Social Generational Shifts

How generational shifts will impact business and innovation (Part 1)

In the coming decade, major generational shifts will take place in the workplace. Today and in two weeks, let’s understand more about the concept of social generations, how the socialization of different generational cohorts impacts the way they think, work, decide, communicate, manage and lead, and how generational shifts will affect the ways we do business and innovate.

Background: Training a group of global nomads

In April 2017, I had the pleasure of training a fascinating group of highly successful businesspeople in our creative leadership method Genius Journey. Led by an impressive young Briton, the training group entirely consisted of an accumulation of global nomads, who flew in from all-around-the world to Phuket, Thailand, for a joint gig and team holiday. Together, the group operates an online platform for business coaches to host an annual international online coaching conference and to disseminate quality contents for a global coaching community.

All Millennials in their late 20s or early 30s, the fourteen delegates came from eight diverse nationalities (UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Croatia, Romania and India); with one exception, none of them actually lived in their home country. Moreover, while the group has a hub connecting all spokes, both are “moving targets”: the hub (= “head office” where the core team has pitched tents for the time being) only recently shifted from Costa Rica to Croatia, and most of the “spokes” (= individual team members) are frequently traveling between countries. Nevertheless, all collaborate together seamlessly and successfully across different time zones using the Internet and modern communication solutions.

Why do I tell you this story? Training this group of international global nomads —and witnessing them working in the evening after our training with other colleagues who couldn’t make the offsite— made me realize the huge differences in work styles, work-life aspirations and educational backgrounds of Millennials (also known as Generation Y) compared to those generations who still tend to run or influence most businesses today.

For the first time, I fully understood the importance of appreciating the style differences between social generations, and I began investigating and pondering how the impending generational shifts in the workplace will affect business and innovation.

Introducing the concepts of social generations

In social science, the concept of social generations describes cohorts of people born within a specific time period (ranging between 15 to 30 years) who jointly experience significant historical landmark events and witness the emergence of certain iconic technologies and trendy cultural phenomena during their formative years and while coming of age.

Because the shared social marker experiences within a single generation differ from those of previous or later cohorts, generations tend to vary from each other in their values, aspirations and motivations, the ways they work, communicate, make decisions, interact with certain technologies, etc. As a result, when one generation starts to retire, other generations take over, and a new generation enters the work place, these generational shifts tend to have major impacts on the economies and businesses.

Introducing the present generations and their sociological background

Let’s gain an overview of what generations are presently still alive, and gain an impression of the landmark events, technologies and cultural phenomena that shaped them (here note that the time spans between different generations is indicative only and varies in the literature, and the terminology follows the most common one developed in the USA):

Social Generational Shifts 2

  • The Lost Generation (1883-1900) describes the cohort who grew up in the culturally and scientifically rich period of the late imperialistic era and fought in World War I, a traumatic experience that led to their name coined by Gertrude Stein and popularized by Earnest Hemingway. At the point of writing, there is a sole survivor of this generation.
  • The G.I. Generation (1901-1924) includes those who lived through WWI in their younger years. Because they had to master the Great Depression and fought in World War II, they are also called the “Greatest Generation” in the USA.
  • The Traditionalists (1925-1945) includes most of those who were born or growing up during the Great Depression and World War II, and who fought the Korean War and in some cases during the Vietnam War. Also called the Silent Generation (or “Silents” because they were socialized at a time of conformity to authority), they grew up with Jazz and Swing (Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra), flocked to “Gone with the Wind” in the cinema, and saw the advent of TV.
  • The Baby Boomers (1946-1964) got their name from the baby-boom following World War II. They are a large demographic cohort and due to the long time-span, they are sometimes distinguished in early boomers (1946-1955) and late boomers (1956-1964). They grew up during the early Cold War era with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, and witnessed the moon landing and the civil and women’s rights movements that challenged the established order. Rock ‘n’ Roll (Elvis, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Woodstock) and the Boomtown Disco period, the movies “Easy Rider” and “The Graduate”, and the arrival of Color TV were important cultural phenomena shaping the boomers.
  • I am a member of Generation X (Gen X, 1965-1980), the “baby bust” generation characterized by a drop in birth rates following the invention of the birth control pill. We experienced a series of negative landmark events and social markers, such as the AIDS crisis, a renewed nuclear arms race in the late Cold War era, the Challenger explosion and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but also the sensational fall of the Berlin Wall and lifting of the iron curtain in Eastern Europe. Sometimes called the “MTV generation”, we enjoyed watching pop videos (Madonna, Michael Jackson) and listening to new wave and house music. Movies such as E.T., Star Wars or Alien made an impact on us, too, and the Walkman, VCR and in particular Personal Computers (IBM PC, Macintosh) were iconic technologies for us.
  • The Millennials (Generation Y, 1981-1994) grew up during the Dot-com boom, enjoyed the turn of the Millennium and suffered from the 9/11 terror attacks. Being mostly the offspring of the demographically large baby-boomers. they are also a huge cohort that has just surpassed the number of the Baby Boomers in the US. Millennials witnessed in their youth a series of major technological shifts such as the advent of the Internet, mobile phones, email, SMS, and the DVD. Cultural phenomena that shaped Millennials were hip hop (Eminem, Puff Daddy) and singers like Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez, the movie “Titanic”, the emergence of Reality TV and Pay TV, and fancy gaming playing consoles (Playstation, XBox).
  • The Post-Millennials (1995-2010) witnessed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Asian tsunami and the global financial crisis as landmark events. Also known as Generation Z or Gen 2020, they grew up with the iPad (and other tablets), social media (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat) and mobile apps. Culturally, Post-Millennials often have a thing with musical interpreters such as Justin Bieber, Rihanna, or Taylor Swift, and got greatly influenced by the movie “Avatar” and other 3D movies.

Interim Conclusion: Generational shifts and developments —hopefully— never stop. Some sociologists suggest the next generation has already emerged: Generation Alpha (people born from 2011 onwards — and my newborn daughter Zoë is a recent addition to Gen α). After introducing the different generations in today’s article, come back in two weeks time to learn more about the generational differences in the workplace (work aspirations, behaviors and styles), and how the generational shifts in the labour market in the next decade are likely to change business in general and innovation in special.

This article is one of 64 sections of an upcoming book that I am presently writing, The Beginner’s Guide to Innovation (targeted for publication in 2Q.2018 by Motivational Press). We also touch on this topic in The Creative Class, a 1-day executive innovation brief for busy managers and executives. Contact us if you’re interested to learn more about our innovation training courses.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2017.