Generation XYZ – useful or not?

Fabiola Gerpott
Generation X is reliable and works hard. Generation Z, on the other hand, needs a lot of freedom and focuses on hobbies and self-fulfilment. All nonsense? Fabiola Gerpott explains why the debate about generations should be taken with a grain of salt.

During an online lunchtime talk, Prof. Dr. Fabiola Gerpott – Chair of Leadership and Module Leader at CAS Leadership and Inclusion, spoke with Cawa Younosi – Head of Human Resources at SAP – about the different generations. She takes an unpopular view: “The differences within generations are often as great as those between generations,” says Gerpott. Thus, all these theories about generations cannot be scientifically proven convincingly. “Within each generation, for example, there are people who have a very sustainable mindset and others who don’t care at all,” Gerpott adds.

The generation debate

So should we throw the generation debate completely overboard? It’s not quite that simple. Gerpott explains: “There is the age effect and the period effect. The age effect arises because people have different needs and perceptions depending on their age. For example, younger people tend to be more interested in finding their own position in life, while most people also become increasingly interested in passing on knowledge to others as they get older.

The period effect, in turn, reflects opinions or needs at a specific point in time, namely when people ask about them. You could also say that it describes the spirit of the times. Society and its values change. “If a person is in favour of same-sex marriage today, it may have more to do with the zeitgeist than with that person being very open-minded,” Gerpott said. The same statement 50 years ago would have been something different. “If we remove the age and period effect, then the differences between Generation X,Y and Z are very small,” Gerpott said. That means that while there are differences, they have less to do with generations and more to do with age and the zeitgeist.

Learnings for companies

Why does the concept of generations nevertheless persist so much? On the one hand, because many people make money with it, and on the other hand, because such theories are identity- and meaning-giving. “I’m one of the baby boomers, that’s why I act like this’ is a statement that gives our brains a sense of security and helps us categorize the world,” explains Gerpott.

Here’s what companies can learn from these statements: “Instead of focusing on a general generation concept, you should rather consider: ‘What do we want as a company? Which employees do we want to attract and how do we want to come across’? You can then apply that line authentically,” Gerpott said. In other words, instead of focusing on which generation you want to attract, you should rather start from the individual and think about who and how to address the people from your target group – regardless of whether they bear the stamp Generation X,Y or Z.

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