Generational Labels – Do Exceptions Prove the Rules?

For some reason this morning finds me waxing philosophical. There, you’ve been forewarned. Perhaps this bout of navel gazing was brought about by too many cups of coffee. More likely it was spurred by a couple of articles I happened upon recently that deal with the subject of generational labels.

I’m sure you’re familiar with these – they’re the names that we give to huge chunks of society based on the range of years in which their members happen to have been born: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, etc. The labels themselves seem pretty harmless but, humans being human, we don’t stop there. We often assume as fact that those within a generation share common experiences, values and behaviors as well. This can result in some pretty darned facile stereotypes.Millennial Woman on Cell Phone

Not too long ago I read that there was a prevailing feeling among Millennials that my generation, the Boomers, had it soooo easy. According to popular lore, we glided into an adulthood replete with plentiful jobs, cheap higher education and picket fence home ownership by the time we were thirty. Leaving aside the fact that ascribing this feeling of resentment to today’s young people is in itself a gross generalization, this imagined life of easy young adulthood describes the experience of exactly no one I know!

Flipping the coin, I hear my cohorts grumble that today’s young adults seem to feel entitled to a position as a CEO right out of school, rather than having to start in the modern equivalent of the mailroom and working their way up the ladder, as we were expected to do. Oh, and a trophy, because everyone gets one. Again, I can’t think of a single Millennial I know who has expressed any such expectation, but the stereotype persists.

There are some positive traits ascribed to the generations as well. In case you’re keeping score, the American Psychological Association has provided a handy reference here.

When did this generational labeling start? I suspect the average ancient Italian was a little too busy trying to scratch out a living to worry about whether or not they should self identify as Etruscan or Roman. According to the following article, the phenomenon started within the last couple of centuries.

Generational Names – What Came Before Boomers?

Coining a nickname for an entire generation has become something of a pastime for academics, journalists and marketers. This week, the cable network MTV joined the generational name game when it announced it had its own moniker for the millions of kids coming after millennials: the Founders.

The idea that the people who make up a generation share certain characteristics—and thus should share a name—dates back to the mid-19th century, and most cohorts from even before that time have been given retroactive nicknames. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that those groupings gained mainstream popularity in the United States.

The woman who should perhaps be given credit for starting the trend was the novelist Gertrude Stein, who reportedly first coined the term the Lost Generation to describe the people who were born roughly between 1880 and 1900 and who had lived through World War I. That phrasing was popularized by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, the epigraph for which quotes Stein saying, “You are all a lost generation.”


Human Resource professionals face a real and counterproductive pitfall if they rely too much on generational stereotypes to understand their fellow employees. I found this article, again from the American Psychological Association, to be spot on.

Want a Happier Workplace? Avoid Generational Generalizations!

As workplaces become increasingly age-diverse, psychologists are working to help people of all ages work together.

By Jamie Chamberlin

Conventional wisdom says if you’re a Millennial, born after 1980, you leave work at 5:01, won’t work weekends and prefer texting to face-to-face meetings. In fact, you probably just sent a text to five friends about how lame your 30-something supervisor is. If you’re a Baby Boomer, born between 1946 and 1964, you live to work, can’t text and can’t tolerate change.

But like most stereotypes, those blanket assumptions are often wrong, say psychologists who study age diversity in the workplace. In fact, such generalizations likely drive wedges among co-workers and generate miscommunication.

And in today’s economy, when more retirees are returning to work and employers want to save money by retaining younger workers who are more likely to job hop, preventing age-related clashes is more important than ever, psychologists in the area say. In fact, ignoring intergenerational tensions can be costly and time-consuming: In March, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that age-discrimination cases by employees were at an all-time high, up 29 percent in 2008 from the previous year.

“People are paying attention to age in the workplace in a way that they weren’t before,” says Jackie James, PhD, of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College. “It’s the new buzz topic.”

So far, though, psychologists have only just begun to tease out how people of various ages create conflict at work and how to overcome it, says Lisa Finkelstein, PhD, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University who studies generational differences at work. Though it appears people’s stereotypes about other generations play a role, the exact nature of this role remains unclear, she says. Researchers also don’t know how much people’s perceptions of their age group may lead to miscommunication and discord. “It’s an important time to invest in research on this to see what’s really going on,” Finkelstein says. read more at

Finally, maybe a good sense of humor is the best tool to employ when confronted by label wielders.  This article, recounting a recent press conference for a new sitcom based on these very stereotypes, describes an event that quickly waxes meta. It almost makes me wonder if the entire thing wasn’t scripted!

New CBS Sitcom Pokes Fun at Generational Differences

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA — There’s nothing new about TV comedies recycling stereotypes for the sake of jokes. But the satire of millennials in the new CBS comedy, “The Great Indoors,” sparked a cross-generational conflict at the Television Critics Association 2016 TV Summer Tour.

In the pilot for the show, Joel McHale plays Jack, an adventure expert who’s a star reporter for an outdoors magazine. Jack is forced to leave his wilderness forays behind to work in the magazine’s office, where Jack contends with coworkers from the millennial demographic. The pilot features jokes about the millennials being obsessed with podcasts, social media and clickbait, not the good old journalism Jack represents.

Jack is a member of the Gen-X cohort, and he reports to a boss (played by the wonderful British actor Stephen Fry) who’s a Baby Boomer.

On a day devoted to CBS programming here at the Beverly Hilton hotel, “The Great Indoors” got a bumpy reception from some members of the journalists attending the press tour.

Creator Mike Gibbons, who has worked as an executive producer on “Tosh.0” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” introduced “The Great Indoors” by saying the show’s workplace is filled “with millennials in a overly PC, coddled work environment.”

A journalist set the tone by noting that “making a show about millennials results in a lot of sort of very basic millennial jokes, and there’s sort of a routine we kind of go through,”  then asking how will the show “move past the sort of, like, haha podcast, and kind of find some more depth for the characters that are sort of defined by the stereotypes in the pilot?”

Gibbons replied, “First of all, ‘haha podcast’ is a great review. I will take that. That’s what we aspire to.” He went on to say the idea for “The Great Indoors” came from him being “made fun of by millennials.” Gibbons recalled something that happened when he was head writer for “The Late Late Show with James Corden”:

“Just one example is the writers’ assistant had ordered lunch for everyone. I went up to him, like, ‘Oh, man, I owe you money for lunch.’ And I take out my wallet, and he’s like, ‘Uh.’ I’m like, ‘Uh?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not going to write you a check. I’m going to give you cash..And he was just so bummed out I wasn’t paying with my phone. He’s like, ‘Don’t you have Venmo?’ I’m like ‘Ven what?’ And it just occurred to me. It’s, like, when is 40‑something the new 80?” read more at

What to conclude from all of this? I guess it’s that there’s no denying that entering the stream of life at about the same time can cause a group of individuals to exhibit some similarities of attitude and behavior, both good and bad. But even still, we’re all unique. It’s the differences that make people so fascinating!

Got an interesting experience to share about cross-generational interactions? Please share it in the comments!


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