There are No Such Things as ‘Generations’ — or are there?

In the rigging

Up on the mainsail yard, unfurling the mainsail without a harness, standing in my bare feet on the wires.  Because you can’t fall off if ya don’t let go…  Whitsunday Islands, 2006

I have to confess to some level of frustration about the whole ‘generations’ thing.  We live in a stew of these terms — Boomers, Greatest, Millennials, and so on.  They’re so NOT true as an individual discriminator, nor particularly valid.  But at the same time, they do prepare you for understanding larger changes in how larger societies evolve, and can give perspective on expectations in language and behavior.  A recent Slate article by David Costanza that came across my desk sums up the exasperated part of my perspective:

Generations and generational differences are intriguing and inherently appealing concepts. As such, the media will keep on reporting on them, academics will publish, pundits will talk, and consultants will sell to whoever is buying. But the science says that, despite their popularity, generations simply aren’t a thing. And until we recognize this, we will continue to waste time and resources while failing to understand how people really are, and are not, different.

I highly recommend you read the piece if it’s an area of interest.  I work with young people all the time, and the performance I see from them is so striking, especially from the normative expectation.  I’ve been doing it now for 30 years (this is my 30th year at WSU) and if I notice any difference in how I run my Industrial Design Clinic (IDC), it’s all in how I approach their personal development.  That’s the one thing I actually have some ability to affect.  And I do it through modification of the social structure that they’re used to in the classroom.  I’ll help you decode the ‘why’ of this below.

Naturally, the tools they have at their disposal have changed, and I’ve integrated those capabilities into the IDC.  But the students are still at the same place developmentally as all students I’ve had, with a different set of cultural sidebars than 30 years ago, and with every individual student laboring against their own traumas and internal fights.  They are certainly no more or less lazy.  They ARE egocentric, because that’s where their development has placed them internally, but no more or less than any group of students I’ve taught down through the years.  I find that I am less able to instantaneously emotionally connect with them, of course — they’re 21-24, and I’m now 55.  But I can pretty much guess what they’re going to do almost all of the time.  That’s what happens when you focus on evolving conscious empathy, and you happen to be me!

But for the record, let’s back up and understand young people in the late teens and early 20s.  In our Grand Theory of Everything, we sorted out that people’s behavior and thought profile consisted of the following equation:

Structure + Culture + Personal Development + Trauma Acceleration/Deceleration = Behavior

That’s a simplification of the larger equation (which, while I put in linear form, for the regular humans, of course contains nonlinear interactions for my mathematician friends out there) below.

Culture + Social Structure/Externally Promoted Empathetic Development + Individual Experience (Trauma Included) + Independently Generated Empathetic Development (level of mindfulness) + Epigenetic Influences + Genetic Disposition = Individual Behavior

Let’s scratch the Trauma stuff for the moment, and stick to the simpler version for understanding young people — especially those in the category of newly employable.  Here’s the larger developmental roadmap ( the Personal Development piece) that humans follow in our society.


My age categories that map to the progressive, nested v-Memes are as follows:

Survival — 0-4 years

Tribal/Magical — 3-8 years

Authority-Based — 5-16 years

Legalistic/Absolutistic — 9-20 years

—————————-  Trust Boundary (above relationships are most externally defined, below, independently generated) ———————————————–

Performance/Goal-Based — 20-35 (with a major solidification of maturity around 26, the age where declining neuroplasticity sets in.)

Communitarian — 35-50 years

—————————-  Second Tier — Self Awareness and personal monitoring and feedback matter ——————————————-

Global Systemic — 50-death

Global Holistic — 55-death

Just to reiterate — v-Memes are nested.  You don’t lose the lower development as you move up.  You just gain the capabilities of the higher v-Memes.  Also, once we move past Authority-Based, we start losing adults in development, though they can “jump up” when self-awareness hits in later life, though they will not be nearly as sophisticated in execution of lower, First Tier v-Memes.

A quick look at the numbers above shows that most new employees really don’t have a lot of independent, relational development, and hence display poor rational empathetic skills.  This is truly a function of age, and it means that means they tend to be egocentric, can’t really make their mind up based on their own experiences, and will likely follow the crowd.  As weird as this may seem, what this means is that the second term — Culture — including mostly the one they were raised in will dictate how they act.  As I’ve said many times, Culture exists as a sidebar, with elements from all the different v-Memes, but encoded in time-averaged beliefs that people operate by.  30 years ago, interracial dating was only starting to not be taboo.  Now, few bat an eye in the younger generation.  It is an accepted behavior.  Discrimination against LGBQT was normalized only 30 years ago.  Now, it is not permissible.

If one considers WHAT v-Meme a certain cultural behavior originates from, one can guess by examining history, and with some accuracy and certainty, be correct dependent on the society you’re looking at.  For example, lifting discrimination against LGBQT in Western society was definitely aligned with the evolution of the Communitarian v-Meme — treating all people in an egalitarian fashion.  (I do want to note that many Tribal societies were way ahead of Western culture in treatment of certain protected groups, so you’ve got to be careful ascribing one v-Meme to one set of surface-level behaviors.)  But once a certain set of behaviors became encoded in larger cultural beliefs, young people could be reasonably expected to also share those, even if their origination came from a higher level of independent development than, at first glance, where they are at.

Finally, the Social Structure component — our Social Physics part of the equation — will play heavily on how young people act.  And as the systems that we place young people in have become increasingly Authoritarian, we shouldn’t expect anything less than delays in independent relational behavior.  Any trip to a modern high school for anyone in their 40s or 50s is guaranteed to shock.  Students are buzzed in and out of locked doors for simply attending classes.  The days of aimless wandering the halls with the hall pass because you were a good, trusted student are mostly gone.  It is having an effect.

So what does that mean as far as understanding the profile of a typical 22 year old?  Compared to my ‘generation’, they are far more passive and obedient than we ever were — a function of the social structure.  They are far more open-minded toward different groups than I was — a direct effect of cultural sidebars.  And finally, they still have the same innate capacity to be developed and gain a broader set of empathetic, goal-based behaviors.  Though they may thrash more at the beginning (I see this all the time) with the expectation that the Authority will tell them what to do — they like that, and it IS a low-responsibility behavior — if placed in an environment where the social structure forces relational development, they will evolve and catch up with Performance/Goal-Based behavior.  Because they have neuroplasticity on their side.

And that’s how societies as a whole move forward.  It’s not guaranteed, but the quote by Theodore Parker, an 19th century Transcendentalist (Martin Luther King borrowed it from him!)

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

And of course, what is interesting is that what Parker was noting was that in his time, developmental empathy was still filling out the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme.  So “justice” was all he really had.  The subsequent paragraph gives more clues:

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

The arc of the organized world inherently will bend upward, to greater connectivity and empathy.  And if there are differences we observe in our young people, if we are self-aware ourselves, and not shocked by the same egocentricity we possessed when we were that age, we will see that, with the right circumstances, these young people will also push our society forward.  We only have to let it happen.

So — are there measurable generations?  The ten-year thing just drives me nuts, so No.  Society exists on a continuum of belief adoption, where culture and social constraints seen as permanent give way to new modes of thinking.  And Yes — young people’s belief structures are definitely different from mine when I was their age.  Like all things, it’s complicated.  But understandable.  And because we are all in a global society now, we simply can’t run the control experiment.  We have to proceed with the social dynamics we can create.  What I’ve written above is my shot at it.  And it’s all about empathy.

It’s hard to unpack everything I’ve written about on the blog for those that are unfamiliar.  But you can start HERE and HERE.

4 thoughts on “There are No Such Things as ‘Generations’ — or are there?

  1. As I see it, there are generations. It’s just that they don’t follow a tight pattern. That might partly be explained by people having kids far later in life now, are living longer, and are remaining in positions of power and influence longer.

    So, what a generation is has been stretched out. It is much later in life before the next generation in line is able to have much affect. Right now, with Boomers, we’ve never before seen a generation remain in their careers for so long, and that is particularly seen in politics with the increasing age of established professional politicians.

    Still, the basic pattern of generations, such as described by Strauss and Howe, remains. Each generation responds to the generations before it and is shaped by the events of the time. Millennials are distinctly different in measurable ways, as you explain in this post. That is all a generation means.

    As a young GenXer, the separation point between that generation and mine was fairly stark. When I entered high school in 1990, schools were fairly open places and attitudes of authority figures were relaxed, although signs of it changing were beginning to become apparent. But by my senior year, a more rule-oriented system was established. And in the immediate years following, the schools became locked down.

    That is part of a generational cycle. Strauss and Howe predicted the direction society was heading back in 1991. They based their prediction on the observation that American society had been through this generational cycle multiple times before. The last time was with GI Generation that was the first in the 20th century to have a more protected childhood, partly because of mass urbanization and in reaction to lack of parental and authority control over the prior Lost Generation.

    Simplistic notions of generations are false and misleading. But there definitely are more complex generational patterns.


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