How Generational Stereotypes Hold Us Back At Work: Leah Georges (Transcript)

Leah Georges – Social psychologist

So, for the first time in America’s modern history, we have five generations interacting at work.

The veterans, born between 1922 and 1943, are known as the Greatest Generation, the matures, the silents. They’re known for their self-sacrifice, respect for authority and work as its own reward.

The Boomers came shortly after, born between 1944 and 1960. This is a generation characterized by hard work. In fact, we can thank this generation for the term “workaholic.” They appreciate competition, they love effective communication. And they’re thinking towards retirement, if they haven’t retired already.

Generation X is known as the lost generation the latchkey generation, born between 1961 and 1980. This is the smallest generation, sandwiched between boomers and the big millennials. More parents were divorced in this generation than any generation prior. They also were the first generation to tell us about work-life balance, and the first to really ask for that in the workplace.

And then Millennials — you know, the everybody-gets-a-ribbon generation — born between 1981 and 2000. Never knew a time where technology wasn’t present in the home. They’re incredibly pragmatic, they’re hopeful and they’re determined. They think they’re going to change the world; in fact, I believe they’re going to do it.

They might be a little bit idealistic sometimes, but in just the last several years, we’ve seen millennials overtake Generation X to be the most represented generation in the workforce.

In fact, more than one in three people in the United States labor force is a millennial. And soon to join us there, Generation Z, born since 2000, our high school interns or soon to be high school graduates.

Now, if you open any internet browser, look at Amazon, search any of your favorite search engines, you might assume there’s a literal war in the workplace, right?

We see blog topics like “Seventeen reasons why millennials are the worst generation.” And “Why baby boomers have ruined it for everybody.” Or “Bridging the great generational divide.”

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It’s like turning into this “West Side Story,” like, boomers come in one door, millennials come in another door, the lobby, they just fight with each other all day, complain, go home, do the same, come back to work, right?

Well, so what if I told you these generations may not exist? I’ve been spending some time thinking about this and researching this, and fellow researchers and I aren’t exactly sure that these generations are real.

And in fact, if we can agree that these groups even exist, we certainly don’t agree who belongs in them. And they span something like 20 years.

So at whatever point in history, a one-year-old and a 20-year-old are said to share the same value system, to want the same things at work, to have the same stereotypes working for and against them.

And in fact, different areas of the world define these generations differently. So we can’t even compare generations across various areas of the world. And these stereotypes about each generation have, in a lot of ways, created this self-fulfilling prophecy, that people begin to act as if they’re part of that generation because we’ve said out loud that generation is real. I’m not so sure that it is.

And in fact, this idea of generations has become deeply embedded in United States culture. When we talk generations, people know exactly what we’re talking about. In fact, people have a lot of thoughts and feelings about each of these generations.

And I’ll tell you how I know this. I did the thing that every red-blooded American and pre-tenure academic does when they have a question. I Googled some stuff. And this is what I learned.

Google is based on algorithms, and they provide you with commonly searched terms, or suggested hits, based on what other people are searching surrounding the same topic. And it gave me a really good sense of what people think about each of these generations.

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Take a look. I learned that baby boomers are conservative, that Americans think they’re stupid. The worst generation, they’re angry, apparently they’re racist and they’re so important.

Looking at Generation X, I learned Generation X is a cynical group, they’re angry, they’re known as the lost generation — we know this; they’re the smallest generation. Apparently, they’re stupid too. And mostly, they’re frustrated with baby boomers.

All right, millennials, this is what I learned about us. So, we’re obsessed with food. We’re also stupid, ah! We’re lazy, we’re sensitive, we’re fired, we’re also hated, and we think we’re important.

And perhaps the most terrifying search result on the internet — Generation Z is screwed.

OK, so for five years, I’ve been talking to leaders and followers across a wide variety of organizations. And this is what I’ve come to realize. Generations haven’t become part of the conversation — generations have become the conversation at work.

What I’ve learned is that we’re working under the assumption that those Google results are true. And so, what I think is that organizations are now desperate to figure out how to “manage” the multigenerational workplace. “Manage” it.

We manage all sorts of things. We’re preparing for this wave of millennials to come to work. So we prepare for hurricanes, right? We prepare to take the MCAT, we prepare for natural disasters.

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