As a "NextGen" myself, I'm all for a good de-listing (or D-listing, if you will). NextGen, ThisGen, NowGen, let's call the whole thing off. And not just the first part - all of it.
With much respect to the stellar work of organizations like 21/64 and Resource Generation; to authors like Frances Kunreuther, Helen Kim, and Robby Rodriguez who penned Working Across Generations, and to the nation's 37,000 family foundations for whom, as Richard Marker notes, this phrase and its attendant discussions have obvious, immediate, and deeply personal implications, it might be helpful for the sector to realize that there's really no such thing as a "generation."
Pondering the so-called "digital generation" in the Chronicle of Higher Education (via Altercation), Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, puts into words a suspicion I have long had about the "generational" differences and changes at play in the philanthropic sector:
Consider all the pundits, professors, and pop critics who have wrung their hands over the inadequacies of the so-called digital generation of young people filling our colleges and jobs. Then consider those commentators who celebrate the creative brilliance of digitally adept youth. To them all, I want to ask: Whom are you talking about? There is no such thing as a "digital generation."From there, Vaidhyanathan contends we should drop the term entirely, and I agree. Repeat after me: it's never a "generational" thing. Here's why:
Variation within generational groups exceeds variation between generational groups.
I'm technically a Capricorn, but, since my birthday is so late, I was once told that I'd share characteristics with Aquarians. I was born on a "cusp," you see. Likewise, in a discussion of generational differences, I wondered why my natural skepticism is touched by a bit of idealism (or vice versa). I was told that I was born at the tail end of Generation X and the beginning of Gen Y, so naturally I'd be a bit of a mixed bag. (Hey, Ptolemy, throw in a few more epicycles - it's working fabulously.)
As Vaidhyanathan says:
Ask any five people when Generation X started and ended. You will get five different answers. The borders of membership could not be more arbitrary. Talking as if all people born between 1964 and (pick a year after 1974) share some discernible, unifying traits or experiences is about as useful as saying that all Capricorns are the same. Such talk is not based on any sociological or demographic definition of a generation; it's based on whatever topic is in question.Indeed, we use generational distinctions (traditionalist, baby boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y) as proxies for talking about work ethic and style; technological savvy; attitudes toward religion, government, and authority; and more. Wouldn't it be more helpful to talk about these things directly instead?
There is far more variation with regard to these differences within the generations than between them. This is particularly true when it comes to technology. It's unfortunate that traditionalists and boomers get stereotyped as past-their-prime, Luddite technophobes while their Gen X and Y children get to be social entrepreneurs who will Facebook us all to utopia. I know traditionalists with web pages. My wife's grandfather gives classes in Photoshop. I know boomers who require regular surgical removal from their Blackberries and iPhones. I know Gen Xers and Gen Yers who are consistently confounded by the technology around them, technology they're just supposed to know because they're "digital natives."
While we're at it, can we please drop the idea that people are tech-savvy because they buy the right gadgets and frequent the right web sites? It doesn't take a single innovative thought to get a new iPhone, and it doesn't take a genius to use Youtube (see most of the material there). It takes money, and it takes leisure time. When you can in some way produce or reproduce the technologies you consume, then we'll call you tech-savvy. Until then, you're not much more than a kid with a MySpace page, and you'll make about as much difference in the world.
Generational advocates point to the fact that generations are not about work preferences or lifestyles, which, as I note, vary considerably, but about the historical events that inform a given cohort. The problem is that historical events affect people very differently. I was overseas on September 11 and didn't return to the United States until late December. I differ very much from some of the millennials who were here in DC when the Pentagon was struck. We speak as frequently of the digital divide as we do of a "digital generation." Clearly, we can't say that every millennial is this or that, so why call them millennials? If millennials are indeed the most diverse of generations, maybe it's near impossible, unhelpful, even counterproductive to put them all in the same box? It's this kind of thinking that that gives us a Barron's profile of next-gen givers, most of whom are rich, white males. I've nothing against their efforts and accomplishments, but this is the next generation? Really? Plus ça change...
It's not that I don't think there might be generational differences. I just think that discussions of generational differences mask more important differences and divisions, and that it's important, especially for those in philanthropy, to recognize and respect those differences, rather than pay them lip service with the sociological equivalent of a horoscope.
Descriptions are not explanations.
Ever done a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? I took it first in high school and again at work some years later. I came out the same way: INFP. Take that how you will. The thing that struck me about both tests was that, for two weeks or so after classmates and colleagues took the test, one's type explained everything. Introverts suddenly understood why they had so much trouble with public speaking. Perceptors understood why they never finished things. This is to get it all wrong. You're not having trouble with public speaking because you're an introvert. We call you an introvert because you tend to prefer not to talk in public. Descriptions are not explanations. And they're certainly not excuses.
Discussions of generational differences are ultimately, I think, counterproductive because a generational label too often substitutes for a convenient, nonthreatening explanation of a situation. Let's take two examples.
Example #1: A young nonprofit professional complains that her boss doesn't know how to use technology. The boomer boss admits his reticence to use certain software that would make work easier on people but says it's a generational difference.
Being born a few years later doesn't suddenly turn you into web guru. And being born a few years earlier isn't an excuse for not keeping up with industry standards. What we've got here is a difference in work style that has to be respected and dealt with. Instead of inferring that it's just a generational difference, which lets older people off the hook and younger people in self-righteous snit, people need to get back to figuring out how to work together. The team isn't in the midst of grand demographic and paradigmatic shifts that can only be solved with a high-priced consultant's retreat on intergenerational conversations. They just need to figure out how to work together, and that would be true regardless of their generational differences.
Generational differences too often obscure the real dynamics at work:
- Maybe the young professional knows more about computers because she had the good fortune to go to a school that had special computer classes or required audiovisual aids with presentations. Not everyone in her generation knows these things. Somebody made an investment in her.
- Maybe she put in extra hours going to classes after work because it would make her more of an asset to an organization she believes in. Now she wants to put those ideas to work for the organization and its clients.
- Maybe she knows a lot about computers because she ran D&D Night in middle school using Quattro Pro. (Ah, memories.)
- Maybe the boss needs paper copy because he knows he reads more effectively if he has paper copy. He's always made really important catches in grant requests because he reads it like the foundation program officer will.
- Maybe he's just the boss. Maybe people should just respect his wishes instead of questioning him all the time. He's sacrificed quite a bit to build the organization. Is it too much to ask a new hire to print him a paper copy?
- Maybe the organization has gone through a number of software changes and nothing has ever made as much difference as him going through a paper copy in his office.
Talk of a "digital generation" or people who are "born digital" willfully ignores the vast range of skills, knowledge, and experience of many segments of society. It ignores the needs and perspectives of those young people who are not socially or financially privileged. It presumes a level playing field and equal access to time, knowledge, skills, and technologies. The ethnic, national, gender, and class biases of any sort of generation talk are troubling. And they could not be more obvious than when discussing assumptions about digital media.We're ignoring the real stories - of class, of privilege, of race, of gender, and more.
And if we're willing to obscure why some people use technology, we're all too willing to overlook why we think the way we do.
Example #2: Young conservative newcomers to a family foundation board clash with their more liberal parents about the direction of the family's philanthropy. The parents are discussing closing the foundation. A consultant is brought in who helpfully suggests some generational dynamics might be at work.
I've deliberately set this example contrary to the popular stereotype. I've seen the conservative parent-liberal child clash. It works much the same way. The conservative parents built the institutions the kids say are destroying society (incidentally, the kids are probably right), and naturally the parents think the kids are ingrates (incidentally, the parents are probably right.)
An astute staff member, advisor, or consultant should point out that there might be some generational differences at work. For example, boomers faced more competition for jobs and prestige. Gen Xers, by comparison, faced less; there are fewer of them. Naturally, the boomers are wedded to certain institutions. They fought hard to get where they are. Meanwhile, the Gen Xers saw divorce rates skyrocket among friends and in society generally. They saw a president resign in disgrace. They listened to the Iran-Contra hearings. You'll forgive them if they're a little skeptical of traditional institutions. (Thanks to Sharna Goldseker for this. Seriously, one of the most enlightening sessions I've ever been to.)
At the same time, though, while one's generation might have had something to do with it, one's choices have everything to do with it. One thing that has always irritated me, even insulted me, is when people who are older than me assume that I think the way that I do because I just haven't lived long enough. And one thing that tends to infuriate your elders is when you assume that they think the way they do because they're just old. How come nobody seems to think that people think the way they do because they looked at the world around them, considered the possibilities, made a decision, and had the guts to act on that belief? I don't think the way I do, and I certainly don't give the way I do, because I'm a Gen Xer, so please stop marketing your organizations and your causes by appealing to some demographic that some sociologist said includes me.
That's why I flipped the example. These people have come to different conclusions about the world. There are things in this world about which reasonable people can disagree. I don't think patting millennials on the back and fantasizing about all the things they're going to do with Twitter gets us anywhere. I don't think letting people off the hook for generational reasons pays appropriate respect to the people who, despite generational tendencies, sacrificed to move things forward. I don't think putting people in boxes is particularly helpful.
I do think that behind the generational curtain is a wealth of reasons why people believe what they do, give to what they give to, and dream the way they do. And calling them a traditionalist, a boomer, a Gen Xer, or a millennial is a good way of missing that story. I want to hear about the accidents, the coincidences, all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls that brought you here - and made you who you are.
Because I've seen families who've had the generational conversation, and it's been helpful.
And I've seen families who've told those stories, and it's changed lives.
A sector that claims to be strategic ought to know that the differences within generations are more important than the differences between them - and act accordingly.
A sector that says it wants to get to the root of social ills ought to know the difference between a description and an explanation - and refuse to indulge in pop sociology because it makes us feel a little better about our differences.
A sector that really wants to bring people together to make a difference ought not put people in such clumsy boxes but help them tell the stories they were born to tell.
Let's de-list the whole "gen" conversation.
NextGen, ThisGen, NowGen are no longer. There's you. And there's me. Let's start there.
(This post has been updated for clarity and to correct a few typographical mistakes. - KL)