Age is just a number

I’ve always liked that old saying, “Age is just a number” (attributed to Joan Collins, by the way, along with the rest of it: “It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine”).

Do you believe that? I think I do.

Sure, there are unmistakable changes that occur as we age that as of now we can’t alter. Maybe we can slow down the processes, thanks to nutrition, science, and good genes, but eventually age wins and something goes: us. If we’re lucky, we live ‘til we die. My mom always said if things worked out the way she wanted, she’d be on the golf course, hit a hole in one, and then – poof! – die (although she referred to it as “gork”). Unfortunately, she was not so lucky.

I started thinking more about the whole age = number thing while attending a day-long seminar (I call it a mental health day), about communicating across generations. I took away some basic truths.

First, it’s amazing that, for the first time, there are at least four generations mingling in the workplace. Think about that for a minute. It’s hard enough when two of them have to learn to get along.

The last of the Traditionalists are still hanging in – those born before 1946. Add in a chunk of Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1965. Roll in Generation X, nearly a third the size of the boomers, with birthdays from 1966-1980. Finally, add the Millennials (Generation Y, “Nexters”), born between 1981 and 2000. Given that each of those four segments has different motivations, values, and views (or so they say), it’s probably amazing we get any work done. (Come to think of it, I wonder if that’s the problem with Congress these days?)

Second, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s not so much about how our differences make communicating tough, but that underneath our own unique styles we all pretty much want the same things. We just go about it differently. Perhaps I should rephrase that: I discovered this generational thing is more about style than substance.

I’m a Baby Boomer myself – technically a member of “Generation Jones,” the second half of the post-war baby boom. “Jonesers” were born between 1954 and 1965. And that answers so many questions for me. My sister and brother were solid boomers and, while we have much in common, I always found myself identifying more with the persona of Generation X and, yes, the Millenials! How can that be? Was I not a product of my group, my culture – the overarching Baby Boom Generation? I’m not even close to the age that defines the start of the Nexters (X’ers).

Ah, and there stirs that little concept about age being a mere number. My mental health day offered the chance to really take a look at what drives each of those generations. And what I discovered was this:

I share many values, motivators and beliefs associated more with the X’ers and the Millennials than with the Boomers. I also share some Traditionalist characteristics, although fewer than the others. Yes, I’m in tune with the boomers, but I’m really attuned to the younger generations.

So there are two things that bubble up.

  1. Generations overlap and blend. There are no solid lines dividing one group from another. It’s all in how we were raised and the events that shaped our lives and our families’ lives.
  2. Generational differences are way too simplistic for characterizing people. I think that what really drives motivation and personality has nothing to do with a birthdate.

What we want and hope for and how we communicate and relate to others has everything to do with our basic personalities. Sitting in that mental health day class, I just kept thinking, “oh, this is so incomplete.” Maybe because I’m so enmeshed in type and relationship awareness theories, I see other drivers that lead to better understanding of ourselves and others – and they cut a swath right through generational lines.

Communication styles are driven more by our personality types, although I gladly acknowlege generational influences can play a part in our choice of tools and how we manifest our preferences. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) does far more to help us understand how we prefer to communicate and behave. And the Strength Deployment Inventory® (SDI®) does far more to help us understand the “why” – why we behave the way we do when life is good as well as when it’s bad.

Those two assessments offer a wonderfully deep awareness of ourselves and others, which leads to more tolerance, more willingness to give as well as take. And that insight is what cuts across generational lines like nothing else.

Our motivation isn’t tied to a number or an age — it’s tied to basic core needs. Are we motivated by a concern for protecting others and encouraging their growth and welfare? Perhaps a concern for getting things done and organizing people and resources to achieve results? Maybe we’re motivated by a concern for meaningful order and autonomy and analysis. Or it may be we’re motivated by flexibility, the betterment of the “group” and for belonging in the group.

That’s where our motivation lies, not in the year we were born.

Sure, each generation is shaped by the society that surrounds it – look at how quickly the world has changed! Traditionalists grew up when family was nuclear and mom was at home while dad provided. Baby Boomers railed against those norms, seeking individualism and independence. X’ers were latch-key kids who always did for themselves. They also watched their parents get mauled by “the man” and lose pensions, jobs, and get failed by the system. They became independent and somewhat materialistic and conservative. Generation Y kids have grown up with nothing but encouragement and support, and they don’t know the meaning of “can’t.” They also are the most social and technologically savvy of all.

But those are merely differences in style, not differences in substance. Strip the style away and at heart we all want the same kinds of things. We tend to use those generational labels to proudly define who we are and to decry the differences from those who follow.

“The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. … Children began to be the tyrants … of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offenses against … tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised … schoolmasters.”

Sounds a bit like the traditionalists railing at the boomers, or like the boomers railing at the X’ers and millennials, doesn’t it? Nope. It was from a 1907 dissertation penned by Cambridge scholar Kenneth John Freemen, summarizing the complaints directed against younger generations … during ancient times. We’re talking Socrates and Plato’s times, and it’s often wrongly attributed to those two ancient scholars (althought it summarizes their generational experiences).

We’re more alike than we are different, aren’t we? At least when you look at the numbers. When you dig down into our personalities, that’s where you find the real differences. Blaming communication problems on our generational splits is pretty much an excuse. Take the time to dig deeper.

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