Early in my career at the turn of the decade (between the 1970s and 1980s) my boss gathered everyone in the office to watch a film on generational differences. When the polished speaker concluded his presentation, I noticed an interesting omission.
Turning to one of my co-workers I commented, “He said a lot about the characteristics of people in their twenties, those from forty to fifty, and those over fifty. But he never really discussed people in their thirties.”
She smiled pertly and with a flip of her head quipped, “That’s because we’re practically perfect.”
Then, I realized the film was targeted towards thirty-somethings, and had been made because they obviously were not as perfect as she assumed when it came to accepting differences.
Descriptions of generational differences largely continue to be entrenched in biases based on the viewpoint of a specific age-group. Managers over fifty complain that millennials don’t want to put in the long, hard hours necessary to advance and won’t stay put at their jobs. The smaller group in their forties describe how a poor economy has prevented them from advancing and now they are getting passed over for younger “digital natives.” Those in their thirties defend the need to job-hop in order to see any kind of upward progress. The younger group still in their twenties assert that growing up with computers from the time they left the crib has given them the advantage, while complaining about being strapped with college loans that their elders didn’t have to worry about. No one seems to be able to step back and look at the differences without taking sides.
In order to get a less biased look, I’ve been reading research based on two long-term surveys, that have sampled the behaviors, opinions, and values of young people over nearly fifty years. The American Freshman survey has been conducted among new college students since 1966 by the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA. “Monitoring the Future” or the National High School Senior Survey, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, has studied attitudes of high school seniors since 1975.
There are some interesting trends that come to light from these studies. When Baby Boomers were in seniors in high school seniors and college freshman around 45% consider wealth a very important attribute. This attitude which has been increasing over time has risen to 75% among the Millennials. Although, the younger generation may not consider wealth more important than the older generation does now, they are deeming it a driving goal at a much younger age. The reason for attending college has also shifted in this same manner. The idea of learning in order to develop a meaningful philosophy of life has decreased from 73% for Boomers to 45% for Millennials. Whereas about 70% of students went to college to learn about life and improve themselves (or perhaps to avoid the draft) in the early ‘70s by the turn of the century that same percentage were attending college as a way to become well off financially.
So why don’t these trends seem to match so many articles on generational differences? Because we tend to compared what opinions the different generational groups hold now. Most 55 year olds will perceive things differently than 25 year olds no matter which generational group they belong to. The split in opinions is also an in-group versus out-group comparison. It is impossible to look at a group with differences from our own in as generous and accepting manner as we see the people that resemble us, or at least resemble us outwardly. People the same age as us, look more like us and we do not judge them as harshly, because we considered them as part of an age-based in group. We all have a tendency to forget that we ourselves are nowhere remotely near “practically perfect.”