Generational Theory: Do You Buy It?

We get this all the time: "generational theory is very interesting and all, but is it really valid?" We, at BridgeWorks, admit that there have been times when we've asked ourselves similar questions.

And we can understand that perspective - how could we possibly try to define 82 million people (size of the Millennial cohort)? Doesn't that feel simplistic and narrow?

Here's the thing... good generational theorists are not claiming that there are only 4 people that exist in the world: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. What we are really discussing are the implications behind shared experiences. Yes, an individual's upbringing is incredibly important in defining personal characteristics, but that is explored via psychology. What we do is sociology. We aren't studying one person. We are studying demographics, shared experiences, patterns and cultural shifts.

Here's a micro-example of a varying generational vantage point: For 16 years, BridgeWorks' generational theorists have asked Baby Boomers, "What is your first memory of NASA?" The landslide answer is, "landing on the moon." We ask, "What did that moment mean to you?" Although answers vary, the majority of the time the answer is something along the lines of..."We could do anything. If we have the right technology and if we work hard enough, the sky is the limit."

When we ask Gen Xers the same question..."What is your first memory of NASA?" The landslide answer is, "The Challenger Explosion." We are looking at the exact same institution, and yet, depending on your vantage point, you see it very differently. It is those differences that form distinct generational personalities.

This is not to say that every single person experiences things in the same way. We simply explore what happens when people have shared experiences throughout their formative years. As with any sociological study, there are exceptions and outliers. Generational theory is simply one lens to help people understand one another and the world around us.

Humans are curious creatures. We like to use different areas of study to make sense of things. Generational theory helps us do just that.