The Limits of Generational Orthodoxy: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • June 19, 2019

This is the first in a two-part series in which I will examine the limits of generational orthodoxy. In Part I, I explore some of the problems with generational thinking and why it is detrimental to associations’ ability to build meaningful relationships with under 40 stakeholders.

In late March, The New York Times published an online collection of 992 photos and quotes from young people who will reach 10-24 years of age during this calendar year, calling it, “900 Voices From Gen Z, America’s Most Diverse Generation.” It is a compelling and worthwhile visual presentation to be sure, and yet the newspaper’s reflexive choice to label “America’s most diverse generation” with a generic and invented shorthand (Gen Z) is a distressing contradiction, as well as an object lesson in the invisible yet insidious power of generational orthodoxy.

For more than two decades now, the prevailing opinion in associations has been that generational thinking is a useful frame for building relationships with under 40 stakeholders. Despite its popularity, my own research into generational thinking and my focus on foresight both tell me it is time to reconsider this view.

Generational Thinking is Flawed

As Sarah Laskow wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, generational thinking is not “some ancient aging curse that’s afflicted humanity since the beginning of history.” In fact, as Laskow explains, the notion of societal generations is a 19th-Century European invention, created by the intellectuals of the time, both to bolster the significance of their own work and as a frame for understanding the changes they were witnessing in society. Whatever value generational thinking may have offered to our predecessors, however, it is problematic today for at least three reasons:

Generational boundaries are inconsistent

Writing for USA Today in 2017, William Cummings identified at least four different ways to define the so-called Millennial generation, including the Pew Research Center’s then-definition encompassing anyone born after 1980 and extending, at the time, to include the years between 1992 and 1999, depending on the research in question. This imprecision negatively affects the delineation of boundaries for the so-called generations (X and Z) that come before and after the Millennials. Last year, to “impose order on the chaos,” as Liam Stack of The New York Times described it, Pew Research Center adjusted its boundaries for Millennials to include only the years 1981-1996, which differs from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1982-2000 time frame.

In the essay explaining his group’s recalibration of its Millennial time span (see the link immediately above), Michael Dimock, Pew Research Center’s president, argued that “generational cutoff points aren’t an exact science.” It is a spectacular understatement, especially as he concedes the lack of an accepted method for determining where one generational group ends and the next one begins. With associations placing greater emphasis in their decision-making on supposed generational identification, the acknowledged inexactitude of these boundaries only serves to dilute their meaning and undermine their importance.

Generational labels make it easier to ignore deeper complexities

In a NYT opinion piece in March 2018, University of Queensland senior research fellow John Quiggin offered the following observation on the Pew Research Center’s decision to revise its Millennial time span:

It would have been better…if [Pew] had announced the end of what I call the ‘generation game’ — the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group.

At its core, Quiggin’s critique of the “generation game” is quite simple: human beings are too complicated to be categorized in a one-dimensional manner. While one’s birth year exerts some influence on the person you become, the myriad factors that combine to form our attitudes and beliefs go far beyond any sense of connection or identification we might feel with our designated generational groups. As Quiggin points out, “…dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender” that deeply shape our life experiences and help to explain many of our subsequent life choices. For associations, understanding what truly animates under 40 stakeholders as complex individuals, and not as members of a narrowly-defined generational group, must be a critical consideration as they work to build meaningful relationships with those stakeholders.

Generational labels denigrate by implication

The most detrimental impact of generational thinking by far is the reliance on assumption-making and stereotyping it encourages. For example, so-called Generation X, the group to which my birth year assigns me, is also known as “the slacker generation,” implying everyone within it is lazy. (Interestingly, this same laziness criticism has been leveled against other generational groups as well.) Despite this group’s well-known entrepreneurial character, the stain of the collective slacker indictment has never gone away, even though nearly all “Gen Xers” are now in their 40s and 50s and have been working for many years.

Sadly, the widespread disapproval of Millennials has been far worse. The media has accused this group of young people of destroying everything from beer, cable TV and lunch to education, marriage and the value of friendship. The generational vilification has become so pervasive and pointed that in a March 2018 Medium essay, Amy Tavener wrote, “the word ‘millennial’ is the world’s cheapest and most overused tool of mockery.”

Perhaps it isn’t necessary for me to write this, but I will nonetheless: associations should not participate in any way in the ongoing denigration of the very stakeholders they want to attract to their organizations. Instead, associations should be doing everything possible to counteract it.

Next Week’s Column

In Part II of this series, I will discuss three ways that association decision-makers can think and act beyond generational orthodoxy as they strive to build mutually-beneficial relationships with their under 40 stakeholders.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff advises and serves on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). Jeff serves on ASAE’s Key Consultants Committee and on the ASAE Foundation Research Committee, for which he chairs the AI/Automation Task Force. He is the author of the eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, produced in collaboration with Association Adviser, a Naylor publication.

Jeff can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.