How Generational Myths Hold Us All Back

We’ve all heard the stereotypes about different generations, defined by their year of birth:

“Millennials are lazy and spend too much on avocado toast. The Greatest Generation are patriotic hard workers. Baby boomers are selfish and technologically inept. And don’t forget Gen X, those disaffected loners.”

Stereotypes like these have created a cottage industry of books, podcasts, and videos dedicated to explaining these supposed differences and the best ways to motivate, reward, and understand the different generations in business and education. It can start to feel like socially sanctioned ageism. Is there really any truth to these ideas?

That question piqued the interest of Martin Schröder, professor of sociology at Saarland University in Germany. He dug into the data from the Integrated Values Survey, a wide-scale and long-running survey about European values. What he found is that the generational cohort one belongs to has little effect on one’s answers to questions. Instead, the answers and attitudes, he believes, align more closely to the person’s age.

“Of course, as with all clichés there’s a grain of truth in them, but when you take a closer look, the differences between the generations are not really that great at all. What turns out to be important is which stage of life people are in when they are asked about their work ethic or their attitude to work,” said Schröder.

And that makes sense! Career-hungry twenty-somethings may not have a family of their own yet, while a retiree may want to consider the legacy she’ll leave behind for her grandchildren.

These stereotypes about different generations are just another form of ageism against people both young and old. “Generationalism,” like all other “-isms,” harms our ability to connect across all ages and learn from each other. And, as Schröder’s research shows, it’s just bad science.

So let’s work to ditch these stereotypes and build cross-generational friendships. There are surprising benefits to fostering relationships with people of a different age.

Diverse perspectives: Interacting with individuals from different generations exposes us to diverse perspectives, ideas, and experiences. This diversity can broaden our understanding of the world and help us develop more inclusive and nuanced perspectives.

Learning and growth: Cross-generational relationships provide opportunities for learning and personal growth. Older generations can offer valuable wisdom, guidance, and mentorship based on their life experiences. And while no generation has a lock on new ideas, younger generations may offer a different way of thinking.

Support and connection: Strong relationships across generations provide emotional support and connection, particularly during times of change or adversity. Knowing that we have people of different ages who care about us and understand our experiences can enhance our sense of belonging and well-being.

Mutual respect: By fostering open and respectful communication, cross-generational relationships can help bridge the gap between different age groups. Through meaningful dialogue and mutual respect, individuals can challenge stereotypes, break down barriers, and build stronger, more inclusive communities.

Overcoming the tired clichés about different generations will help us all enjoy positive relationships with people of other generations. By recognizing and appreciating the unique perspectives and contributions of individuals of all ages, we can build stronger, more connected communities based on empathy, understanding, and respect.