Every Generation Has Been The Me Generation

Two Fridays ago, I was in Bend, OR delivering a talk to the Oregon Association of School Business Officials at their summer conference. I was asked to speak about aligning cross-generational communication. I am so thankful for OASBO as I’m not sure I could’ve met a kinder, more welcoming and wholeheartedly supportive group.

Side note: If you haven’t visited, Crater Lake is stunning.

Simply stated, the generational gap is the difference in opinion between people of different generations. A second way to wrap your head around this is to identify the chasm between someone with an experienced outlook and the experimental attitude of a younger person who hasn’t yet learned as much from trial and error. Not only has he or she not had time to learn societal norms, but rapid evolution of technology has widened the philosophy-culture gap. More experienced generations typically only learned new things from family, friends, school teachers, magazines and possibly a newspaper. Younger generations learn from those groups and tools… and have unfettered world wide web access to information globally.

During my talk I displayed a slide with the following quotes from a magazine article –

“From Ernie, the uncle –

What is the game? The same game as the college game or the politics game. The name of the game is ‘beat your father at building a better world for your son’. Richie cannot accept the concept that anything so dependent on existing institutions can leave a man free to think and act as he pleases in private life. Yes, all the businessmen I know are free thinkers and intellectually curious, knowledgeable and more interested in making a mark than in making a buck.

“From Rickie, the nephew –

Partly, I am lazy; I don’t feel like working this summer. I am writing a book and taking a history course at Columbia. Even the dullest art history book gives me a greater sense of freedom than being imprisoned in an office. I don’t feel like being confined; I want my time to be at my own disposal. I suppose I’m spoiled. I’m copping out.

Most of my audience thought Rickie was a Millennial. He isn’t.

This quote is pulled from an article in the May 17, 1968 edition of Life Magazine.

Ernie is a Traditionalist born between 1900 – 1945. Rickie is a Baby Boomer born between 1946 – 1964.

Another example. My next slide displayed the following quote –

Lazy, entitled, selfish, shallow, unambitious shoe-gazers … [who] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder … They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial … They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers and Rolexes. What they hold dear are family life, local activism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes.

The audience also thought this language described Millennials. Wrong again.

This is a quote from the July 16, 1990 edition of Time Magazine. The author is a Baby Boomer and he’s describing Generation X born between 1965 – 1979.

What was my point in showing those two slides?

It was a reminder that all generations have had self-interested tendencies. Yes, millennials (born between 1980 – 2000) do have higher levels of self regard. But the more factual statement would be that all young people (most teenagers and people in their 20s throughout history) have displayed such tendencies. Somehow, more experienced generations have forgotten that they more readily accepted societal norms as they aged and experienced more trial-and-error learning. This confusion drives an increased likelihood that older individuals will agree with the millennial narcissist argument simply because the mainstream media continues to use it without offering counter arguments of ways in which all generations are the same.

If you’re like me and desire to close the generation gap, here are five things you can do to recognize that all generations are more similar than they are different.

1 Respect Different Means of Communication – Millennials and Generations Z (born after 2000) do utilize electronic means more than Traditionalists or Boomers, who prefer face-to-face or verbal dialogue. Every generation is using the means available to them for developing relationships, feeling accepted, earning respect, feeling trusted or learning something new. How each communicates is less important than why they’re communicating (to be accepted).

2 Focus Far Less on Mistakes – All generations have a distinct need for continual learning. Each was acculturated to learn via the technological means of their time. Older folks used lecture, books and rote memorization. Younger folks use podcasts, video and immersive experiences. In finding one’s self, making mistakes, reflecting on them and learning from them is a robust learning methodology. That’s true across generations. Just because someone learns (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) differently than you doesn’t mean they deserve your criticism.

3 Don’t Try to Make Them Carbon Copies of You – Many parents and leaders attempt to use their life’s lessons when guiding the behavior of their children or direct reports. The don’t-make-the-same-mistakes-I-did method. Unfortunately, your children or staff are nothing like you… different thinking/behavioral preferences, motivators, languages of appreciation, friends, access to technology, etc. Your job isn’t to force them to emulate your life, it’s to allow each to blossom into the most unique version of him/herself possible.

4 Limit Comparisons of Young Persons to Their Peers – More experienced generations tend to want younger people to follow in the footsteps of success as society defines it… high income levels, the right job title, house in the opulent neighborhood, etc. Often, that path is not interesting to younger generations who value unique global experiences more than assets geographically anchored in one location. Instead of getting our youth to focus on grades, promotions, working for large corporations, etc., spend more time with younger people learning what their favorite hobbies/interests are and doing that thing with them. You’ll see a 180˚ difference in their behavior.

5 Show Them More Appreciation – All humans desire recognition for our effort and skill. Some want a word of affirmation, others prefer gifts, quality time, an act of service or physical touch. Because the mainstream media pushes divisiveness and negativity… and social media inherently tells young people they’re not good enough, it’s our job to ask how each prefers to receive appreciation and deliver that to them recurrently.

Remember, the phase in a person’s life ((1) teenage years and twenties… (2) 30s and 40s… (3) after 50) is far more important than the generation in which he/she belongs. As I discussed above, for decades, the older, more experienced generation has looked down upon the generation that follows. Perhaps it’s a jealousy that they’ve become more restricted, regimented or confined in their life. Maybe they’ve forgotten what their own self discovery process was like. Whatever the case may be, we don’t have a millennial problem.

We have an older-people-don’t-remember-what-it’s-like-to-be-going-through-early-life-self-discovery problem.