Bye-Bye generational differences

Human Resources

Belgian economic journal De Tijd approached various opinion leaders to share their perspectives on what we urgently need to get rid of. What are they happily throwing in the trash? Among those opinion makers was our associate dean research and valorization Bart Cambré, and it didn’t take him long to come up with an answer. In his opinion, we really, réally need to stop making a problem out of a non-existent problem, i.e., generational differences …

generational differences

Throwback to the Werchter festival grounds, June 16, 2023. Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band are giving a–pretty awesome–concert. My daughter, 22, and I, 53, are taking in all that beauty in absolute awe. One week later, the same thing happens again, but this time we’re watching Harry Styles. The initiative to attend those concerts came from a different family member each time–no prizes for guessing who chose what.

The average age at both concerts couldn’t be more different, and the same goes for the main color of clothing. So, is that we call a generational difference, that a Gen Xer wants to watch Bruce while a Gen Zer wants to see Harry Styles? And while we’re at it, a generation, what is that anyway?

There seems to be no escape these days from the concepts of generations and generation gaps. We all know the meme “OK, boomer” by now, and all millennials appear to be job hoppers and latte-drinking slackers. Marketing and (social) media are just jumping on generational conflicts, that are invading the workplace as well.

“5 generations on the shopfloor, how do you manage that?” is the opening line of numerous HR debates. Well, you don’t. Because there is little or no scientific support for the concept of generation as “people from adjoining birth years who share the same characteristics and values”. They do not share the same values and, apart from their age, of course, they don’t have the same characteristics. Differences within generations tend to be bigger than differences between generations. And background, class, ethnicity, gender and educational level are (almost) always more explanatory than birth year.


Different experiences

Of course, there are age differences. Socrates already got that 2,500 years ago, when he was talking about youngsters who enjoyed luxury, disdained authority and had little or no respect for elders. Huh, young people who think differently from older people, could that be of all times?

If you want to define ‘age’, you can distinguish between birth year, age and stage of life. What is defining my frame of mind and my actions the most, at this very moment? That I was born in 1970 (just after the moon landing and Merckx’ first Tour victory, just before the global oil crisis), that I’m 53 years old (with kids leaving home, a vast professional expertise), or that I’m writing this column in 2023 (war, a government that is at each other’s throat once again, climate change)? Naturally, I share those characteristics with other people from those birth years (Gen X), but that doesn’t make us at all equal or the same, because we all experience things differently.


The big “Problem der Generationen” is that we are still making a problem out of it.

The German sociologist Karl Mannheim aptly described this in his book “Das Problem der Generationen”. In it, he argues that people are shaped mainly by their social context and by historical events, but even so, not everyone reacts to the zeitgeist in the same way.

Indeed, we all experienced the coronavirus crisis as a historical event together, but we didn’t necessarily respond to it in the same way. In the academic world, we speak of the APC model, short for Age - Period - Cohort. Young people will always differ from older people (age), an incident such as the pandemic affects everyone (period) and it is relevant to research events for all individuals of a given year (cohort, e.g., the birth cohort 1970 or the marriage cohort 2023).

By the way, Mannheim wrote that book in 1928. Shouldn’t we know this too by now, almost a 100 years later? The big “Problem der Generationen” is that we are still making a problem out of it while, really, there is no problem.

This opinion piece was featured in De Tijd. You can reach the Dutch version on their website