Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Debunking Generational Myths

We are  delighted to have a guest post from Shannon Tipton (@stipton) who shares her thoughts on generational myths.

Random observation or life in motion? 

Just recently I was traveling via train.  As anyone who is a regular traveler can tell you, there is always something interesting to observe. While sitting patiently waiting to get to my destination, there were a few curious things that stood out to me:

The elderly gentleman, furiously typing on his tablet pc;

The teenage girl thoroughly engrossed in her inches-thick novel;

The mid-twenty to early- thirty year old lady who was knitting.

With all the noise out there about generational differences and the “need to plan” for the upcoming generations, it seemed to me that some of those great minds needed to spend time on this train.

Who makes these rules anyway?

There are still some generational attributes that make sense.  Generational values and beliefs are built on the experiences one has during a certain period in life.  These experiences work to further ideals and even set communication preferences.  These generational “rules” have been around for a while, starting most notably with Strauss and Howe and their 1991 book “Generations”.  The premise still has merit.

That being said, it is important to note that the year is now 2012.  We have seen more growth in technology in the past 15 years than the 75 years previous.  What does this to do to the generations and the way they interact today?

Technology forces togetherness!

Different generations are now working shoulder to shoulder in the workplace.  Because of the increased life span of humans and the unfortunate turn of the economy, Baby Boomers are working longer and taking their retirement later in life.  This is another example of life forcing change, and in this case forcing change in the way generations should be viewed.

Just as though one could argue that it’s a bit brash to believe that we are alone in the universe;, it is equally brash to believe the rapid changes in the way we live, – with the technology that surrounds us – does not affect or change the way we operate daily.

In a survey of the colleagues in my organization, the results spoke loud and clear. 45% of the 450 respondents were over the age of 50, the group of people toward the top of the Boomers.  When looking more closely at the results – observed the following:

They were taking the survey on a tablet, an iPad, or a laptop; 

They were active online – 90% were involved in Social Media, most using Facebook to keep in touch with their children or grandchildren; 

They hosted websites, blogs, and regularly received their news through RSS feeds; 

They considered themselves to be an engaged user of the internet – not just surfers. 

Not exactly the message that seems to be permeating the business world today, which is something like this:

They don’t want to communicate via online. 

They don’t have access to technology; they don’t understand it so they don’t buy it.  

They wouldn’t know how to use technology even if they had access to it. 

Put an end to the madness 

Let’s put an end to this shall we? Generalizations such as these undermine all generations.  Baby Boomers (or Seniors for that matter) are no more likely to shun technology than a Gen Y person is to solely live by it. As displayed by my casual observations, the generations are condensing and overlapping; it is through this that information gets shared and exchanged.  We learn nothing when our minds are closed to the behavioral environment around us.  Get on a train, bus or plane and watch what happens around you – you may be amazed, and better yet, your beliefs challenged!

Further reading:

Digital Natives, Digital ImmigrantsMark Prensky (2001) 

Visitors and Residents:  A new typology for online engagementWhite & Le Cornu (2011) 

Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment? – Collaborative project between JISC, the University of Oxford and OCLC, and a partnership with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Shannon is Director, Learning and Development at Ambius.  You can follow her on Twitter @stipton or contact her via email: shannon.tipton@ambius.com

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2 thoughts on “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Debunking Generational Myths

  1. We also need to take account of the fact that many young people are increasingly computer illiterate – but digitally expert through use of mobile devices and the social media. It is especially true in the many countries eg Africa where everyone has a mobile phone but only the privileged few can afford or have access to a computer

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