Understanding Generations

by Karen Shirer, PhD

If you work in a team whether at home or work, or in the community, you know firsthand that when a person was born matters. For example, my father and mother were born between World War I and the Great Depression. Both the depression and World War II (my dad was a WWII vet) deeply shaped their attitudes, worldviews, and approaches to life and work. My brothers and I struggled as teenagers in the 1960s with their frugalness and hawkish attitudes toward war. Yet, we loved their stories of growing up in rural Wisconsin — yes, they did walk 2 miles, uphill, to school in raging blizzards.

In May 2017, the Military Family Learning Network (MFLN) Family Transitions sponsored a two-part webinar series for family-serving professionals titled Engaging across Generations. (Part I: Unique Mindsets and Part II: Tools & Techniques) The facilitators, University of Minnesota Extension Educators Lisa Hinz and Brian Fredrickson, defined “generation” as a group that shares birth years, age, location, and critical developmental stages. If you were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shaped your development. But if you were born in the late 1940s into the early 1960s, you are a Baby Boomer, shaped by the sheer size of the group and events like the Vietnam War and assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Part I of this webinar series familiarized viewers with five generational groups, describing their unique mindsets, expectations, and work styles. Below is a recap of the key points that will help you understand what members of each generational group has in common. Keep in mind that one’s generation does not tell the whole story about a person and that genetics, culture and ethnicity, and other experiences shape an individual. But these broad descriptions can give insights to help you better navigate your relationships at home and work, and in the community.

Generations: Who Are They?

  • Traditionalists, born before 1946, were shaped by war (WW II and the Korean War), the Great Depression, innovations like automobiles, radio, and telephones, and the labor movement. Common characteristics include national pride, duty and country, and the experience of hard times followed by prosperity.
  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were defined by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, The Civil Rights and Women’s Movement, television, and the assassinations of noted political figures including John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boomers share optimism, a consumer orientation, equating work with worth, and a focus on personal development and health.
  • Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, recall the Challenger Disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1970s energy crisis, the first computers and games, and MTV and cable television. Xers often show independence, desire stability, value diversity, think globally, and are more technologically literate than boomers.
  • Millennials, born from 1981 through 1995, participated in the tech boom, were shaped by the attacks on Columbine, Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, and had high student debt. They are characterized as optimistic, individualistic, socially committed, and native to all things digital.
  • Gen Z, born since 1996, are being shaped by the 24/7 tech revolution, smartphones, terrorism and endless war, and The Great Recession of 2008. Although they are emerging as a generation, they are seen as devoted to social media, need for instant results, global mindset, and diversity.

Some additional key facts about generations:

  • These generational descriptions can only be applied to the United States. Other countries likely have different events and experiences that shape their generations.
  • Millennials make up the largest part of the labor force today as more Baby Boomers retire.
  • White Americans make up more of the Baby Boomer generation than the Millennial generation. People of Color are the majority among Millennials and Gen Z.
  • Jennifer Deal, author of Retiring the Generation Gap, notes that all generations have similar values, particularly related to work; they just express them differently.

Do you want to learn more? Here are three steps you can take today:

  1. View Part I of webinar series, Engaging across Generations, titled “Unique Mindsets.”
  2. Review the resources highlighted in the Generations Part I webinar, including Jennifer Deal’s book. Note, additional webinar materials (Generations: Who Are They? Webinar handout, webinar slides, and handout, “Engaging Across Generations Part I”) are located on the webinar event page under the “Event Materials” located at the bottom of the page.
  3. Participate in the October 31st webinar sponsored by MFLN Family Transitions & Personal Finance on Financial Planning for Different Generations: Touchstones, Tasks & Teaching Strategies.

 

Karen Shirer is a member of the Military Families Learning Network Family Transitions Team and the Associate Dean with the University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Family Development. Karen is also the parent of two adult daughters, a grandmother, a spouse, and a cancer survivor.

 

 

 

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