Not sure I believe in generations

One of my secret weapons in digital strategy is Google Scholar. I find that in the web strategy world, research tends to stay confined to things like business whitepapers, popular journalism, web analytics, usability studies, user surveys and blogs/presentations/opinions from thought leaders. But with easy access to countless online academic journals, there is a whole world of peer-reviewed brilliance likely covering the same topic you’re researching, adding illumination and insight we wouldn’t otherwise get from the good ol’ blogosphere.

Today, as part of work on a project for an HR branch of a higher education institution, I got to study career motivations and job pattens of millennials. What makes Gen Y seek out a specific employer? What are they seeking in a job? What are their expectations? It’s fascinating research that I’m hoping to sum up and formalize, ironically, in the form of a blog post when I get the time. (Note: Please leave a comment below if a research summary like that would interest you; it would help motivate me to write it.)

But what started to seep out in the literature was this ugly condescension towards millennials from the popular press, which the academic articles tended to quote. Newspaper articles were calling this generation narcissists, “coddled children,” entitled, the product of over-protective parents. Yeah, I’ve heard it before, but it just seemed strange to read it so nakedly.

First of all — and the journal articles would call the newspapers out on this — the statements were contradictory and conflicting with each other.

But in all of this bold labeling of a people groups, there is one much more obvious mistake: it’s impossible to sum up the uniqueness of individuals into one convenient mass-applicable label. Scientifically, and from a humble human/relational perspective.

A standard bell curve would suggest that only a portion of any data set — yes, naturally a large portion — would fall within the middle spectrum. So while statements about a generation might apply to many within the group, it cannot apply to all. Not every member of a group carries the same characteristics.

And relationally, you and I can look around at our friends, colleagues and neighbours and say easily: all of us are so incredibly different. There are threads we might have in common, but to ascertain what truly unites us — in an unbiased, non-condescending way — will end up being so general that it wouldn’t even be interesting.

My catchphrase for that fallacy is this: generations are generalizations. Genera-lies-ations. Lies about generations. Never believe them.