Article 3

2019-09-25 Zenia Simonella

The Specter of "Generationalism"

Generations in companies: the issue now occupies a place in the agenda of the media, and obviously of organizations as well. Researchers, consultants, gurus, and journalists question how to manage and favor coexistence between different generations at work. Who are the members of the various generations, and what do they want? What Do Millennials Want at Work? is the title of an August 20, 2019 blog post at Great Place To Work. Reality Bites Back: To Really Get Gen Z, Look at the Parents claimed a Bloomberg journalist in a recent article.

"The Reconstruction generation" (1928-1945), "Baby boomers" (1946-1964), "Generation X" (1965-1980), "Millennials" (1981-1996), and "Generation Z" (born since 1997)[1]: each are part of a generation because during their formative years they lived though the same historical-social period as other individuals. They are joined by this experience that has left a trace in all of their lives.

Is it all so simple? Not quite.      

Being exposed to the same historical context does not necessarily mean being part of a generation. This is the central point of Karl Mannheim's reflections when in Das Problem der Generationen (1928) he distinguishes between Generationslagerung – i.e. being placed in a generation simply due to having been born at a certain time and Generationszusammenhang – sharing the same orientation, "participating in the common destiny of a historical-social unit." Mannheim argues that not only are some individuals excluded from the course of events; but even those who participate can do so differently based on belonging to a certain class or other characteristics.

So identifying who belongs to a generation is difficult. And it is even more difficult to identify the borders of a generation, in part because there can be overlap: "The decisive element in the existence of generations is not that they follow each other, but that they overlap or fit together" (Ortega y Gasset 1962).  

Yet generations are generally presented as defined a priori, pre-packaged, and a-problematic. They are treated as social actors who think and act in a certain way merely because their members were born in a certain year that has been placed in a specific generation.

This is "generationalism": the tendency to be a-problematic, simplifying and exaggerating differences, crystalizing them as fixed and eternal. The term generationalism is taken from the book by Robert Wohl (1979) The Generations of 1914, in which the historian indicates the current of scholars who follow theories on generations; and it is a term that is then used by various authors to indicate the fallacy of the thinking which crystalizes differences by presenting them as natural, when to the contrary, they are actually social constructs. 

"Generations are not born; they are made. They are a device by which people conceptualize society and seek to transform it," argues Wohl. 

In newspapers, academic studies, magazines, and books on managerial issues generationalism is all the rage.

Yet these differences not only do not exist per se, but they are not always valid for everyone, and do not always emerge.

In an article from a few years ago published in a well-known management magazine, some scholars analyzed the results of 20 works on the issue of generations and concluded that there are no systematic differences between the generations in terms of work satisfaction, commitment, and the intention to leave the company where they work. They thus invite scholars to reflect more on the classification used and to develop research techniques that are more adequate to study differences (for example, from a methodological standpoint, isolating the generational effect is very complicated).

The authors invite organizations to use this classification with care, along with studies based on it that aim to promote certain types of managerial actions. As we have stressed repeatedly in this location, language and the use of categories is not neutral. It contributes to the construction of the social world and thus also the work context; generationalism, for example, could favor the construction of stereotypes and meta-stereotypes, generating artificial comparisons and ultimately amplifying differences and conflicts.


[1] This is the classification provided by the well-known Washington think tank, Pew Research Center.