The Differences Between Generations Span Centuries
If we can understand the patterns of differences in the generations, we can prepare for how to position our businesses appropriately.
|Scott Monty||Mar 28, 2019|
Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya, 1823 (Wikimedia Commons - public domain)
We've all heard the expressions before: "Kids these days" / "You don’t know how good you’ve got it" / "In my day…" etc.
There seems to be a general disdain for the younger generation by the older generations.
"What we mean when we say 'Millennials' is…people younger than us and we don't like them."
— Scott Stratten
The fact is, every age experiences a generation gap, where elders don't understand the younger generation. It's a time-honored tradition.
In the first century B.C., Cicero, in his oration against Verres, a corrupt government official in Rome, lamented about the decay of society when he said “O tempora o mores!” which translates as "Oh the times! Oh the customs!"
And as we'll see, disagreements between generations over decisions and beliefs are nothing new. If you understand the patterns of inter-generational differences, you'll be better prepared for dealing with where we are today.
Putting it in Context
Cicero wasn't the first to bemoan the changing values of his time. In "The Generation Gap in Antiquity" (in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society) my old classics professor Meyer Reinhold wrote:
"As early as the 25th century B.C., the older generation in authoritarian Egypt had to 'work at it' to mold the younger generation in its own image."
And the ancient Greeks were familiar with generational strife too. Greek mythology brings us Cronus and his jealousy of the power of his father Uranus that ended with Cronus castrating him. And then Cronus devoured his own children after learning they would eventually overthrow him.
The Jewish faith tried to codify filial piety with the Ten Commandments that emphasizes "honor thy father and mother."
And Romans associated the term "youth" with shallowness, foolishness, and ineptitude.
This kind of view from one generation to the next was something that each generation of elders and youth dealt with, and every society has struggled with it.
But what are we to do with it, in our own time?
The historian Robert Green was able to map out a pattern, which he said corresponded to four generations, that makes history move in four acts. (The Laws of Human Nature, Viking: New York, 2018. p. 541)
"The first generation is that of the revolutionaries who make a radical break with the past. Often in this generation there are some great leaders of prophets who influence the direction of the revolution and leave their stamp on it. Then along comes a second generation that craves some order. They are still feeling the heat of the revolution itself, having lived through it early age, but they want to stabilize the world, establish some conventions and dogma.
"Those of the third generation — having little direct connection to the founders of the revolution — feel less passionate about it. They are pragmatists. They want to solve problems and make life as comfortable as possible. Along comes the fourth generation, which feels that society has lost its vitality, but they are not sure what should replace it. They begin to question the values they have inherited, some becoming quite cynical. Nobody knows what to believe in. A crisis of sorts emerges. Then comes the revolutionary generation, which, unified around some new belief, finally tears down the old order, and the cycle continues…"
Think about where that places us right now. If we go back four generations, we find the Silent Generation, who was born during the Great Depression and came of age during World War II; this group was naturally conservative and hesitant about things, but they valued stability, predictability, and material things. Then the Baby Boomers, who rebelled against the stilted norms of their parents and opted for personal expression and idealism that the 1960s brought.
Following that period of upheaval, Generation X was practical and confrontational, valuing self-reliance but also addressing hypocrisy and impracticalities of their utopian parents' generation. Then come the Millennials, who lived through terrorism and the financial crisis; they went the opposite direction of Gen X's individualism and instead opted for security and teamwork, and avoided confrontation.
So here we are in 2019, a product of the preceding generations. It's only natural that the older generation ― in this case the second generation in Greene's summary ― wants to keep things the way they are, while the fourth generation ― Millennials ― wants to disrupt.
We've seen this play out in recent stories regarding the future of the entertainment industry. In one case, Bob Greenblatt, the CEO of AT&T's direct-to-consumer business and WarnerMedia Entertainment (new home of HBO) said:
"Netflix doesn't have a brand. It's just a place you go to get anything."
Now, I don't know if 'HBO and chill' is a thing, but one could argue that Netflix has a very strong brand. But even if it didn't, it's eating the lunch of the traditional media companies. Which, just like Cronus, has them panicked.
Similarly, Steven Spielberg recently planned to propose a rule change that would rule Netflix films ineligible to receive Oscars at an upcoming Academy Board of Governors meeting.
At the same time, we're familiar with Uber and Airbnb, barging their way into cities, ignoring regulations, and upending traditional modes of doing business.
Like any generational conflict, there are valid views on each side. But this setup of generation versus generation is nothing new.
Millennials aren't any different than any other fourth generation of the past.