How D&I Has Evolved... and How to Keep Making Progress

Inclusive organizations seek out and embrace the unique value that diversity brings to the workplace and marketplace. At the surface, this appears to be an agreeable objective, yet accomplishing it continues to feel just beyond our reach. We may have generational differences to thank in part for this.

As children have recited The Pledge of Allegiance in American classrooms since 1945, they quickly found themselves growing up in a world that doesn’t always provide “justice for all”. So, groups from each decade would make a stand, take a seat, march in line, or band online for causes they believed in. As one generation would rightfully look back admiring their accomplishments, the next would instinctively look ahead saying “we can do better.” This shift in perspectives contributes to the challenge of diversity and inclusion (D&I), because what feels like a step in the right direction for one person, may feel too far or not far enough to another. People of different ages tend to view progress and improvement differently.

While history has its share of villains of discrimination, every generation also has its heroes of humanity. If the goal of an organization is to design a culture of inclusivity, belonging, and equity, it should honor the evolutionary contributions each generation has made in the effort to “form a more perfect union”. Let’s assess some of the moments in time that got us to where we are today.

Traditionalists (Born pre 1946)

When President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, the Traditionalist generation experienced a shift in military policy that would have ripple effects across the nation. About half of the men from this era served in the military in either World War II or Korea, so families were literally on the front lines of societal transformation. This removed a major brick in the wall of segregation that was widely accepted in the United States.

Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964)

Baby Boomers came of age during the civil and women’s rights movement. Rather than waiting for a top-down edict to be passed, they waged peaceful protests from the bottom up. These would ultimately lead to the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972, which could bring legal action against any business that discriminated against its employees. This fixed diversity as a constitutional principle in the workplaces of our society.

Generation X (Born 1965-1979)

In 1987, the Secretary of Labor commissioned “Workforce 2000,” which sought to fully integrate people of color and the needs of women at work. As Generation X started entering the workforce, it was no longer enough to say, “you can’t discriminate;” the expectation was now to “genuinely appreciate” underrepresented people in the workplace. This new mindset advanced the value of inclusivity among coworkers.

Millennials (Born 1980-1995)

In 1994, President Clinton authorized “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the official US policy on military service by gays, bisexuals, and lesbians, which lasted until 2011. While some may debate the merits of this approach, there is no denying that Millennials grew up in an era when the conversation around inclusion expanded beyond race and gender to consider even more aspects of our human diversity. Millennials’ desire for every cohort to feel connected and understood introduced a new expectation of belonging to the jobsite or at the office.

Gen Z (Born 1996-2010)

For Gen Z, a black President, the equality of women, and the acceptance of a variety of sexual orientations are assumptions—not aspirations. In addition, they grew up learning to consider various physical, emotional, and mental health conditions of their classmates and how to make supportive accommodations, so everyone feels valued. This expectation that organizations will do their part to level the playing field for everyone is raising the bar of equity at work.

Five generations working side-by-side—each with different experiences that have shaped their perspective of what D&I looks and feels like. This variety can subtly contribute to misunderstandings and stereotypes, but it can also be a point of connection. When confronted with potential challenges that could arise from these differences, try and approach them from a place of curiosity rather than criticism. Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” If we can understand and build on each other’s experiences, we can continue to make strides and further our collective progress—advancing D&I initiatives and expanding our institutions into truly inclusive entities.