Geography significantly influences the formation of generational beliefs and behavior. Each country's unique social, political, and economic events shape specific views and attitudes among today's adults. Western generational models cannot be applied broadly to a global workforce.
My latest research builds on an approach of understanding the generations by looking at the shared formative events that shaped their early years. We did In-depth research into the events occurring in each country during the time each generational cohort would have been in their teens and pre-teens. Understanding these events is critical because many of our most powerful and lasting beliefs are formed when we are teenagers. What we see and hear — and the conclusions we draw — influence for our lifetimes what we value, how we measure success, whom we trust, and the priorities we set for our own lives, including the role work will play within them.
This research, confirmed through personal interviews, highlights the logic of each generation's response to work and life today, encouraging acceptance and appreciation of the different lenses through which individuals view events. We focused on the generations in eight countries, including the four BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), some of the most important markets for talent over the next decade, as well as one country from the Middle East. We also examined two European countries, the U.K. and Germany, representing the two opposing sides in World War II; the generations shaped by events after the war in these two countries have significantly different characteristics. In each country, we studied four age cohorts. To allow comparisons across the geographies, we held consistent age spans and generational names.
Highlights from this research
National circumstances heavily influenced the development of Traditionalists (born from 1928 to 1945) and Boomers (born from 1946 to 1960).
Traditionalists around much of the world shared the experience of becoming teens in the midst of major, in some cases cataclysmic, changes in their local environment. For many, the defining event was World War II, which had consequences that haunted this generation's formative years in the countries affected. The conditions of the post-war world encouraged the abandonment of colonial policies and the emergence of new states, among them India. China ended its long civil war, and transformed into the Communist People's Republic of China. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was in its infancy, having just been formed through the consolidation of the local tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Brazil was ruled by a dictator.
- Traditionalists in the U.S., the U.K., and other countries on the Allied side in World War II exhibit strong characteristics as "joiners." Most were eager to participate in the post-war boom that created a promising economic climate. This generation experienced the rapid evolution of a middle class that dominated and drove these economies. These members of this generation tended to enter the workforce and advance through affiliation with successful organizations. Most held a strong respect for authority, rooted in their early observations that those in positions of leadership were doing admirable things and warranted respect.
- In contrast, many other parts of the world experienced significant economic hardship, either from the aftermath of the war (for example, in Russia and East Germany) or from the policies of the then-leaders (for example, in Brazil, China, and India). In many cases, leadership demanded compliance, promoting risk-aversion and compliance, rather than respect. Traditionalists reared in these areas retained strong ties to traditional customs and family practices.
Perhaps the factor shared most widely by members of the Boomer generation around the world is simply the sheer size of the cohort. In many parts of the world, birth rates increased during the 1940s and 1950s, producing a large "boom" in the number of adolescents of the 1960s and 1970s. The sheer volume of people their age produced a generation that is generally hard-working, driven, and competitive.
However, within this large cohort, the formative experiences of Boomers differed substantially around the globe.
- In the Western world during their teen years, progressive social values, such as increasing political involvement, civil rights for individuals of different races, and the political and economic liberty of women, became popular. In the 1970s, these values extended to opposition to the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons, the advocacy of world peace, and hostility to the authority of government and big business. The environmentalist movement grew dramatically during this period. In these areas, Boomers tend to share a desire for change, idealism, and anti-authoritarian values.
- Members of this generation growing up in other parts of the world, however, experienced very different conditions. The military coup in Brazil produced a generation with anti-authoritarian views, but limited ability to speak out regarding their desire for change. Similarly, conditions in East Germany and the Soviet Union did not allow for the development of strong generational solidarity against the existing authority. In Saudi Arabia, the rapidly expanding wealth from the oil economy produced a generation that was deeply grateful to those in authority.
- Educational opportunities were a key differentiator for this generation globally. The Cultural Revolution in China shaped a generation that is perhaps more different than any other in this age cohort because of the nearly complete lack of educational opportunities available to members during their teen years. Educational opportunities were limited in India, although those who were able emigrated to other countries for advanced education and work opportunities. In the Soviet Union and East Germany, education became a key differentiator among members of this generation, as the best and the brightest were able to excel in the communist system. Education was an important goal for Boomers in Western countries during these years.
Both Generation X (born from 1961 to 1979) and Generation Y (born from 1980 to 1995) tend to have more shared characteristics in common than do older generations, but for different reasons. For Generation X, the state of the local economy during their formative years had major implications for their outlook on life today.
- In many parts of the world, the economy struggled. In the U.S., the recession of 1981 prompted a major wave of layoffs. In Brazil, the arduous transition from a military dictatorship to civilian rule, along with growing exposure to foreign trade, weakened the local economy and intensified the country's financial crisis. In Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the integration of East Germany came at significant financial cost. In Saudi Arabia, steeply declining oil prices created government deficits for the first time. These different underlying factors all contributed to shaping individuals who value self-reliance. X'ers in these areas tend not to rely on institutions for long-term financial security.
- Members of Generation X in China and India, however, had very different formative experiences. In both countries, sudden reforms brought the promise of new economic opportunity. In India, loosened business regulations and restrictions on foreign investment and imports, along with reductions in bureaucracy spurred a boom in economic activity, including a major expansion of the telecommunications industry and space program and the birth of the software and information technology sector. In China, post-Mao economic reforms de-collectivized the countryside, decentralized government, legalized private ownership, and created Special Economic Zones for capitalist investment. China was exposed to American pop culture, cinema, nightlife, and brands and to a cultural renaissance, the return of traditional Chinese culture, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Living standards, life expectancies, literacy rates rose, along with a growing urban middle class. X'ers in these countries were eager to join the growing economy and willing to compete for still-scarce educational slots.
Members of Generation Y around the world had the greatest number of shared experiences of any of the generations profiled. Technology, of course, is at the core: in most countries, they have had almost lifelong access to digital technology and, because of that technology, have developed a shared awareness of many events, such as terrorist attacks and school violence, and a unique always-on connection with one another.
- One of the key differences among Y's around the world is the degree to which their immediacy translates into a strong desire for financial success; this financial value is clearly strongest in the BRIC countries and others in which the economy is expanding rapidly for the first time. In many Western countries, the sense of immediacy encompasses a broad set of considerations: whether the current work is challenging and important, as well as financially beneficial.
- Of the countries profiled in this research, Saudi Arabia's Generation Y is probably the most different from others in this age cohort around the world. In Saudi Arabia, Y's tend to be more religiously conservative than previous generations and more mistrustful of those in authority, while in most other parts of the world, Y's are both progressive and trusting of authority. Throughout the Middle East, Y's struggle to find balance between tradition and modernity. As recent events show, this generation's large size gives them a strong voice in the future of this region.
Understanding individuals' backgrounds and resultant perspectives or mental models both within generations and across geographies helps leaders grapple with the diversity, challenges, and potential of a global workforce. Better understanding leads to greater empathy for the "other guy's" point of view and, ultimately, provides the foundation for more effective and efficient talent management practices.
Over the next decade, engaging talent from multiple generations and geographies will be vitally important for business success. As businesses expand, the availability of talent to match this growth will be limited in many areas and skill sets. Almost every company will find it challenging to attract and retain top talent unless they are able to engage individuals of all ages and across multiple geographies.
A white paper based on this research is available on my website.