The Lost Generation came of age during World War I. The group’s swift loss of innocence distinguished them sociologically from generations that preceded it. The label of “Lost” was popularized by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, and every generation since has been segmented, named, and analyzed for their particularities: the heroes of The Greatest Generation, the traditionalists of the Silent Generation, the optimistic Baby Boomers, the slackers of Generation X, the cynical Millennials.
This jargon, once limited to sociologists, blankets business articles and career guru books as parmesan blankets pizza. Everyone everywhere is talking about Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials—their wants and faults. The buzz can be overwhelming. What’s a multi-generational workplace employee to do? Sip your cortado or Tom Collins, and check these out:
Debunking the mythology of the generational clash
In recent years, sociologists and commentators have focused on the idea of generational in-fighting: over jobs, over politics, over consumer preferences. Reviewing workplace data finds otherwise: Millennials are as hardworking as Xers and Boomers. Boomers are far more tech-savvy than they’re given credit for. Every generation prioritizes flexibility and meaningful work as goals for their careers. The generations are more similar than they are different, and their independent fates are intimately tied. In sensationalizing generational stereotypes, we lose sight of truth. So let’s begin by asking—cue music—what’s fact and what’s fiction?
The oldest intern
In 2015, a pharmaceutical multinational hired a 70-year old summer intern. After retiring from a three decade long run on Wall Street, including a tenure as head of communications for a global bank, Paul Critchlow found himself bored with the quiet life he had earned. He had taken to filling his time collecting roadside trash in his town when he was contacted by old friend and pharmaceutical executive Sally Sussman. She happened to have just seen The Intern, in which Robert De Niro is brought on to be a “senior intern” at an e-commerce startup. She asked if Critchlow if be interested in interning, and to her surprise, he agreed, and spent the summer working alongside college students, learning social media, and offering his wealth of experience to his fellow interns. The results: a breakdown of age-bias; a bilateral transfer of skills and respect; and a heartwarming and humorously formative story. FastCompany tells Critchlow’s story, which is as topical and entertaining as the film that inspired it.
An interactive visualization of the American workforce across generations
In generational analysis, data rule. In an interactive infographic, the statisticians at Emsi visualized 785 jobs by generational popularity. The findings, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reveal some surprising insights about how shifts in economy and society have shaped work for each generation. Here are a few trends:
- At 4.75 million workers, retail is far and away the most popular occupation in the US. This is true across generations: 32% of retail salespersons are Millennials, 29% are Gen Xers, and 22% are Boomers. Interestingly, however, among Gen Xers, retail falls to second place against registered nursing.
- Gen Xers hold more C-suite roles than Baby Boomers at 52% and 42%, respectively, leaving only 6% to younger Millennials.
- Xers comprise over 50% of all senior and middle management roles. Millennials hold a majority in only four occupations: military, bartenders, choreographers, and dancers. Boomers dominate just five: motor vehicle operator, legislator, funeral attendants, embalmers, and crossing guards.
- Without a college degree, the highest average paying job for Boomers is transportation manager ($51 per hour); for Xers is nuclear reactor operator ($43); for Millennials is miner ($24).
Research shows people are most innovative when they’re older
In 2014, Intel Capital closed first-round funding for a low-cost Braille printer invented by 13-year-old San Jose resident, Shubham Banerjee. “It’s an after-school thing,” Banerjee reportedly said. From Mark Zuckerberg to Evan Spiegel, Silicon Valley has been known to champion young prodigies for their brilliance. But a 2016 study from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation found that the median age of innovators is 47, and only 5.8% are 30 years or younger. Quartz interviewed one of these late-blooming innovators in 2015: John Goodenough revolutionized the lithium ion battery in his sixties. Now 95, Goodenough is working on a sustainable super-battery for electric cars. “I want to solve the problem before I throw my chips in,” he told Quartz in 2015.
How to confront the challenge of disability in an aging workforce
By 2020, with 44 million Boomers still in the workforce, the average working age will be 42.8. The related rise of age-related disabilities presents a challenge: A Cornell study found that the over 50 population experiences disabilities at rates double that of younger generations (10% vs. 5%). In her research paper for Prudential, Dr. Kristin Tugman identifies different initiatives employers can take to reduce disability costs while providing for the particular needs of older professionals. Ironically, the solutions come from innovations typically associated with startups and younger generations: ergonomic desks, virtual offices, self-governed hours, and work-sponsored exercise programs. As the New York Times reported in 2014, accommodating and retaining older professionals is vital because they bring tacit knowledge and can work hours that are different from their child-rearing counterparts.
Kids these days
The oldest of “Generation Z” are just starting college. In just a few years, this cabal of web-raised denizens will be charging into offices, smart-phones ablazing. Various studies predict that they will be entrepreneurial, altruistic, consumption-savvy, and socially-awkward, having spent undue portions of their lives online. In readying the workforce for their arrival, communication is going to be a key digression from past generations. To that end, it’s great to refer back to the opening chapter of WBEZ’s This American Life episode “Status Update,” in which an undeterred Ira Glass ventures conversation with a group of adolescent girls. They tell Ira about their lives as they live them on smartphones, and what they mean when they post or comment or like.
This article was produced on behalf of Prudential by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.