As I watched the #ILTA09 session tweets roll by from @VMaryAbraham, I just got more and more disgusted. Not at Mary, mind you (she was rockin’ with the informative tweets), but rather at the presenter Jason Dorsey and his message. Now, I must give a full disclaimer here and say that I was not in the room for the presentation, but I did watch an interview with him after the session on ILTA TV, and the interview seemed to back up Mary’s Tweets. Jason Dorsey calls himself the “Gen Y Guy”, talks about the differences between the generations in his presentations, and I hear he’s a great presenter. If I get a chance to see him present at another conference, I will make every attempt to be there.

[Creative Commons photo from Lorchaos]
Now that all of the praise is out of the way, I’m going to say that the message I read from Jason’s presentation was one of stereotyping, oversimplification of generational differences, and taking simple known facts and leaping to conclusions about entire sections of our population. In other words, Jason (and many other of the self-help presenters out there) wants to give you a short presentation that will help you compartmentalize people that you work with. When he is finished, you will now have a better understanding of why a Gen Y person is one way, while the Gen X and Boomers are another. Perhaps your Human Resources department has put on one of these little shows at your office. We all walk away with a better understanding of why “Bob is a jerk” and “Sally is lazy.” It isn’t because they have bad personalities or habits… it’s because they are of a particular generation.
I’m always worried about labeling people, and I’m really concerned about labeling groups of people. The labels tend to be too broad, and overly simplistic. It is like taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) tests and saying that everyone fits within four distinct boxes out of a total of 16 potential boxes. The personality tests, and the generation “generalization” can help define how someone might perform as a worker, but I’m always afraid that sessions like these create situations where we stereotype entire groups of people and make it too easy for someone to be labeled as “blank” Generation with “blank” MBTI, therefore slap “blank” label on them.
I have to agree with something I read from Ken Robinson, in his book The Element. Robinson talked about trying to label someone with the 16 categories of the MTBI. “My guess is that sixteen personality types might be a bit of an underestimate. My personal estimate would be close to six billion.” The reason behind this is when you start to place people in boxes it tends to close doors on people rather than opening them.
I understand that Jason Dorsey pulled his research from over 500,000 interviews of Gen Y’ers, and used a lot of research conducted by Strauss and Howe, so I’m not doubting that he’s done the research. However, I did hear Jason give an example in his live interview of how Gen Y’s have a unique experience that helps explain their impatience. He roughly said that Gen Y’s are the first generation to enter the workforce with no expectation of staying with the same company for 30 years and retiring. I can only talk anecdotally here, but from what I remember, the 30 years and retire has been a dying or dead idea for nearly 30 years now. Do I have to start singing Billy Joel’s Allentown from 27 years ago?
Presentations like Jason’s are good exercises in “generalities”, but not for individual application. Be very careful not to over generalize entire groups of people. Remember they are individuals, with individual experiences and capabilities — treat them as such.