Why generation labels are dangerous to your business

Thinking of changing your recruitment strategy to target generation Y? Adjusting your culture to accommodate to generation Z? Please, don’t. Generation labels have no basis in science and using them can even be harmful for your organization.

Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z.
The Who knows all about generation stereotyping.

The use of horoscopes

In our HR team, it’s been a fun start of the day for years now. One of my colleagues takes the newspaper and reads the rest of the team their horoscope for the day. This is especially fun when one of the horoscopes describes that you might quarrel with one of your colleagues today. After a few jokes, it’s business as usual and we forget what it was the stars wanted to tell us.

Very few organizations base their recruitment strategy on horoscopes. After all, what does it matter which month your candidate was born in? However, when we talk about what year a candidate was born in, this suddenly seems to matter a great deal. Some organizations base their entire recruitment strategy on targeting generation X, Y or Z.

I find that fascinating. When you think about it, what’s the real difference between horoscopes and generation labels?

Generation X, Y or Z?

Whereas most people don’t take horoscopes seriously, generation labels are often referred to in popular science. There are loads of books on generations X, Y and Z. There are scores of consultancy firms that are more than willing to explain at full length how to change your organization in order to recruit, manage or motivate a certain generation.

Apparently, I’m part of generation X. Or Y, depending on which book you read. According to theory, I’m balancing between Generation’s X’s ‘work hard, play hard’ motto, and generation Y’s tendency to go job hopping. Luckily I limit my internet usage, otherwise I would have also qualified for generation Z, whose motto is ‘always online’. Then I would really have an identity crisis.

This is exactly the problem with generation labels. Each generation’s motto can just as easily be applied to any other generation. There are tons of young people who enjoy hard work, and many retirees who spends hours a day on their iPads.

But what about all that scientific research? Doesn’t that prove there’s some sense in analyzing generations? Well, nope.

This is what science says about generation labels

Ok, sit back. Here’s a brief summary of the science behind generation labels.

Since the 19th century, generations have been the subject of research, especially in the field of sociology. In the beginning, there was much discussion on the use of characterizing various generations. It was Karl Mannheim (born in 1893) who first concluded that generation labels are an oversimplification of reality, and that they can be quite misleading. When you’re focusing too much on birth year when explaining the behavior of a certain social group, you’re likely to spend not enough time on the critical investigation of other, more important factors.

In the 20th century, sociologist Norman Ryder developed the ‘cohort’ as a method to study groups of people. He researched groups who are born around the same time and grew up in similar circumstances. In this research, he took into account all kinds of other factors, such as background, gender, job and location. Time and again, his research showed that all these factors had a huge influence on someone’s social behavior. Someone’s birth year, however, proved to have little to no influence. Since then, lots of similar research has been done into generation labels, and all research proves Ryder’s conclusion was right.

Why can generation labels be dangerous?

Back to the 21th century. Of course there are developments that influence certain generations, and you should not ignore those. You should keep up with what’s new, and use any innovations you think might help you reach your target audience. But the notion that these developments result into generations that are entirely different form the previous ones, is misleading. Generations don’t differ that much. In fact, looking at your target audience through a ‘generation lens’ might even be harmful to your organization.

If you focus too much on generation thinking, you risk ignoring a big part of your target audience. Or worse: you might ruin your organizational culture by trying to cater to the latest generation’s needs.

An example. Say you want to attract young employees, who are just out of college. You decide to leave your 70s office building and move to the city center. You switch to flexible workplaces, start working in agile teams and provide free public transport passes for everyone. You even hire a barista to brew soy skinny lattes. How will your current employees react when they hear they can no longer drive their car to work? When they no longer have any fixed place for their kids’ pictures? They’ll complain. Maybe they’ll even start looking for another job. This will negatively influence the work atmosphere, which will have an negative effect on the employees you just hired. Instead of the hip and inspiring organization they hoped to join, they see disgruntled employees complaining in the hallways.

Of course you won’t change your organization as drastically as this. But keep in mind that even small organizational changes can have a huge effect on your current employees and on your company culture.

Base your policy on horoscopes?

I admit, analyzing generation labels may be slightly more insightful than reading horoscopes. But only slightly. Your own company culture should always the basis of your recruitment policy. You’ll find you’ll attract people from all kinds of generations. Sure, you should use the channels that best fit your target audience, be it newspaper ads or Instagram posts. But the core of your story should remain the same.

And horoscopes? Well, they might be more useful than you think. I can recommend everyone to start your day by reading horoscopes to your team members. For us, it’s a fun start of the day. Which may be worth more than all generation labels put together.