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  • Writer's pictureTom Kothman

Generational Divide: Reality or Myth?


Last year a B2B client asked me to develop email content designed to appeal to financial professional Gen Xers. Because I write with a mind image of the reader/recipient, I needed to get on solid ground to conjure up this imaginary Gen X professional. As I dug deeper into understanding “generational cohorts”, their world views, etc., I found myself getting pretzeled. I concluded that generally while the request and assumption was seemingly useful, I might also commit the ASS-U-ME foul. Were the assumptions about generational behavior simply wild ass guesses or was there substantial validating research; was this reality or myth?

Age is a number, not a credential

I began delving into this generational “Reality or Myth?” question, if only to do a better job at engagement, personalization and conversion in my B2B email marketing, content creation and delivery. In a Harvard Business Review article, Generational Differences At Work Are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior the authors state that assumptions about various “age” cohorts is likely unsupported due to today’s diverse workforce where up to five generations might be working at the same place at the same time! With the woke movement within HR and Talent Acquisition for diversity inclusion and equity in the workplace, how do generational assumptions based on birth date, hence age, playout? Does DIE deal with ageism?


“There’s very little evidence that people of different generations behave markedly different at work or want markedly different things. And yet because we have stereotypes about people of different ages — and because we have stereotypes about what we think people of different ages believe about us — our ability to collaborate and learn is negatively affected.”


Leveraging the value of an Age-Diverse Workforce, a SHRM Foundation Executive Briefing, found that stereotypes are not that helpful in the pursuit of organizational success and, in fact, may be significantly detrimental.


“Unfortunately, outdated stereotypes still influence perceptions of age in the workplace. Statements such as “he’s too old to learn a new computer program” or “she’s too young to lead a team” diminish the value and qualifications of the people involved. An employee’s knowledge and experience increase with age. And a young person with strong skills and talent should not be held back because of his or her age.”


Workforce Distribution by Age

According to the Pew Research Center, Generation X occupies 33% of the workforce and Millennials about 35%. If email marketers are to develop content with a generational-appropriate spin, combining these two represents about 70% of a B2B target market. An email marketer either needs to appeal to both as one group or separately, using variable content and testing … when age is absolutely known.












Assumptions Get in the Way

A section of an infographic from Purdue University nicely summarizes Gen Xers and Millennials.



See the entire infographic HERE.


Common Stereotypes

Here are some typical stereotypical assumptions found in various online resources that don’t hold up in every situation and, in fact, may be hurting organizations and stressing workers, especially those that don’t fit the stereotype.

  • Millennials only want to communicate with coworkers via text

  • Millennials only want flexible work schedules

  • Millennials are still trying to determine their career paths.

  • Millennials like to communicate through whatever new social media platform (i.e., Twitter, Instagram) friends and colleagues are using.

  • Millennials tend to assert themselves and question the status quo

  • Gen Xers adapt well to change.

  • Gen Xers appreciated humor.

  • ·en Xers can easily adapt to new technological programs.

  • Gen Xers value diversity.

  • Gen Xers are less committed to employers than their baby boomer parents.

These stereotypical assumptions create a self-fulfilling prophesy, reinforcing the stereotype when they are not questioned, or no countervailing action is taken. Moreover, people’s beliefs about what others think about their age group — their meta-stereotypes — can also interfere with their work behavior.

Scenario: My colleagues assume I’m technologically savvy because I’m a Gen Xer and I’ve used almost every new tech tool that has come on the market since the Bowmar Brain (https://www.educalc.net/1904485.page) … so if I ask my Gen Z colleague, “What is the Metaverse?”, I might look dumb so I won’t ask … but I really don’t care.

“We found that stereotypes about older people’s ability to learn new tasks interfered with the training they received. When trainers believed that they were teaching an older person how to do the computer task, they had lower expectations and provided worse training than when they believed they were teaching a young person. These results demonstrate that poorer training is a direct result of age stereotypes.”

Source: Age-Diverse Workforce Executive Briefing, SHRM


Conclusion

I’ve concluded that in the B2B world articulating assumptions about “The Generations” is primarily an intellectual structure that helps us put some order to today’s global, mixed-up, diverse and fast-moving culture. The generational divide is a myth. What really drives engagement is connecting with the purpose of the business. In a B2C setting it is likely more a reality (and challenging). My best bet is to only consider, if ever, known “first party data” in my B2B emails to avoid any DIE landmines.


Returning to the quote from the SHRM article, “he’s too old to learn a new computer program” or “she’s too young to lead a team”, have an enjoyable break from your diverse, hybrid, flexible, remote, fulfilling, gig, purposeful, contract work.

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