The Biggest Mistake We Make In The Generational Debate

I was at a workshop recently where the facilitator was crowdsourcing ideas about effective engagement practices to reach different generations. I slumped in my seat, thinking this was headed down the predictable road of Millennial bashing and Boomer technophobia.

To my surprise, I found myself leaning forward in anticipation after the speaker’s next line.

He said, “I don’t want us getting caught up in life stage issues. I really want us to consider the things that are truly generational.”

The audience was completely disarmed.

This subtle yet profound twist gets right to heart of the generational wars we wage in our conversations and at work.

What's The Difference?

Life stage issues are enveloped in temporary demographics, basically what marketers do to define a set of characteristics for their audience.

For example, you don’t put an ad for a reverse mortgage or investing in gold on the Disney channel. Your audience isn’t there yet.

Generational issues stick with a certain age group throughout out their lifetime.

These examples are a little more tricky, as the empirical data are sparse on traits and behaviors that define and differentiate generations. However, we do know that working Millennials experience shorter tenures with organizations than their predecessors at the same age. This could be one example of a generational issue if the trend persists.

The critical differentiator here is time.

Our perspectives and priorities as humans evolve through experience and responsibility, both of which usually take time to transpire. Similarly, we cannot go back in time and change influential experiences that contribute to our worldview and sense of self.

As a result, I have often found the chief complaints of generational counterparts come down to a misunderstanding of one another’s life stage rather than an informed generational critique.

A Millennial’s communication miscue at work may not be about entitlement, but rather inexperience. A Gen Xer’s management mishap may not be about overly individualistic tendencies, but a very normal struggle to adjust to new leadership responsibilities. A Boomer’s anachronistic comment may not be about rigid adherence to procedural standards, but rather a genuine ignorance of new alternatives.

Each of these scenarios takes an assumed generational flaw and turns it into one of life stage, thereby drastically depersonalizing the issue and replacing the burden of harmful stereotypes with an opportunity for reciprocal helpfulness. The Boomer can help the Gen Xer avoid the perils of early leadership; the Gen Xer can help the Millennial minimize communication faux pas; and the Millennial (or Gen Xer) can help the Boomer stay informed of new industry trends.

Adjusting our perspective from that person has a fixed flaw which can never change because of their birthday to perhaps with a little guidance and teamwork, that person can transcend the constraints of their life stage is liberating for all parties and provides a sense of agency rather than victimhood.

So What's The Point

Confusing generational and life stage issues isn’t just semantics, it can be downright detrimental to a conversation, a team, and an organization. When we brazenly conflate the two, we tend to mistakenly believe that the other person’s conflicting behavior is an immutable character flaw that must be true for everyone else their age. More importantly, we miss the opportunity to help other generational members with experience from our own life stage.  

So the next time you find yourself in the midst of a generational clash, ask yourself these two simple questions. First, is the person’s age really the issue here, or is it their particularly life stage and experience (spoiler alert, this might actually require you to get to know the person *gasp*)? Second, is this a potential opportunity to help or be helped (also spoiler alert, it might be both *gasp*)?

Use these questions as a starting point for your next conversation, and the results might just surprise you.