Recognizing Generational Differences – THAT is the Problem

Generational Differences

We’ve all seen myriad blog posts and articles discussing how to manage/engage/lead/*insert buzzword here* Gen Y. We’ve discussed generational entitlement in Twitter chats, and there are seemingly entire sections of the Internet dedicated to these very topics.

Today, I offer my two cents on this seemingly ever-so-pressing issue and how it may be managed effectively—not solely for Generation Y, but for all generations in the workplace.

First, let’s think about the main goal of identifying generations within the workplace. As managers and leaders, we want to know how to most effectively lead our employees. We feel it is important to know what makes each person tick. For this reason, it’s often easier to categorize groups of people into generational traits.

While I find value in studying generations in terms of psychology, I believe that doing so from a leadership role is a non-value add. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to understand what motivates each of our team members individually. We must be cognizant of how each team member functions within the team and contributes to the cohesiveness of the group.

I worry that we get too caught up in highlighting generational differences, because it’s quite easy to get lost if we’re focused on trying to characterize a unique individual based on traits that stem from the average member in their generation.

We lose sight of why we brought in a new team member to begin with. We felt this person would bring value. They have the ability to communicate. They’re motivated and believe in our mission, etc.

It’s often easier to categorize groups of people into generational traits.

So, instead of abandoning the mindset of individuality, I suggest we shift our focus away from distinguishing generations back to the individual. If we fail to do so, the act of recognizing these differences leads to involuntary discrimination.

What do I mean by involuntary discrimination? In America, we try to embrace diversity and recognize said diversity by being politically correct.

While I maintain many personal opinions on political correctness, I think it breeds this type of involuntary discrimination.

For example: have you ever heard a black Canadian person refer to himself or herself as African-Canadian? Or have you ever referenced an Asian-Canadian? Indian-Canadian? Mexican-Canadian? No, you haven’t. Because Canadians all view themselves as just… Canadian. Canadians view themselves as a country made up of individuals.

I suggest we shift our focus away from distinguishing generations back to the individual.

The same view should be applied to our business teams. Stop focusing on whether someone is a Boomer, Gen X, or Gen Y.

The bottom line is that each person in your team wants meaningful work. They want to belong to your team. They want to be heard. They want to be part of an organization that recognizes them as an important and valuable team member.

So, we need to treat them as such. Instead of “managing” generational differences, the focus should instead be to treat each team member with motivations particular to the individual and as an integral part of your team’s success until they give you a reason to not to do so.

Let’s move away from managing according to traits that have been associated with a particular team member’s generation, as it’s a very misguided way of leading.


Community & Content Director and Co-Founder of Undergrad Success, Samuel is a budding serial entrepreneur. Utilizing his abilities, both technical and interpersonal, he wants to create companies, products/services and communities to fill the world with value. His free time is split between nerd activities like reading and writing, and awesome activities like street photography and sipping coffee. Catch him on Twitter.

  • I completely agree that we should not take knowledge about generational differences and apply them to the individuals in our lives. It misses the point. While the high-level generalizations are true, when you bring them down to the individual level, you find they either are true–or they aren’t. Every individual is either like their generational stereotype–or they aren’t (or, as is usually the case, they’re kind of a mix). I can’t stand it when people start with “Oh, so you’re Gen X therefore you believe…” Hey, maybe I do and maybe I don’t.

    But I disagree strongly with the idea that we’re all just individuals. We are, of course, individuals (and unique ones at that), but we are individuals who belong to groups. That is human. We have identities, and those identities are created, in part, by the groups to which we belong. The groups that have deep meaning to us. So I am equally frustrated when I am told to ignore the group aspect of my identity so I can be one of the individuals on the team. I may not call myself a “Male-American,” but being a man is a big part of who I have become. I don’t think ignoring that is going to help the management of my team.

    I think this is all messy stuff. Generational differences are real, but they don’t give you all the answers. They don’t tell you what to do, and as you point out, they aren’t some kind of template for managing the individuals on your team. But I don’t think we should run away from them either. I think they can help inform the conversations we have about how our team works, and how each of us is valued. The same is true for other aspects of our identity. They don’t give us the answers; they help us have better conversations.

  • I see this as a valuable discussion and one that can help change the over used generation based orientation into one that can help managers and leaders create effective working relationships. One thing I notice when a conversation includes -oh, you probably think/believe/do etc. as a starting point often shuts down a discussion or turns it to a misunderstanding. Instead, try asking the person you are talking to what they think/believe/do etc. -every time. Start the conversation with “what do you do, or think, or believe, or feel, or know [as appropriate] about ……?

    You will save time, reduce misunderstandings, start more useful discussions and best of all-you are letting the other person know you value what they bring to the table.

  • Benoitctr

    This is worth reading to feed the idea of a trans generational platform that caters to the youth of all ages. I call such spiritual platform The Ancient Voice of Humanity’s Youth and it can be found in any healthy relationship between grand parents – parents – children and the communities that still honor one another’s permanent youth…

  • Yes, as soon as we label people we start down the road of thin assumptions some of which are attached to ‘fixing’ them. Labeling narrows the opportunity that’s sitting in front of us.

  • David Physick

    Is not the secret about mutual respect? What I have read about the indigenous people of America, be they is it First Nation in Canada and, say, Cree in US, is that the generations respected his other. Younger generations respected the wisdom of the older generations handed down through story-telling (there’s a great “new” idea for organisational life!) and the older generations respected the youngster’s desire to learn and understand more. Having just come back from Mexico and visited a Mayan community gradually being dug-up, this too seemed at first to have these values of mutuality. But then they lost their way and over-used their natural resources and their communities folded. Had they ignored their ancestors’ appreciation of the natural cycle. Another Indian tribe held council meetings in front of the children so their decisions were made with their future in mind – one tribe I recall made decisions looking out seven generations.

  • Bronwyn Morath

    This is so obvious to me that I have been advocating this for many of my later working years…So, we need to treat them as such. Instead of “managing” generational differences, the focus should instead be to treat each team member with motivations particular to the individual and as an integral part of your team’s success until they give you a reason to not to do so…..Why we need to specialise people is beyond me…A Team is simply individuals working towards the same goal. Align the Leadership to the goal despite the ageism of the individuals. Works for me.

  • Roy Saunderson

    As a Boomer, ENFJ, former Brit and NOW Canadian, son, brother, husband, parent, and grandparent (Phew!)…I am glad we are slowly catching up to just treating people as people! Plain old individuals with their unique backgrounds and endless future possibilities. Well written perspective, Samuel!

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