Understanding Generational Differences

By YSN Staff

When it comes to older and younger people working together, one of the biggest obstacles to harmony might be the myths each generation believes about the others. For instance, contrary to popular belief not all millennials are 25 and living in their parents’ basement. 

Generational expert Jason Dorsey busted many of the myths surrounding different generations during his keynote address at the BrandSource Summit in Nashville in March. Keeping the audience laughing and lacing his presentation with references to the research he’s done at the Center for Generational Kinetics, Dorsey promised to make it easier for all BrandSource members to deal with people who aren’t exactly like them. 

“I promise I will help you today with your employees. For many of you this will help with your families,” he said, teeing up a joke. “And if you want to date younger, this is your session. I got you. Swipe right.” 

Dorsey started out by applauding all those in the audience whose first jobs paid less than a dollar an hour, engaging the audience by asking them to talk to the people next to them about their own first jobs. He briefly talked about older generations and drew a sharp contrast between them and his own paperless generation. 

“I’m a millennial – we make $30,000 a year and we spend $50,000,” he joked. “We don’t save receipts – stop trying to give those to us.”

Research shows that most millennials are hitting the milestones that mark adulthood later than any generation before them, which makes navigating the world a little more difficult for them and makes working with them a challenge for others. 

“When my generation shows up to work today, based on the latest data, we are three or up to four years older than when many of you in this room started working,” he said. “And we don’t talk about this! I need you to imagine someone in my generation has come to work for you. It’s our first real job so we’re probably…  27. We’re excited, we’re nervous, we’re late.”

The name of the game is adapting, Dorsey said: People of different generations have to adapt to each other, and retailers have to adapt to the needs of customers. It’s a mistake to think that consumers – especially millennials – will adapt to the way a retailer wants to do business. 

“We are the No. 1 category to refer friends because our friends don’t know who to buy from either – whoever adapts to us wins,” he said. “We have to understand how to adapt across these different generations. On the sales and marketing side we have to adapt to (customers). On the workforce, it’s the opposite – there is zero incentive for customers to adapt to you because there are so many competitors willing to adapt to them.” 

There are some core facts about the millennial generation that, while not strictly true of every single person born between 1977 and 1995, do shape how they behave. 

Millennials have significantly less credit card debt than previous generations, largely because many of them don’t use credit at all. In addition, millennials are significantly less mobile and more risk-averse than earlier generations. 

“We’ve come of age at a strange time,” Dorsey said. “The result is we have 5,000 friends on Facebook and no one to help us if we have a flat tire. You think we’re going to pick up and move across the country? This great economic recovery that’s been going on is surprisingly uneven across the U.S. If you’re not willing to move to where higher paying jobs are, you don’t benefit from them.”

That’s not to say millennials aren’t a valuable market for retailers, however. 

“Everybody thinks millennials are broke,” Dorsey said. “Millennials last year outspent every other generation, period. The oldest millennials are around age  40 – that’s 83 million people.”

Spending patterns are changing, as well: Baby Boomers, who still control a lot of the nation’s wealth, are slowing down and millennial spending is growing. 

“We’re not the generation that has the wealth,” Dorsey said. “Supposedly Baby Boomers are going to transfer down all this money. We’re not really sure that’s going to happen, but it is why we see you on weekends – because it might happen. Boomers are entering the phase of life we call less is more. Millennials are driving spending.”

Dorsey also ran through a few facts that most millennials have in common and that retailers should keep in mind when doing business with them. 

  First, stop thinking millennials are tech-savvy. They aren’t. 

“What we uncovered at our research center is we are not tech savvy,” he said. “What we actually are is tech dependent. It’s an important distinction: We don’t know how technology actually works; we use it and know we cannot live without it. The tech-savvy generation is in this room: Generation X. They can plug a printer into a computer. Geniuses.”

Their preferred method of communication is texting. “Or as I like to say, real friends don’t call,” he said. 

   Millennials will use email, but not the way their elders do. 

“When it comes to email, my generation only reads the subject line,” he said. “Then we decide to do we open? Delete? Spam? All the magic to us in an email is the subject line. I went on some of your websites, you all use really big words. I’m gonna tell you a secret: My generation has no idea what those words mean.”

Millennials prefer to use social media for the same reason they prefer texting – it avoids in-person communication, including phone calls. 

“My generation thinks social media is accurate, transparent and gets us a faster response, none of which are automatically true,” Dorsey said. “Two things we don’t actually do: face-to-face communication… and my generation doesn’t like phone calls. We consider a phone call an invasion of privacy.”

Dorsey also spent a few minutes talking about other generations and illustrating the traits that make them unique. 

Of people born in Generation X (1965-1976), Dorsey said millennials should learn to work with them as well as possible: “Listen closely. We will be working with Generation X forever,” he said. “It’s the most loyal generation, but loyal to individuals more than organizations. Generation X is naturally skeptical – only a Gen Xer will come up to me after this session and say ‘I enjoyed your presentation. I didn’t think I would.’” 

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) “define work ethic,” Dorsey said. “They measure work ethic in hours per week. If they can’t see you, you’re not working.” 

Boomers remain the most influential generation in the workforce, however, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. 

“They’re not leaving as quickly as people assumed, making it harder for people to get into the workforce,” Dorsey said. “Boomers are not on their way out.”

The newest cohort, Generation Z (born since 1996), is markedly different from millennials in a lot of big ways. 

“I believe Generation Z is going to change our nation and the world,” Dorsey said. “In the workforce (their attitude is) ‘I’ll take whatever job you have, just give me a chance.’ We think Generation Z is going to create lot of competition for millennials in the future. Soon they’ll be the fastest-growing generation in the workforce.”

People born within 5 years of any generation’s beginning or end are called “cuspers,” because they’re born on the cusp of a generation, and are typically empathetic with both generations. 

Dorsey said understanding the different generations doesn’t make anyone an expert on anyone else, but it does help guide the way retailers do business with different groups of people. 

“When you look across customers or work data, generations give valuable insights on how to connect with and influence people of different ages,” Dorsey said. “Right now, all of the people in the industry are hiring millennials. Do you know the wealthier a millennial is the less likely they are to want to buy something from somebody who is also a millennial? What do they know? When we think about generations, what makes them predictive based on our research are the trends that shape them.” 

Dorsey said the millennial generation is doing something unprecedented: it is splitting into two different segments. One group is doing everything they were told they should do: get an education, get a job, go to work, pay their bills. 

“These are my people,” he said. “No one wants to talk about us. I did 100 media interviews last year and no one wanted to talk about millennials who show up, go to work and go home.”

The other group are the ones who, as Dorsey put it, is “struggling to create real-world traction.” These are the millennials of the popular stereotype. 

“I believe this will change how you think about this generation, and for millennials it will change how you feel about where you fit,” he said. “The millennial generation is splitting into two different generations. At around 30, millennials self-select into one or the other and can no longer relate to the other part of their own generation.”

The bottom line is that retailers have to meet customers where they are and adapt to how they want to communicate. At the same time, co-workers (or managers and subordinates) have to understand each other and figure out how to work together. 

“When you look at generations, they are clues,” Dorsey said. “Millennials are a much more complex generation than many give us credit for.” 

YSN is published by BrandSource parent company AVB Inc.