even if one thinks that the concept of a generation having its own culture has purchase, then how do they argue against the notion that globalisation gave the Millennial generation more diversity than boomers? Doesn’t speaking of ‘Millennials’ require ignoring the massive ecology of cultures within that generation?
Karl: I must say I don’t disagree with you, to lump together a 35-year-old and a 25-year-old seems to ignore the considerable differences between them. However, what I am arguing in the book that I just finished is that there is a very substantial difference between individuals over 45-year-olds with a university degree and those under 35 with a university degree. The worldview that they were taught in the critical years between 16 and 24 when we develop the core of our worldview is different. The over 45s, like myself were taught a Modern worldview, those under 35, a Postmodern worldview. Those two worldviews have significant differences around important topics like truth, knowledge, who has truth, knowledge and hierarchy, all things which influence how we would like to be managed and lead. Mia culpa, we are screwing up your workforce by what we teach them at the vast majority of Universities around the world. But I believe their worldview is most in touch with the world as it is today.
Sven: Okay, this does make sense to me. However, I feel like many views on ‘my’ generation are condescending and negative. Take this TIME article, for example; it labels us as “entitled, lazy narcissists”. So, Karl can you offer a more differentiated view on Millennials for your generational peers?
Karl: Unusually for someone my age, I spend a great of time with Millennials, I teach undergrads, they work for me, and I travel with them. This year I took 20 students to spend a day with Warren Buffett in Omaha and then took 30 undergrads to Hong Kong, Manila and Palawan for 11 days at the end of February. The well-known American journalist Tom Brokaw, has said that the Senior Generation, the ones who fought in WWII, are America’s Greatest Generation. I argue that this generation has the potential to be America’s next Greatest Generation, though we are 40 years from making that judgment. Why do I say that? Their worldview is not perfect, but it is one that appears to be in sync with the rapidly changing, evolving, and breaking all the precedents world of Brexit, President Trump, Uber, Airbnb, and climate change. Older people, Boomers and Xers seem to be flummoxed by Millennials, I don’t entirely blame them, but I think they have it wrong. This is a great generation.
Sven: So aside from the teaching at universities (“Postmodern” vs. “Modern” Worldview), you mentioned earlier, you see the accelerated changing of our world as another driver of cultural differences?
Karl: As I pointed out earlier, these two worldviews have significant differences around important topics like truth, knowledge, who has truth, knowledge and hierarchy, all things which influence how we would like to be managed and lead. These views are put on steroids by the persuasive worldwide influence of the internet which affects, for the most part, university graduates. Undoubtedly there are hundreds of millions of young people who have not been to university and who do not share the Postmodern Worldview to the same degree. Culture still matters. Some societies are more religious, the U.S. for example, and some value hierarchy more than others, Japan comes to mind.
Nevertheless, there has been a shift of values broadly shared by Millennials. Of course, there are Boomers, like myself, that would agree with much of Postmodern thought. Industry, country, age of your children, who you work with can all affect how much of the Modern worldview stays with you. How we organize and run our firms is moving toward a more Postmodern approach, but some organisations are still stuck in vestiges of the Modern Worldview.
Sven: Funnily, TIME has not only bashed my generation, there’s also a negative TIME article about yours, Karl. So it seems as if history keeps rhyming ever since Hesiod criticised the youth (surely, his generation was not the first to make that observation). How has your Boomer generation been stigmatised by its predecessors and what can we Millennials learn from it?
Karl: Our parents were the generation that grew up during the Depression as kids and took part in WWII as soldiers or workers at the Home Front. For many of this Senior Generation (as they are called) the Depression was a salutary experience in their lives, it meant that they were more risk averse, once you had a job you were more apt to keep it for life. Given that many of their parents were out of work for years during the depression this makes perfectly good sense.
Given their long-term loyalty to firms and their patriotism during the War they often looked askance at the Boomers lack of loyalty, protesting the War of their time, the Vietnam war and later Star Wars under President Reagan. Another factor was the rise of contraceptives during the Boomers teen and 20s. Back in the day when their parents were single and sexually maturing, having sex could well lead to pregnancy and often a resultant forced and often ill-advised marriage. Contraceptives changed that for many Boomers, this much more laissez-faire approach to sexual matters clashed with the morality that their parents believed in and had tried to live by.
Prejudices and Realities
Sven: Like many millennial doctors, I work hard and beyond the expected. We come earlier to work and leave later, we work on weekends and pull strenuous night shifts. In my free time, I spend much time on side projects, both for my own and my hospital. I recently even did so many shifts that two boomer superiors asked me whether I was alright or if there were any private issues I would care to talk about (there weren’t). My Editor, Alexandra, also found this to be the expectation and the norm with her Millennial colleagues – working longer and harder than older generations: “Do we have something to prove because of all our bad press?” She wondered, then she added “Are there so many of us who are driven and intelligent that we need to work harder? What separates us from the proceeding generations?” I think she’s got an excellent point and I sometimes feel like I should try to better understand the implicit expectations and prejudices towards Millennials if I want to preempt them. Karl, on your view, what expectations should we be aware of and what major pitfalls should Millennials try to avoid?
Karl: When I present to Millennials, I almost always have a few come to me afterwards and express their appreciation of my positive view of them, they say that many Boomers see them as lazy, self-interested, flighty, immature and unfocused, among other things. You often see this reflected in older people writing about this generation. I think it is simply Boomers not understanding how Millennials view the world and assume that Millennials are operating under the same assumptions as Boomers were taught. Given that more than half our workforce in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe is Millennials I think the older generations must simply come to terms with the fact that they are very important today and getting more important every year. We must increasingly change how we manage in order to align with their values and ways they want to work. I try to get down to the Silicon Valley as part of keeping in touch with the future of management and leadership.
Sven: Let’s switch perspectives, what do you believe are the common prejudices that Millennials hold against Boomers?
Karl: Many Millennials would see Boomers, in their lower moments, as being too hierarchical, not willing to listen and learn from Millennials. They would think that Boomers are too action oriented without giving sufficient thought to what they are doing, paradoxically at other times taking too long to make a decision in a world that needs organisations to pivot frequently. Above all, they find them caught in the past, in a world that no longer exists. Millennials are eager to reverse mentor Boomers and Generation Xers they find all too often for these older generations mentoring is one way only, as it was in their day.
Sven: But then, I wonder, how can we turn intergenerational disagreements, e.g. on work autonomy or leadership styles, into constructive dialogues?
Karl: My sense is that progress is being made and slowly, but surely, what the Millennials want is how we are doing business, and the other generations are wanting many of the same things, flexible work hours, less hierarchy, more conversation, etc. that Millennials respond well to. My prediction is that in 5 years we will no longer have a Millennial workplace but simply a work environment that people in 2022 need to work effectively.
Sven: One more question, Karl: what do you think our generation can learn from you Boomers?
Karl: In our better moments we learned to have work-life integration because we had small children and a working spouse, the children are now adults or at least older teens, we also learned to seek purpose in work and tried to make the world better place. We also had many failings but you know those all too well!
Sven: The final questions goes to the readers, my editor, Alexandra added an interesting thought to this conversation when she read the piece: “One thing I notice when I interact with Boomers vs. interacting with Millennials is that Millennials are a lot more in touch with emotions, feelings, intuition and mindfulness than Boomers. For example, I went into a meeting recently with a company run by Millennials and was surprised when at the end there was an appreciation round for the team members. I know my Boomer colleagues are much more eager to dismiss these things as silly than my Millennial ones. When I was discussing this with a Boomer they said to me that this is because Millennials grew up with the belief that we are unique and special.”
So, dear readers, what do you think: how much of this is true and how much of this is preconceived Millennial dislike?