Generational-izations

Avoiding the Chinese zodiac approach to workforce management.

Have you ever been to a Chinese restaurant that uses those place mats listing all the animals in the Chinese zodiac (dog, dragon, horse, rat, etc.), along with the personal characteristics of the people born in the years associated with them? The notion that everybody born during a particular 365-day period shares the same personality traits has always struck me as hilarious.

Many federal managers and executives, though, seem determined to use the Chinese animal zodiac approach to future workforce planning. As agencies become

more and more obsessed with the impending mass exodus of baby boomers, they're becoming increasingly reliant on sweeping generalizations about workers of the future based on when they happen to have been born. An Air Force publication on future training and education efforts, for example, characterizes early boomers (those it lists as being born from 1946 to 1954) as "individualistic" and "social cause-oriented." Late boomers (1955-1964) such as myself, on the other hand, are said to suffer from "general cynicism." The pendulum swings again for members of the once-dreaded Generation X (1965-1979), who now are said to be "independent" and "entrepreneurial," among other characteristics. Millennials (1980-2001) are a mixed bag, and saddled with "heightened fears" while at the same time having a greater "acceptance of change."

The temptation to use such broad strokes to characterize members of different generations apparently is irresistible. But it isn't much more useful than characterizing people based on their race, nationality or gender.

That's why it's so refreshing to see Brittany Ballenstedt and Alyssa Rosenberg report in this issue that the latest research indicates that for the most part, people are people, and the generations aren't as different as many analysts and observers assume they are.

You'll find an exploration of generational issues not only in the cover story this month, but in several other pieces as well, on issues ranging from rehiring retirees to the future of the acquisition workforce. There's little question that government must come to grips with an impending shift in the composition of its workforce as the baby boomers move on to the next stage of their lives. That inevitability makes it all the more important that its leaders don't fall back on generational stereotypes in figuring out how to handle the change.

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