Friday, November 13, 2009

Generational Diversity in Ten Minutes

That was my challenge on Monday as I spoke to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. I was part of a round table session and I had to do a ten minute presentation on generational diversity for each table.

I gave them all a copy of my ebook as a handout, so I knew I could refer to that for the more detailed information, but it was still a challenge to come up with points that I could make in about five or six minutes (so they’d have a few minutes to ask questions). Here’s what I came up with.

1. Beware the Hype

I think this is getting better, but there’s a lot of hype on this topic ( a few years ago it was really bad). Hype takes generalizations and uses them in the service of ostracizing a particular group. It belittles them and makes them the problem. If you’re speaking to a group of Gen Xers you might get hype about how Boomers are self indulgent or made you sing kumbaya at the staff retreat. If you’re talking to Boomers, you’ll hear about how Gen X are disrespectful slackers or Millennials are helpless and need their meat cut for them. This stuff doesn’t help.

2. Learn the Theory

Sorry, but you need some theory to combat the hype. There are four generations in the workplace today, but they were formed by significant, long-term, social, political, and economic trends (not just the random dates that the researcher picked). It pays to understand those big picture trends, because then you can distinguish the difference between a real generational difference versus a life-stage difference. The best source for theory is Strauss and Howe’s book in my opinion.

3. We are guessing about Millennials.

It’s interesting that the generation that I am most often asked to speak about (Millennials, Gen Y, the net-generation, etc.) is the one we know the least about. We are writing articles about them and how they act and why they act that way, and I just have to emphasize to everyone that these are complete guesses about what drives this generation. You can’t come to a firm conclusion until you see them across a couple of different life stages. That doesn’t mean we should stop guessing of course—the conversation is useful—but take all that conversation with a grain of salt. My guess? I see four trends as having the biggest impact on this generation as they are coming of age: the social internet, abundance, diversity, and child-focus.

4. So What?

Whatever you learn about generational differences, always add the “so what?” question at the end. Applying knowledge of generational differences is very tricky. It hardly ever gives you clear answers about what to do, but it can be a useful guide to your conversations with your stakeholders about what you all should do. So be disciplined as you move forward on this topic and don’t fall into the traps of hype or oversimplification.


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