I’m often asked, “What are the official birth years for the various generations?” The short answer is- there is no official data. A quick search will turn up a variety of answers, and none of them are more “right” that the others. The defining of generational time frames and characteristics that started around the time Baby Boomers turned twenty-one is a marketing construct. Some smart marketing type noticed that there were a whole lot of Boomers with money to spend and decided it would be smart to find out what makes them tick to better market to them. Thus, the business of dissecting generations was born.
The only official birth year data relates to Baby Boomers and is based on the post-war birth surge from 1946 through 1964. That’s why it’s significantly longer than subsequent generation time frames and is sometimes further divided into Early and Late. The data that marketers find useful involves the shared youthful influences and experiences that affect buying decisions. Morris Massey’s work looked at how we develop our values in those formative years, values that ultimately filter how we view things around us. He asked a key question: “Where were you when you were 10?” Or, as either St. Ignatius Loyola or Aristotle said, “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.” According to Massey, our value systems are developed while we are still malleable, and, once formed, “determine how you relate to your family, what products you buy, how you vote and how you perform your job.”
Massey also notes the impact of a SEE, Significant Emotional Event, on our value systems. A SEE is a dramatic, unplanned event that is significant enough to alter our values. A SEE can be personal (death, loss of job, etc.) or shared (Pearl Harbor, 9/11). Absent a SEE, the values we develop as children are the values we carry throughout our lives.
How does this help us in the workforce? An understanding of value systems and their impact on our behavior can help us better understand each other and positively influence the way we interact. Let’s take a look at some of the influences and characteristics of the current generations in the workforce.
Greatest Generation, aka Traditionalists, born 1920s-1945
Influences and SEEs: The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, WW2, New Deal, radio, hard times followed by prosperity
Work Characteristics: Strong respect for authority, strict adherence to rules, traditional roles, loyalty to company, promotions based on length of service and seniority
HOWEVER…consider the fact that Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Joan Baez, John Lennon and Bernie Sanders were born in the 1940s!
Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964
Influences and SEEs: Dr. Spock, TV, civil and women’s rights, Vietnam, economic prosperity, rock and roll, Kent State, JFK assassination
Work Characteristics: Challenge authority, value creativity, rule breakers and makers, non-traditional roles, workaholics, competitive, multi-taskers, still loyal to company
Gen X, born 1965-1979
Influences and SEEs: Energy crisis, dual income or single parent families, Y2K, computers, Dot.com bust, MTV, fall of Berlin Wall, Challenger explosion
Work Characteristics: Focused, driven, don’t like being micro-managed, resourceful, independent, more likely to change jobs, comfortable with diversity
Millennials, born 1980-1995
Influences and SEEs: Dial-Up to DSL, social media, outsourcing, multi-player gaming, texting, teams, play dates, school shootings, global economy, Enron, 911, loss of parents’ long-time jobs, pensions, nest eggs
Work Characteristics: Entrepreneurial, tech and social media savvy, team-oriented, change advocates, flex time and remote work, development opportunities, value creativity, work/life balance, very comfortable with diversity, socially responsible, meaningful work, value feedback, job and/or company as stepping stone
Gen Z, aka Globals, born 1996>
Influences: 2008 recession, 911, school shootings, digital natives, social media, pervasiveness of technology, always connected, instant information, student loan debt of Millennial generation, smartphones, political divide, climate change, most diverse generation
Work Characteristics: not traditional college to career paths, entrepreneurial, seek straightforward, constructive criticism, tech savvier, remote work and flex opps, work/life balance, seek variety in work, career growth, make an impact beyond the job, will move more frequently for career growth and new opportunities
Further research can give you many additional details, including each generation’s heroes, music, pop stars, religious views, politics and more. The collective information helps to improve understanding, but danger lies in assuming that everyone in each generation thinks and acts the same. One look around your Thanksgiving table should be enough to dispel that particular fallacy. Have you and your same generation brother-in-law ever agreed on anything?
The value lies in helping us to develop a better understanding of our friends, family and co-workers to achieve improved, constructive communication and healthy, productive relationships.
FYI- Keep an eye out for Generation Alpha!