Blog

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.

Get email updates from Kevan
Short, fun, infrequent email updates about new talks, posts and books

Kevan Gilbert

Kevan Gilbert is a writer, speaker and content strategy on the West Coast of BC, Canada.

4 Comments

  1. Generalizations (whether about a generation or otherwise) do serve a purpose of informing our experience. If I meet thirty random people from Tibet on the day before I’m supposed to have lunch with the Dalai Lama, I will probably be able to draw some inferences on what I can expect the Dalai Lama to say or do even though he will probably do some unique things of his own as well. It gives my mind some sort of reference point to make things easier and my mind likes that.

    Perhaps the problem is that many of our generalizations are no longer actually shaped on our own experiences but those of others that we hear about through media. I have all kinds of generalizations in my head about Iranians, but am unsure if I have ever met one. This probably means I should be highly skeptical of the generalizations I’ve acquired mysteriously, but I wonder how much thought I actually put into that.

    I feel like a “generation” is probably a hard group to even conceptualize, let alone generalize, unless you are a social scientist of some sort. They’re the only people who can set up crazy experiments with Tibetans and lunches and tell us what we do in normal life.

  2. I think generations can be difficult to define in our society and easier in others. Major events can shape the outlook of those who have witnessed violence, oppression, food shortage, natural disaster or political unrest. We see great generational disparity between those who witnessed the depression in North America and those who have lived with plenty. We see disparity between those who have witnessed world wars and those who haven’t. When we live in relative peace and comfort, I think we see less generational rift. Perhaps globally, there is more to see. Lost boys and girls in Sudan have a very strong identity. Palestinians, Arab Spring countries, and others are defined by these major life events and will have strong generational identities that will shape every thought and decision.

    A generational trend will need to impact a lot of people at once. Maybe the only thing I can think of that will mark my/our local generation is the prevalence of divorce.

    Those are my random thoughts. Interesting topic!!

  3. Very cool thoughts, Neil. Great perspective about the larger themes that shape people. You’re right, I think, that it’s those enormous “shared histories” that influence groups the most. I think even of the friends with whom I relate to the most; they are the ones with whom a large part of my life was live in a community of shared experiences, where “the same things happened to us.” Imagine what it would be like if there was a truly monumental shared event…

Leave a comment