Understanding the Defining Characteristics of Each Generation

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April 7, 2020
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Every generation is unique. People of each era are impacted by their environment, social experiences, technological advances, lifestyles, generational history, values, and a plethora of other factors distinctive to their specific group. Understanding these factors is essential to recognizing and identifying with individuals outside of one’s own generation.

Whether you are an employee, manager, coworker, neighbor, friend, or relative; having a solid knowledge of the four main generations can give you some perspective. Each generation shares similar goals such as the need to feel appreciated, desire to thrive professionally and personally, and the need to work in a healthy and positive environment. However, the way individuals from each generation obtain their goals is much different and their diverse characteristics set them apart from the generation before and after them. The following descriptions are the most idiosyncratic of every generation, which can help you get a better understanding of yourself and others.

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers refer to the generation born between 1946 and 1964. Making up approximately 80 million people in the United States, the baby boomer generation has unique characteristics including a strong sense of self, a professional outlook on life, and rational decision making. The following statements are true for most people from this generation:


● They live to work, with their self-worth reliant on their work ethic.
● They are loyal to their employers.
● They can be competitive and goal-centric in every avenue of life.
● They enjoy working in teams and need to prove themselves to the team.
● They are focused, process oriented, and disciplined.
● They want to make a difference.
● They need to know that they are valued.

Many boomers were raised in a well-disciplined and very structured household. They are practical, confident, and abide by societal rules. Their strong worth ethic means that baby boomers aren’t afraid to put in a hard day at work, which makes them eager to learn as much as possible and do their very best. For many in this generation, their self-worth is directly impacted by their professional achievements. Independent and self-assured, this generation was raised during one of the most turbulent times in history.

From a young age they were required to work their fair share and fulfill their societal role, which are values that have stayed with them. They are naturally resourceful from being raised in an era where resourcefulness was a life-saving and necessary trait. Many of their parents are from The Silent Generation, and were raised during a period of war and economic depression. Because their parents lived through the Great Depression, they passed down tools such as using the bare necessities to solve a problem, tackling intimidating challenges, and honing skills on their own terms.

Baby boomers may not be “digital natives,” but their desire to be connected with technology rivals that of millennials. They see technology as a valuable learning tool and as a way to stay connected with friends and family. Facebook makes up a significant portion of their phone time, which is concerning for mental health experts.

Research shows that connectivity to Facebook can interfere with memory, sleep, and can potentially lead to depression and anxiety in this older generation. Baby boomers should never be underestimated, as other generations can learn a lot from this tough and resilient age group.

Generation X

Often dubbed America’s forgotten “middle child,” Generation X is defined by individuals born between the years 1964 and 1980. Members of Generation X tend to show the following characteristics:

● They live to work, with their self-worth reliant on their work ethic.
● They are loyal to their employers.
● They can be competitive and goal-centric in every avenue of life.
● They enjoy working in teams and need to prove themselves to the team.
● They are focused, process oriented, and disciplined.
● They want to make a difference.
● They need to know that they are valued.

Trends highlighted in a Pew research report showed that gen xers fall in the middle of everything when compared to baby boomers and millennials. From the number of Facebook friends to patriotism, the study shows that members of Generation X are the least distinctive generation. Interestingly enough, a separate study showed gen xers had better health at the same age than millennials.  Furthermore, a recent study by LendingTree discovered that gen xers have a financial disadvantage based on the fact that their average debt is higher than any generation. They have the most credit card debt and are more likely to spend money on non-essential items such as home décor, lottery tickets, and dining out.

Yet despite struggling financially, according to the study, Gen X employees are 25% more eager than their millennial counterparts to get promoted and advance in their careers. Members of this generation are found to set defined personal and professional goals.  They appreciate honest and open conversations whether it is with their spouse or their boss. They don’t care about niceties and are much more straight forward, which makes it easier for most people to feel natural around gen xers. As the most connected generation, they are always looking for ways to improve; not ways to be praised. They embrace feedback and learn from criticism.

Compared to millennials who use their phones more than an hour a day, gen xers didn’t grow up with the Internet and are typically less attached to their phones. Unlike the generation of baby boomers before them, they prefer a work-life balance and typically take between 10-19 days off a year to travel, vacation with their family, and recharge.  Although this generation may be said to be ignored or forgotten, they are perhaps the most powerful generation yet.

Millennials

Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are part of the biggest generation in the United States; even bigger than that of baby boomers. Often ridiculed by older generations, the different stereotypes associated with this generation such as being self-centered, entitled, and shallow, give them a bad rap. Shaped by their unique historic experiences, such as 9/11, high profile data breaches, hyper awareness of global climate change, and a distrust of government; millennials are frustrated by problems they believe have been passed down to them to handle. Millennials tend to show the following characteristics:

● Love for technology and the ability to utilize it for finding solutions
● Desire to make an impact
● Fully transparent, love to share everything
● Do well with detailed instructions
● Believe in commerce & conscience together
● Value diversity
● Believe education is a highly expensive necessity
● Do not perform at their best in a traditional work environment

According to a Schwab survey, millennials, more than any other generation feel the most unstable about their finances. Despite spending less on average than gen xers, emotions around money lead millennials to make irrational choices. Although their presence in the work force is now greater than any other generation, a study performed by the Education Advisory board shows that millennials regularly job hop, switching jobs nearly 20 times in their career. This figure is twice as much as baby boomers and significantly more than any other generation.

Because their behaviors are so different than the generations before them, businesses are increasingly making attempts to understand and respond to millennial habits. For example, restaurants are noticing that young people prefer to order delivery or pick up prepared meals. Millennials drink less than older generations, and when they do, they prefer wine and spirits to beer. From what they are eating to drinking, millennials are a social generation and like to be fully transparent and share everything, particularly through technology.  Even when it comes to their education, millennials prefer technology over people, citing that they feel they learn more from screens than lectures. They are far less likely to ask their family and friends for advice than older generations. Instead, they go online and use a search engine such as Google to find the answers to their questions.  

Millennials are also changing marriage and divorce rates with many millennials choosing to move in with their partner prior to marriage. Cohabitation is significantly reducing the divorce rate due to the longer window of time young people have to realize their compatibility. While they are interested in buying homes, unlike previous generations, they are skipping the starter home stage and instead wait until they can afford a bigger house. Millennials are transforming everything from the workplace to their communities, which makes them an interesting generation to watch.

Gen Z

Generation Z is made up of people born between 1995 and 2013. As true digital natives, these young people have been exposed from their earliest youth to the Internet, mobile systems, and social media. That context has produced a hypercognitive generation comfortable with integrating and cross-referencing information from both offline and online sources. Typical traits of Gen Z include the following:

● Tech-innate (first generation to grow up with modern technology)
● Individualistic with an entrepreneurial and inventive spirit
● Realists, accepting of others, and transparent
● Enjoy being resourceful and making things
● Competitive
● Concerned about the cost of education

When it comes to work, this generation sees a job as a means to an end. While their millennial counterparts typically enjoy their work, those from Gen Z perform their jobs simply for financial reasons. They will take on a job if it provides steady income even if it isn’t their dream job.

That said, the young people in this generation are entrepreneurial and use technology to their advantage. They are more likely to create digital content and become influencers in order to engage and stay connected.  With countless ways to communicate, it’s not unusual for members of this generation to have friends all over the globe. 

This generation typically prefers face to face communication, though it doesn’t have to be in-person. They utilize apps such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Hangouts to engage in conversations. With information virtually limitless, the young people of this generation take advantage of the knowledge that is available at their fingertips. They are constantly seeking new experiences and ways to actively engage in political conversations, even though they are too young to vote.

With information so much easier for them to find, they feel they are “experts” on subjects and rally behind causes and organizations that resonate with them. The youngest of all the groups, this enthusiastic and energetic generation has a lot to offer their peers as well as other generations.

Living & Working Together

By understanding the main characteristics of each generation, we can capably value, relate to, appreciate, and motivate individuals across all generations. However, it does take time. It is not easy for people of all ages to communicate and agree on many subjects, thought with some patience, it is certainly possible.

Amanda is a wellness writer & enthusiast with over 12 years writing in the industry. She has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from NYU. She is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American School of Nutrition & Personal Training. Amanda is also a celebrity publicist.
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