Generation Y Does Not Exist

Generation Y Does Not ExistMany articles about management are dedicated to the so-called Generation Y. Authors analyse their motivations, lament their supposed high expectations and so on. This arbitrary dividing of people into generational cohorts is, however, counterproductive.

Generation Y does not exist!

In my spare time, I occasionally perform magic shows for adults and children. Recently I was reading a booklet by David Kaye, who performs for children under the name Silly Billy.1

Through the so-called benefits of science—the impossible exploits of movie heroes, blood-curdling action stories in video games – the child is thrilled to such an extent that a magician’s bag of tricks becomes a poor substitute. All this has brought about another more malicious change. Fifteen or twenty years ago the average child was well-mannered, quiet and attentive. The magician had very little difficulty keeping them under control. Today it appears that those few exceptions have become the rule. Children are more ill-mannered. They have less respect for their elders and the conduct in public places is often far from commendable.

This quote illustrates an often heard complaint about the younger generations. But there is more to this quote that meets the eye. Just like in a magic show, I have deceived you a little:

Eddie Clever wrote this paragraph in 1939! Kaye only changed “radio shows” to “video games” and all of a sudden it looks as if it was written yesterday. We can go even further back to find similar concerns about the younger generations. There are records of Dutch priests in the 18th century lamenting the lewd and drunken behaviour of the young people in his parish. Have young people changed? I think not, it is us our perception of them that changes as we grow older.

This finding has a direct bearing on a concept that that is frequently used in our cultural landscape and contemporary management: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and other broad sweeping categorisations. In much of the management literature on this topic, it is made to believe that the young professionals of today are different to they way the authors themselves once were and should thus be treated differently.

There are distinct differences between age cohorts. As we go through the stages of life, we mature and our priorities change. There are, however, no psychological differences between age groups in the past, present or future. Our psychological make-up does not evolve fast enough for us to notice any differences.

Sure, there are people born between certain years, but to think that they are in any way psychologically different to the way Generation X or Baby Boomers were when they were at the same age as Generation Y is not supported by any evidence. The perceived generational problem is only caused by a lack of the older generations to be able to understand the others.


  1. David Kaye, The First Century of Children’s Magic

7 thoughts on “Generation Y Does Not Exist

  1. Was thinking about this issue a few years ago in another lifetime when had to employ someone for meanial temporary job. People born in a time of less resources, or when the memory of less resources was still alive, were more mature, more realistic, more stable, more useful, and far far better to employ than the younger people born in a more undulgent time. I would imagine that this is a cyclic thing that has been experienced many times in history.

    • Hi Kath,

      That is a good observation. People’s basic psychology does, however, not change. People with a memory of less resources would have been of another age cohort. My contention is that if you would compare all people at their same age, there would be little differences.

      The basic logic error in stating that current generations are different to previous ones is that you can not compare people from different generations as they have different levels of maturity. If you do so there will always be differences, but these differences are pretty much constant through the ages. The Baby Boomers of the 21th century were the Gen-Y of the 1950s and 1960s.

      Peter

  2. Hi Peter,
    You make a very good arguement there and I see what you are saying. Do you think there is any part of the so-called Gen Y phenomenon that is particular to them and no other group you know of? It seems like only this name and a few insignificant trappings (technology for example) might be unique to them.

    • Hi Kath,

      I don’t think there are any significant differences between people in their twenties now and in the past. Technology is indeed more ubiquitous than it ever was and young people generally embrace it more than older people, but that does make them any different as humans. Whether you communicate via e-mail or handwritten letter makes absolutely no difference.

      Human behaviour is determined by both our psychology (historically constant) and our environment (historically dynamic). The environment is certainly more technological and life is very high paced because of it. Our desires, motivations, emotions and so on are exactly the same as they have been for thousands of years.

      Gen-Y is only a social phenomenon in that it is a social construction – something we talk about, not something that exists as such. In twenty years from now, the current Gen-Y will behave exactly like the Gen-X cohort of today.

      Peter

  3. Peter,
    You make a sound arguement and I find myself, my intellectual self, agreeing with you, but I must reserve the right to be annoyed by ‘gen y’ anyway despite knowing more about it! LOL Perhaps a symptom of old age and clash of generational-cultures, but I do find them often quite irritating.

  4. I agree and disagree with you. I agree that there is no such thing as Generation Y. The Y is meaningless. But I do disagree with you that generational theory does not exist.

    Howe and Strauss have detailed the generational cycle from Idealists to Reactives to Civics to Adaptives and back to Idealists again.The GI Generation were markedly different to the Silents that followed them, and the Baby Boomers that are in control now. Denying generational theory is denying History and why the world is the way it is.

    The exciting thing is that we are at the beginning of the cycle – iGens (the correct terminology for Generation Y) are Idealists. And that is good news for this planet and the future.

    I think the rationale that kids have always been kids is superficial. The world is accelerating, technology is not neutral in this regard. The aphorism goes “First we shape technology, and then it shapes us”.

    Evaluate the evidence more diligently, and you will see the truth of generational delineation.

    Or check out the iGen Tribe Manifesto at http://www.igentribe.wordpress.com

    Thanks,

  5. Pingback: How to Learn More about Gen Y | Marketing and Social Media

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