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Stop talking about your generation

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-07-2017 Justin Fox

There have been thousands of articles published by now about the millennial generation and how its members are different from everybody else. So when Laura Finfer and Lois Tamir, who run an executive coaching firm in New York called Leadership Excellence Consulting, found themselves struggling a few years ago to effectively coach a new wave of executives in their 30s, they wondered if it might be a millennial thing. “We couldn’t really put our finger on it, but it felt different,” said Finfer. “It felt harder,” said Tamir.

But Finfer and Tamir also happen to have psychology PhDs from large Midwestern universities with reputations for quantitative excellence. This meant first of all that they could count, and thus see that when they started contemplating these issues three years ago, most of their 30-something clients weren’t even millennials.

It also meant that they knew how to design a research study, which they then set about doing, consulting the rich literature on behavioural differences by age and the spottier literature on generational differences, collecting data on their own coaching engagements, running a bunch of regressions and concluding that, naaah, it’s not a millennial thing. People in their 30s are just different from people in their 40s, who in turn are different from people in their 50s.

Finfer and Tamir published their results last year in the journal Consulting Psychology, and in shorter, footnote-free form earlier this month on the Harvard Business Review’s (HBR’s) website. Their main point was that people in their 30s are less self-reflective and less open to change than their elders, and thus demand a different coaching approach. They also, and this is from the HBR article, “found that executives’ behaviour in coaching differs by age, not generation. Ratings varied across, not within, each of the age decades we studied (30-39, 40-49, 50-59).”

That is just one study with a pretty small sample size. But Finfer and Tamir also point to a survey article in Industrial And Organizational Psychology titled “Generationally Based Differences in The Workplace: Is There A There There?” The answer, according to psychology professors David P. Costanza of George Washington University and Lisa M. Finkelstein of Northern Illinois University, is mostly no. “There is little solid empirical evidence supporting generationally based differences and almost no theory behind why such differences should even exist.”

There is, of course, bounteous literature on generationally based differences in the workplace and elsewhere. Most of it is non-academic or the collected works of Neil Howe and William Strauss. But not all! One early classic is a 1928 paper by the great Hungarian-German-British sociologist Karl Mannheim that concluded, “The formal sociological analysis of the generation phenomenon can be of help in so far as we may possibly learn from it what can and what cannot be attributed to the generation factor as one of the factors impinging upon the social process.”

I don’t get the impression that sociologists really followed up on this. Instead, the late 1920s marked the beginning of the conquest of the social sciences by people with some understanding of statistics and random processes, which disposed them to be sceptical of the cyclical explanations of social phenomena that many generational analyses turn out to be.

I’m familiar with how this played out in economics and finance. In a 1927 paper, Russian mathematician Eugen Slutsky demonstrated that the regular economic cycles identified by, among others, his colleague Nikolai Kondratiev (an inspiration to Howe and Strauss, as well as to many macro investors through the decades) could easily have been produced by random fluctuations.

A famous 1932 examination by newspaper heir Alfred Cowles Jr of the record of US stock market forecasters—some of whom put great stock in cyclical processes—found that even “the most successful records are little, if any, better than what might be expected to result from pure chance”. And so on.

In academic finance, there has been a bit of rethinking in recent decades. A 1998 re-examination of Cowles’ research by three prominent finance professors reversed his conclusion that Dow Theorist William Peter Hamilton’s predictions were worse than random. Andrew Lo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been on a years-long quest to rehabilitate technical analysis, which relies heavily on cycles.

So what about generational differences, and generational cycles? There’s something to the idea that the economic conditions, political events and cultural fashions of a particular era shape the attitudes of those who grow up in that era. Also, large-age cohorts such as the baby boomers and millennials shape society by simple virtue of their bigness. For example, the US population is quite heavy on people in their mid-20s and mid-50s. That’s got to have an impact, and it will continue to do so as these cohorts age.

Finfer and Tamir, for their part, are perfectly willing to believe that generational differences exist and have an impact in the workplace. It’s just that for the particular issue that they were studying, maturity level—and thus age—mattered much more. The same goes, I would imagine, for lots of the other attributes and effects credited to the millennials. Sometimes it really is a generational thing. Most of the time, it’s something else. Bloomberg View

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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