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How to stop generalising generations without ignoring them



Each time a new generation comes of age, we’re overloaded with a whole bunch of stereotypes about them. We’re sent countless news articles proclaiming they’re resourceful (Gen X), they’re entitled (Baby Boomers and Millennials) or they’re prone to anxiety (Gen Z).

But, in reality, these generational characteristics are meaningless. The personalities of individuals aren’t defined by the 20-year range in which they were born.

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Generational categories miss the point

Of course, major historical events and wider societal context can contribute to generational attitudes; the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment rates, and rising cost of living may play a role in the anxious attribute assigned to Gen Z for example.

But these events affected everyone, not just a single generation. We need to take a wider lens and look at people as individuals instead of categorising them based on their birth year.

Consider a member of Gen Z who was raised by their grandparents and is now taking on caring responsibilities. They will likely have more in common with a member of Gen X who is also balancing their career with caring for a relative than these generational descriptors would have us believe.

From an HR perspective, it’s more important to recognise that people are at different life stages – regardless of which generation they belong to – and their needs will evolve.

Millennials and Gen Z will prioritise different benefits and a different workplace culture than Gen Z, but that makes sense; they’re also far more likely to be paying off a mortgage or raising children.

In another 10 to 15 years, Gen Z may be looking for those same benefits that millennials are seeking now.

Flexibility in benefits – or providing packages that can be used differently for different reasons – is key to ensuring your offerings appear to a wide variety of people.

We know people’s priorities change as they age.

As a result, we’re starting to explore the idea of ‘flexi benefits’ – essentially, offering a menu of benefits for people to choose from to ensure we’re meeting them at their current life stage. As their priorities change, so too can their benefits.

Consider flexible working. It’s often touted as a working parent’s dream, and for good reason, but it can also be used to meet friends on a Friday afternoon or go to the gym or therapy session on a weekday morning.

Put simply, it’s not a person’s birth year that defines their personality. It’s their experience. We ascribe characteristics based on a generation purely because they’re more likely to have similar experiences, being in the same age group.

However, it’s vital to remember that people are individuals.

In recognising this, employers need to take a step back. Ignore the age of an employee or an applicant and consider their wider experiences. We can’t avoid generational differences, but nor can we define people by them.

Being a good employer isn’t about appealing to these mass generalisations about generations. It’s about working with the actual people you encounter; about ignoring labels and instead focusing on what they want, regardless of their age. 

Doing so is the only way to guarantee you’ll give the members of Gen Z – or Millennials, or whichever generation you’re trying to reach – what they actually need, versus what the media tells you they want.

Ciji Duncan is chief people officer at xDesign

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