The Fetish of Generational Diversity

In the last decade, “generational diversity” has become the new “darling” of diversity practitioners, theorists, and advocates alike. As has been acknowledged, the modern era is the first time in our country’s history when four different generations have worked together in the American workplace.[1]   As a result, much has been made of how to appeal to the exuberant and techno-savvy sensibilities of Generation X and Generation Y (“Gen X” and “Gen Y”).

At first blush, the adulation is flattering; “youth” has always seemed to implicate energy, innovation, and creativity, and by extension, generational diversity is seen as being “sexy.” However, the focus seems a bit curious. Although the focus on generational diversity issues is well-intentioned in most respects, there is reason to think that this philosophical focus in Diversity & Inclusion is a bit misguided because it ignores the notion of intersectionality.

Intersectionality is the recognition and analysis of the interplay of diversity dimensions.  Intersectionality recognizes that our membership to a particular group will be influenced by our membership to other groups.  As Dr. Joe-Joe McManus, a specialist in diversity leadership education and a Gen Xer, indicated: “People who focus on intergenerational diversity often times lose sight of cultural ‘intersectionality,’ or the fact that generational issues intersect with other aspects of diversity.” Although one’s generation is influential, it can no more be separated from other diversity signifiers than the right part of the brain can be separated from the left.

Many cultural factors shape a person’s worldview, in addition to their age or generation. The need for a review of generational diversity is critical, but practitioners can’t dismiss the fact that other cultural factors are just as relevant (and perhaps more significant) to members of younger generational cohorts.

As Avisha Chugani, a Gen Y academic counselor for the Educational Opportunity Program at University of California-Berkeley, states: “For our Gen Y students and employees,  gender and ethnicity are incredibly important.  A discussion based simply on age would ignore the other aspects of our experience that figure very prominently in our day-to-day lives. ”

Yet, in identifying and recognizing the common threads that make Gen X and millennials culturally distinct from their generational predecessors, some practitioners appear to focus on generational issues to the exclusion of other diversity issues.  According to education policy expert Dr. Juan Carlos Arauz, a self-described Gen Xer:

“Generational diversity has always existed. And while I do agree that the issue is relevant, I think people find it easier to talk about generational issues than some of the other systemic issues that exist.”

Interestingly enough, many people in the U.S. see other diversity issues as being more critical. In 2010, a Pew Center poll fond that “only about a quarter of the public (26%) said that there were strong conflicts between young people and older people. By contrast, much higher shares of the public see strong conflicts between immigrants and the native born (55%); between rich and poor (47%); and between blacks and whites (39%). [2] [3]

This is not to suggest that generational issues are not important; they most certainly are.  However, when engaging Gen Xers and Gen Yers in the workplace with the hope of promoting inclusion, the focus should not simply be on age, but a variety of multicultural issues. In other words, the diversity framework should be expansive.  Generational diversity initiatives should not have a single-issue focus, especially since younger generations appear to be more diversity-minded than their predecessors [4].

Both of these ideas – 1) the fact that Gen X and Gen Y place a high premium on diversity as a whole, and 2) that Gen Xers and Gen Yers are just as influenced by other diversity dimensions as they are by age/generation – underscore a very important idea: to recruit, retain, and leverage the talents of Generation X and Y, the workplace should be inclusive on ALL fronts. Younger generations are much more likely to join a community (whether it’s an academic institution, a civic circle, or a prospective employer) if that community has inclusive policies with respect to a multitude of diversity issues, including race, gender, disability, religion, and sexual orientation, to name a few.

For example, even if a small high-tech company in Silicon Valley has a strong marketing campaign for recruiting millennials, if the company has failed to develop a leadership pipeline for women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers will be less inclined to join that organization because that organization’s diversity lens is too narrow.

The significance of this notion is unmistakable. Undoubtedly, Gen X and Gen Y want to be respected and want to work and study in places where their opinions and work ethic are valued. However, Gen X and Y also want to be in environments where other social groups (groups to which they may also belong!) have similar opportunities.   With these generations, diversity is not just about attracting a particular group (or even their group); it is about cultivating a mindset and practice where everyone is included and having that mindset permeate throughout the entire community.

If schools, universities, businesses, and organizations want to attract the best and brightest young talent, they should create an environment that not only appeals to a younger generation, but an environment that attracts a diverse, heterogeneous constituency across all diversity dimensions.

Footnotes

[1] During the American slavery period, four generations worked together on the plantation, which put diplomatically, was a workplace.

[2] Pew Center. “Millennials: Confident, Connected, Open to Change.” Pew Center Research. 2010. 24 Feb. 2010 <http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/02/24/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change/>

[3] Id. By contrast, much higher shares of the public see strong conflicts today between immigrants and the native born (55%); between rich and poor (47%); and between blacks and whites (39%).

[4] Id. Based on two decades of research, Gen X and (in particular) millennials are more progressive on race-relations, immigration, inter-racial dating, and non-traditional family arrangements.