It’s easy to make a list of the events, pop culture, and economic swings each generation experienced. Boomers, for example, came of age during the turbulent 1960s, and iGen grew up in a world shaped by terrorism. But that doesn’t tell you much about who they really are. It’s more important to know how generations really differ in terms of personality traits, attitudes, and behavior, and what that means for organizations. That’s the approach I take, analyzing nationally representative survey data on 11 million people comparing the generations at the same age.
For example, my book iGen relies on four nationally representative U.S. surveys done over time: Monitoring the Future (8th, 10th, and 12th graders), the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (the CDC’s survey of 9th-12th graders), the American Freshman Survey (entering college students), and the General Social Survey (adults). Three of these studies have been conducted since the 1960s or 1970s, and the fourth since the early 1990s, allowing a view of generational and cultural differences that takes age out of the equation (because they examine people of the same age at different points in time).
A lot of polls, interviews, and surveys collect data at only one time. That means they can’t separate the effect of age from that of generation. If it’s age, the same thing that worked for young employees ten years ago will work just fine now – but if it’s generation, it won’t. That’s why the survey data across time is so powerful: It can eliminate the effect of age.