In ancient times, people used the term generation to describe all the people alive. Over time, that has changed to more of a biological definition, which is the span of time from when one is born to when they have children. Because the median age of giving birth is now 30 years, that time span became too long to define a generation.
Today, the sociological definition of a generation spanning 15 years is widely recognised. This allows for an organised way of defining each generation, rather than waiting for an event or unexpected situation to end a generation or start a new one. It defines exactly when a generation starts and ends. It enables planning for the future and comparing across the generations more accurately.
How generational analysis is helpful
Generational analysis is now a mainstream field in sociology and in the academic world. It’s also important for businesses to understand the generations. Unless organisations can understand, engage, communicate, connect and build products or services for the different generations, then they will edge towards irrelevancy and extinction.
It’s also important for HR, leadership, and management to understand the generations that comprise their teams. Effective intergenerational cohesion enables leaders to understand, empower and lead people. There are more generations mixing in the workplace, in communities, families and households than ever before. Understanding their differences and nuances is key to creating cohesive communities.
The Builders generation describes those born before 1946. The label points to the fact that this generation ‘built’ so much of the society we know today. This generation has also displayed their resilience through some tough times: starting life after a Depression, hearing stories of World War I from their parents and living through World War II.
While they’re often broadly referred to as the seniors of the community, they weren’t always seniors. They are the generation that built our suburbs, institutions, and infrastructure, and continue to build in their own ways to this day. They are great upholders of a lot of the values and the commitments that our society is built on. They are also a very understanding and adaptable generation, who are appreciative of the younger generations growing up in a world so different to the one they were shaped in.
The Baby Boomers
The Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Their generational label is derived from the baby boom that occurred post-World War II, where the fertility rate was 3.5 babies per woman. This increase in population also resulted in a boom in the economy, housing, construction, and infrastructure to cater for this population that was almost doubling in their early years.
This empowered generation shaped society and the social context. They pushed back on political decisions, participated in protests, saw the rise of feminism, and had a desire for equality. They were the social justice warriors of their time. The social enterprise movement was born not by the Millennials of today but by the Baby Boomers. They brought about massive cultural change, social change, and economic change, and continue to have impacts in society today. As a high-net worth generation, they are often described as ‘the bank of mum and dad’, helping to build the economy and lending a hand to the next generation.
Generation X describes those born between 1965 and 1979. The X label came from Douglas Coupland, and this generation’s mantra of anti-establishment and mindset of pushing back on authority figures. Like the Baby Boomers, many got on the property ownership bandwagon, and at a younger age than the generation coming after them. Until COVID-19, Generation X benefited from a time of economic prosperity. As a result, they experienced and embraced small business and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Generation X have done well through this era, despite the angst that they experienced earlier on. Now, they are doing things differently to the generations that went before them. They have established themselves well economically, as their net worth accelerated from the early nineties.
Generation Y, otherwise known as the Millennials, were born between 1980 and 1994. They have been known for their love of ‘smashed avo’, speciality coffee and travelling abroad. Yet it should be recognised that accelerating house prices and flat wages growth are the more important reasons why many in this generation have been locked out of the housing market.
All generations are shaped by the events, experiences, and the political climate of their time. This creates profound differences across the generations. For Generation Y, this all converged on September 11, 2001. This tragic event took place when they were in their formative years and defined much of the next decade and shaped their global outlook. Today, this generation are entering the parent and family life stage as they move into their 30s and 40s.
Generation Z describes those born between 1995 and 2009. Being shaped in a COVID-19 era, this generation have learnt that the economy can have upsets. Economically and socially, they have adapted and become more conservative as a result. But it also means they are more resilient. They focus on education and recognise the importance of it in their foundational years. They know that in a competitive environment, they need to up-skill and retrain, and can’t just rely on job-for-life for stability. Lifelong learning is their mindset.
This generation is conscious that they need to work hard to achieve the things they want in their life. And this mindset goes against some of the stereotypes of young people. In fact, Generation Z volunteer at a higher rate than the average Australian and are more likely to work for a not-for-profit than any prior generation. They focus on values, fulfilment and making a difference with their life. That matters more than just what they can earn. But at the same time, they’re financially conservative. Many are diligently saving for a home and still believe in the ‘great Australian dream’. They want a place of their own and not being able to afford a house is one of their greatest fears.
Generation Alpha were born between 2010 and 2024. The reason we named them Generation Alpha is because they are not a return to the old, but the start of something new. Even more than their parent’s generation (the Millennials), there is a greater sense of Generation Alpha being shaped in the new millennium. This Alpha cohort is the first generation to be fully born in the 21st Century and to be shaped in this new era.
The year they began being born (2010), Instagram launched, and the iPad became available. So that says a lot about the technological time that has shaped them. COVID-19, increasing globalisation, and the connectivity and empowerment they have also says a lot about them. Looking at their context reminds us not just to look back and expect them to be like the generations we have seen in the past, but to recognise that it’s a whole new landscape in which they have been born into and which is shaping them.
Why generational analysis is important
When we look at the times and technologies that shaped us, it helps us to understand ourselves and how we are different to others. Hopefully, that then helps to bridge gaps rather than point out those gaps.
Because until we can understand the difference, have warmth across that difference, see the reasons for it and the context of why we’re seeing those different behaviours or responses, we’re just going to point the finger rather than appreciate the strengths of other generations. Understanding always precedes empathy, and empathy is essential for community and cohesion among people of different generations.