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Its time to take the X out of Gen X

by Mark P. McDonald  |  June 30, 2010  |  4 Comments

Generational differences get everyone’s attention.  People like to think about generational differences because they easily explain the differences we all face.  They make headlines because the enable one group – generally the older one to paint the other generation with over simplifications.

Clay Shirky in his new book Cognitive Surplus evaluates the social context of the generational differences and finds the following ….

“One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational differences, the idea that today’s thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both differ innately from each other and from the baby boomers.  The conceptual appeal of these labels in enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.  Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.” (page 121)

Shirky puts his finger on an issue that I have observed in my travels and working with IT organizations.  When you describe the expectations of Gen X or digital natives to others, you find few people who say that they would not like to work in an environment of flexible hours, more powerful tools, greater choice, increased personal control and greater recognition.

It is like the commercial sarcastically said, “When I grow up I want to be a corporate tool.”  No one aspires to be a tool whether they are a thirty year old, a forty year old or someone just out of college.

If there were real generational differences, then baby boomers would not be adopting and applying the internet and advanced tools to their work.  Apple would not sell more than three million iPads in the first 80 days.  Senior citizens would not be a fast growing part of the internet.

The ability of people to use technology is not tied to their age.  If it were, then my parents would not be on the internet, they would still be watching black and white TV with Rabbit ears, and forty-somethings would only be able to listen to music on Sony Walkman’s.  These examples are deliberately extreme to make a point.

I am not saying that younger people do not incorporate technology into their lives differently.  They do.  But, I believe that is a due to the context of the time they were born, not something that is innately different about their brains.  I believe that if you transported a baby born in 1880 to 1980 as a baby, they grow up just as digital as their peers.

This is good news, because it means that we can all benefit from new technologies and help create new applications of those technologies.  If you disagree, then you are advocating

So its time to take the “X” out of one generation as we are all able to change, to learn new things, to gain value from technology.

Category: leadership  personal-observation  strategic-planning  strategy  web-20  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Its time to take the X out of Gen X

  1. Sean Stickle says:

    You are arguing against a point of view that absolutely no one actually backs. Is there some contingent of people arguing that there is actually an innate difference between people of different generations?

    The whole point of a generational difference is that it is a matter of when you were born, the experiences you share with other members of that generation, and the opportunities that present differently due to timing.

    There is perhaps too much over-emphasis on the differences between generations, but none of it is due to people promoting innate differences.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark P. McDonald, August Jackson. August Jackson said: rss: Its time to take the X out of Gen X […]

  3. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately people do subscribe to the differences between generations. I have observed this as I talk with technology and business people, the issue of generations does come up. Its either in the form of a ‘how can we attract them to work for us’ or its in the form of ‘they are so different from us.”

    The differences are occasionally expressed as differences in values, we respect propertly they do not. But more frequently they are expressed as the younger generation have something we will never or could never have — some of those things are technology related, others are values related. The only one of those differences that is real, i will argue, is the one we cannot change — time.

    I have found that if you offer people the type of work style that Gen Y or millenials supposedly want, they will take it. A client I worked with did a study of their workforce. They came up with some characteristics of a ‘net generation’ worker and then applied them to their company.

    The people who were the most ‘digital’ were not the twenty somethings, but women aged 35 – 45 with children. They made the most extensive use of technology, they mixed work and home at all hours, they leveraged communications more, etc.

    That was the point of the post, that I think you agree with, that there is no innate difference so we should not be segregating ourselves based on age when it comes to technology.

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