Is Generation X/Y/Z irrelevant?

Generational distinctions seem to make less and less sense every year. While my grandmother never learnt to drive a car, my mother happily uses a computer and the Internet. Yes, the pace of change has sped up, but it appears that so have we. Age is a very crude factor, and as we shift to increasing personalisation age looks less and less relevant as a driver for change.

Why then do we persist in reporting on how each generations’ habits and predilections will transform the workplace, school or retirement village, when in reality these institutions seem to becoming closer together rather than further apart? Competition in the workplace is the main driver for change, with individuals adopting the tools and techniques they need to get the job done, whatever generation they are from.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the next generation (whichever that happens to be) is going to change the world. We had it with the Greatest Generation. We had it with the Pre-Boomers and Baby Boomers. We had it with Gen X. Now we have it with Gen Y. This might have made sense some time ago, when changes in social mores and practices took longer than a single generation. Change takes time, and if the pressure is only gentle then we can expect significant time to pass before the change is substantial.

I remember my grandmother who never learn’t to drive. Back in the day, before World War II, women driving was not the done thing. My grandmother never learnt to use a video recorder, computer, or the Internet, either. The pressure to change was gentle, and she was happy with her lot.

Sociologists now tell to that the differences between populations is often less than the differences within populations. Or, put another way, on aggregate we’re all pretty much the same. The same is true for my grandmothers. While one never learn’t to drive (among other things), my other grandmother charted a different course. No, she never learnt to use the Internet, but she did take the time when her husband went off to war to learn how to drive, and the both had a bit of a crush on Cary Grant.

If we wizz forward to the present day, then we can see the same dynamics at work. My parents have, in the course of only a few years, leapt from a technology-free zone to the proud owners of laptops, a wireless network, and a passion for doing their own video editing. Even mother-in-law, who has zero experience with technology, bought a Wii recently. She also seems to have more luck with the Wii than her video recorder which she’s never been able to work.

The idea that technology adoption is generational seems to have eroded to the point of irrelevance. There was even a report recently (by Cisco I think, though I can’t find the link) where the researchers could find no significant correlation between new technology adoption and generational strata.

Why then do we persist in pigeon holing generations when it is proven to be counter productive? Not all Gen X’s want to kill themselves. I’m a Gen X, I even like Nirvana, and I’ve yet to have that urge. Not all Gen Y’s want to publish their lives on Facebook. And not all baby boomers want to be helicopter parents. The only accomplishment this type of media story achieves by promoting these stereotypes is to massage the ego of their target demographic. To divide people into generations and say that this generation likes certain tools and techniques, and this generation doesn’t, and will never adapt, is naive.

If we must categorise people, then it makes more sense to use something like NEOs to divide the population into vertical groups based on how we approach life. Do you like change? Do you not? Do you value your privacy? Are you willing to put everything out in public? And so on…

The pace of change has accelerated to the point that everyone’s challenge, from Pre-Boomers and Baby Boomers through to Generation Z, is how to cope with significant change over the next ten year. If we are, as some predict, moving to an innovation economy, then it is the ability to adapt that is most important. Those betting their organisation on a generational change will be sadly disappointed as no generation has a monopoly on coping with change.

A more productive approach is to seek out the people from all generations who thrive in change, and aim for a diverse workforce so that you can tap into the broad range of skills this diversity will provide. Ultimately competition in the workplace is the main determinant for change, with individuals adopting the tools and techniques they need to get the job done, whatever generation they are from.

Updated: Elliot Ross pointed out some interesting research and analysis by Forrester. Forrester coins the term Technographics in their Groundswell work, capture how different people adopt social technologies. There’s even a nice tool which enables you to slice-and-dice the demographics. I’ve added the tool below, and highly recommend taking a look at Forrester’s work.

Updated: Mark Bullen over at Net Gen Skeptic does a nice job of bring some evidence to the debate, with Six reasons to be sceptical.

Posted under: Business-Technology, Enterprise 2.0

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14 comments

  • Nigel Walsh on 2010/01/14 at 8:45 pm said:

    Peter, I like the idea of NEO’s vs. the more common Gen X, Y, Z….. There is also some good research from Accenture out there entitled “Millennials at the Gates”. I do think generation matters, not because of age but because of relevancy & needs.

    In the examples you use, your Grandmother didn’t drive because society at the time didn’t accept it, not that she couldn’t or didn’t have the ability to learn – she proved she could when the need arose. I put this down to evolution.

    Equally, your mother-in-law with a WII is likely to be playing different games than that of your 13yr old kids – games that are relevant and appropriate for the generation in which they serve. It’s funny, I watch my mum now on the PC, like yours, Computer, Internet, games (solitaire still!)… and she couldn’t live without it. Funny, she can receive SMS messages, but I have failed to date in showing her how to send them!

    Organisations also force customers & employees down this route. Mum no longer sits in call centre queues or visits branches, all banking, insurance, some shopping etc. is completed online as we have fit for purpose interfaces that she can navigate easily & intuitively. I can’t imagine her muddling through the same back in the days of dial up modems, waiting for the thing to respond, then type in a complicated CompuServe ID… Bottom line its more convenient for her and the supplier.

    The Accenture report alludes to something similar and very important for me. If we are to employ these folks in our business, we have to provide them the right tools that ensure they perform most effectively as quickly as possible. I translate this to mean if you have Facebook/Twitter user that’s used to this type and ease of interface, then by providing a similar experience means they will be more effective and require less training. It really troubles me to invest time and energy in choosing the right candidates, irrespective of their age – into you business to then go and train them on alien like interfaces with green screens and F7 type commands – taking them out of their comfort zone. I think this is a real problem – we have an ageing workforce and they will be replaced over time. Equally the opposite is true – I have heard of companies ‘grey sourcing’ – bringing older folks into the business as they were experienced with the said technology.

    As you note, the smarter ones will always find away round things to get the Job done. Ultimately we always end up labelled somehow!

    On a side note, isn’t one of Facebook’s key demographics 45-55?…

  • rickmans on 2010/01/14 at 7:20 am said:

    I love to collect the labels for generations ;), at least I did it for the upcoming generation (although I am not sur eif a generation can really be upcoming though!). I already have 7 labels for it: http://dontmindrick.com/asides/generation-4/

    I agree with you, it is not the generation that matters nor does a certain generation defines a gap. The biggest gap I see is those who are able to participate online and those who aren't (by either having no internet connection or being digital illiterated) and that gap is really generation independent.

  • Peter Evans-Greenwood on 2010/01/14 at 8:14 am said:

    It's interesting to watch the 3rd world adopt social technology. I wouldn't be surprised if, free of the technological baggage the 1st world carries, they leap over us.

  • Nigel Walsh on 2010/01/14 at 10:48 am said:

    Peter, I like the idea of NEO's vs. the more common Gen X, Y, Z….. There is also some good research from Accenture out there entitled “Millennials at the Gates”. I do think generation matters, not because of age but because of relevancy & needs.

    In the examples you use, your Grandmother didn't drive because society at the time didn't accept it, not that she couldn't or didn't have the ability to learn – she proved she could when the need arose. I put this down to evolution.

    Equally, your mother-in-law with a WII is likely to be playing different games than that of your 13yr old kids – games that are relevant and appropriate for the generation in which they serve. It’s funny, I watch my mum now on the PC, like yours, Computer, Internet, games (solitaire still!)… and she couldn't live without it. Funny, she can receive SMS messages, but I have failed to date in showing her how to send them!

    Organisations also force customers & employees down this route. Mum no longer sits in call centre queues or visits branches, all banking, insurance, some shopping etc. is completed online as we have fit for purpose interfaces that she can navigate easily & intuitively. I can't imagine her muddling through the same back in the days of dial up modems, waiting for the thing to respond, then type in a complicated CompuServe ID… Bottom line its more convenient for her and the supplier.

    The Accenture report alludes to something similar and very important for me. If we are to employ these folks in our business, we have to provide them the right tools that ensure they perform most effectively as quickly as possible. I translate this to mean if you have Facebook/Twitter user that's used to this type and ease of interface, then by providing a similar experience means they will be more effective and require less training. It really troubles me to invest time and energy in choosing the right candidates, irrespective of their age – into you business to then go and train them on alien like interfaces with green screens and F7 type commands – taking them out of their comfort zone. I think this is a real problem – we have an ageing workforce and they will be replaced over time. Equally the opposite is true – I have heard of companies 'grey sourcing' – bringing older folks into the business as they were experienced with the said technology.

    As you note, the smarter ones will always find away round things to get the Job done. Ultimately we always end up labelled somehow!

    On a side note, isn't one of Facebook's key demographics 45-55?…

  • Peter Evans-Greenwood on 2010/01/14 at 12:18 pm said:

    Today's digital native is tomorrow's digital dinosaur. In a world of the long tail, where products and services are being customised to each individual's needs, and where we see significant change in less than one year, I think the argument that we should deploy a certain tool (facebook, twitter, green screen, …) due to Gen ?'s familiarity is starting to look a bit misguided. (Using a target demographic's favourite medium to market to them is a different question though.) I'l have to dig up that report which found that age is no longer a determinant to technology adoption. As you point out, one of Facebook's target demographics is 45-55 (which explains why I don't really use it :), not the early 20s folk that it was launched for.

    As Andy Mulholland told me in an email: ultimately competition in the workplace will determine what tools are used and how we use them, rather than some assumed technology preference. Employees (on the whole) will flock to what help's them get the job done, and employers will deploy tools that help improve margin.

    Picking up on your training point, we seem to be reaching a point where training is largely optional. Take the iPod/iPhone for example; I don't know anyone who's ever opened the manual (or bought some iPod/iPhone secrets book), which stands in to stark contrast to the music players and phones that went before them.

  • Nigel Walsh on 2010/01/14 at 1:32 pm said:

    training (on a application or device) is obsolete once the experience and interface is intuitive enough to its respective audience. That and the fact if I had a problem with my iPod, I could ask anyone for help, almost everyone has them.. and there are way smarter people out there than me that have figured it out first.

    I don't believe we will ever move away from training entirely, be it application, culture, H&S or otherwise – organisations have a duty to say we have delivered X,Y,Z, without that they are at risk if and when something does go wrong.

  • donpotter on 2010/01/14 at 3:15 pm said:

    How could you overlook an entire generation in your article. Belive it or not sandwiched between the greatest and the most slefish generations are the more than 30 million pre-boomers — those depression kids and war babies broen between 1930 and 1945. We learned first-hand from those who withstood the hardships of the '30s and the pain of the early '40s. We were instilled with the values and traditions that made this country great and embraced the work ethic needed to continue building on the foundation laid before us. Now, we are the “New Seniors” since as of 2010 we are all 65 or older. Look to us for direction before going off on your own; we have the experience and willingness to help.

  • ElliotRoss on 2010/01/15 at 8:19 pm said:

    That exact issue was why Forrester Research coined the term 'Technographics'

    2 members of the same generational demographic -may not even be close in the 'technographic' elements!

  • rmazar on 2010/03/21 at 9:48 pm said:

    You said: “I remember my grandmother who never learn’t to drive.”

    First, what's the apostrophe for? Both learnt and learned are correct.

    I find the driving example a bit off-putting. My grandmother, born 1912, drove. My mother, born 1942, never has. Neither I (1974) or my sister (1973) drive. I'm not sure driving is a generational issue.

    I absolutely loathe the way people equate youth with technological sophistication. Not only is it incorrect, it hurts students who are ashamed to be uncomfortable with technology. I believe quite firmly that that particular meme is in place to provide an easy excuse for anyone over 40. As long as it's a game for the young, the pressure is off.

  • seeboonsiang on 2010/06/07 at 5:21 am said:

    I am not sure as there is too many text to read and it make me confused.

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