Against the generations, with video

I had the opportunity to make a presentation at the National Academies to the “Committee on the Consideration of Generational Issues in Workforce Management and Employment Practices.” If you’ve followed my posts about the “generation” terms and their use in the public sphere you understand how happy this made me.

The committee is considering a wide array of issues related to the changing workforce — under a contract from the Army — and I used the time to address the uses and misuses of cohort concepts and analysis in analyzing social change.

In the introduction, I said generational labels, e.g., “Millennials”:

encourage what’s bad about social science. It drives people toward broad generalizations, stereotyping, click bait, character judgment, and echo chamber thinking. … When we give them names and characters we start imposing qualities onto populations with absolutely no basis, or worse, on the basis of stereotyping, and then it becomes just a snowball of clickbait confirmation bias. … And no one’s really assessing whether these categories are doing us any good, but everyone’s getting a lot of clicks.

The slides I used are here in PDF. The whole presentation was captured on video, including the Q&A.

From my answer to the last question:

Cohort analysis is really important. And the life course perspective, especially on demographic things, has been very important. And as we look at changes over time in the society and the culture, things like how many times you change jobs, did you have health insurance at a certain point in your life, how crowded were your schools, what was the racial composition of your neighborhood or school when you were younger — we want to think about the shadow of these events across people’s lives and at a cultural level, not just an individual level. So it absolutely is important. … That’s a powerful way of thinking and a good opportunity to apply social science and learn from it. So I don’t want to discourage cohort thinking at all. I just want to improve it… Nothing I said should be taken to be critical of the idea of using cohorts and life course analysis in general at all.

You know, this is not my most important work. We have bigger problems in society. But understanding demographic change, how it relates to inequality, and communicating that in ways that allow us to make smarter decisions about it is my most important work. That’s why I consider this to be part of it.

1 Comment

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One response to “Against the generations, with video

  1. Frank

    Thanks for presenting this! “Generation” thinking really has gotten out of hand. My Dad, an HR professional, wrote an article against a relatively recent HR/Management trend of managing staff based upon their stereotypical generation. Article is from 2006/2007, “The Generation Gap: More Myth than Reality,” from Human Resource Planning. If you can’t find it, please comment or email me and I can get him to email the article to you.

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