Generational theory suggests that the era in which a person was born affects the development of their view of the world. Yet, no matter the generation, we have all personally experienced how our values change over time. The younger we are, the shorter-term view we have on life. The older we are, the more our perspective begins to lengthen.
The difference between “life stage” and “generation” as it manifests in workplace behavior is something Rob Salkowitz discusses in his book Generation Blend. He wonders if Generation Xers in their 30s and 40s are showing greater organizational loyalty and interest in teamwork than they did in their 20s because they have kids and mortgages to pay. One question that continues to linger is: do Millennials actually act different in important ways from previous generations of young people (and young workers), or are they just “troublesome” to employers because all 20-somethings are inherently “troublesome”? And, a cultural phenomenon we have all observed is Baby Boomers, often described as workaholics, heading into their 60s looking for ways to have greater balance in their lives and more time to spend with their grandkids. Life stage, as defined by physical age, the relationships in our lives, and our economic circumstances, has a lot to do with behavior in the workforce and in society in general.
Having said this, generational theory correctly predicts that each new generation entering a specific life stage will redefine that life stage and change it either subtly or dramatically. (Howe and Strauss.) There are definite differences in the ways that the generations approach their various life stages—usually by attempting to correct what they see as the errors of their parents and immediate elders. Gen X parents, for example, take more time off. Paternity leave has only become popular in the last 10 to12 years, and other parenting practices common in the 1970s are very different today. Silent Generation retirees are moving back to city centers to stay connected to cultural amenities, their immediate elder GI Generation seniors having moved to retirement communities to play golf.
Generation, life stage, and many other factors must be weighed when trying to understand, predict, and influence the behavior of a particular individual. However, it would be a mistake for organizations to expect the next generation of young people to act the same as “all young people” and not add life stage as an additional “layer” or “lens” to one’s analysis.