“I know the younger generation is different now, but when they get older, they’ll act more like us. Right?” That’s a question I often hear from audience members on the plus side of 50.
The answer: Yes. Maybe. Definitely no. It’s complicated.
When I was in school generational theory wasn’t even a theory yet. It certainly wasn’t a standard part of sociology, psychology, anthropology, history and business courses. But we did study life stages, and therein lies the answer to the Will-they-grow-up-to-be-like-us question.
First, life stages. Until a century ago, people thought of life in three stages—childhood, adulthood and old age. Simple enough.
But during the 1920s, a third developmental stage was recognized--that period of rapid change and raging hormones between childhood and adulthood. Enter Adolescence. So then there were four: childhood, adolescence (which started at about 11), adulthood (which lasted a long time) and old age (which started at about 60).
This concept of the standard lifeline, along with the refrain “Oh those crazy teen-agers,” held steady until about a decade ago. That was when people began to stretch out the passage between adolescence and adulthood. People in their 20s didn't become adults on schedule. That is, they weren’t finishing school, leaving home, finding jobs, marrying and having children as early as people before them. Twenty-somethings are taking about 10 years to explore their options, easing into the familiar institutions of adulthood by about age 30. The HBO series Girls is a perfect example. This new stage of life has been dubbed Emerging Adulthood, and sometimes the Quarter Life Crisis.
Which brings us to five: childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, adulthood and old age.
Meanwhile, things have been getting complicated at the other end of the life cycle. People, Boomers in particular, are working longer and staying active longer. We no longer simply stop working at 65 and become suddenly old. Instead 60-somethings and 70-somethings are redefining retirement to mean "keep working." Booms are working full or part-time, starting companies, consulting, moving to Panama, and tweeting about it. Nobody has a name for this stage yet. Maybe Near-retirees will stick. The upshot is that old age, which used to start at 60, now begins somewhere around 80.
So here’s the pattern now: childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, adulthood, near-Retiree, old age.
Generations and life stages -- the difference
Generations are not life stages. Every generation, with its consistent “generational personality” grows older, moving through every life stage. But, no matter what life stage we're in, our basic generational traits and attitudes remain the same. Former Hippies, Boomers will remain generally idealistic and polarized all the way to the nursing home. And expect-the-worst Generation Xers will glumly and gamely work against the odds all their lives.
So the answer to my question from the audience is mostly “No, they won't grow up to be like you." Each generation is shaped by its unique historical events. Young or old, Millennials will be Collaborative Pragmatists. Our "generational personalities" don't change. Younger folks will grow older and enter life stages, but they will carry their generational traits with them. Millennials will become adults, and near-retirees and seniors . . . but they will do it in their own way.
If only we just grew up to act like the gens that came before us. But where would be the fun in that? Keeping it interesting.
Generational expert and keynote speaker, Amy Lynch helps the generations understand each other. She has spoken to 100s of groups from MTV and Comcast to Boeing, J&J and the staff of the U.S. Senate. Contact Amy about your next event.