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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