December 3, 2023

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When I started middle school, the quiz-industrial complex was booming, which meant I spent much of sixth grade mulling over a set of complex questions: If I were a Hostess snack, which one would I be? Pasta shape? Dog breed? Character in “Full House”? Which house would I have landed in at Hogwarts?

When you’re trying to figure out who you are, it can be soothing to outsource the work to a BuzzFeed algorithm.

As I entered the work force, I realized that the appetite to label ourselves doesn’t dissipate with age — it grows more formalized. Some of my friends even found jobs that required them to take Myers-Briggs personality tests. The results would prepare extroverts to face introverted bosses and go-with-the-flow types to work with Type A supervisors.

But of all the ways of sorting people, there’s little as culturally pervasive as the generational approach. Are you a Tumblr-loving millennial, or a Gen Zer who actually understands TikTok? Is your cultural reference point for office life “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”? You might just be a boomer! Are you often overlooked in conversations about generational differences at work? Sorry, Gen Xer.

For years, the millennial was the punchline of most generational jokes. The cohort was consolidated into a single, gruesome archetype: a hapless cold-brew slurper responsible for the demise of movie theaters, retail, fax machines and gluten. Millennials were fated to never own houses or marry. They worked all the time, but only on their own terms.

Then millennials grew up. They were suddenly running their own companies. And now, they are hiring Gen Z employees.

A few weeks ago my editor, Rachel Dry, approached me with the idea of examining the tension between these older millennials and their Gen Z subordinates. We decided to start with a focus on lifestyle brands founded by and largely catering to millennials, where the entry of Gen Z workers into the office seemed to be exposing striking divisions. I began calling dozens of people in their 30s to ask them about the clashes they saw. My article “The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them” was published last week — and it ignited some fierce Twitter debates over the right and wrong ways to work.

Many researchers are skeptical about analyses of generational divisions, noting that it is limiting to collapse all distinctions except for birth years. But that hasn’t diminished the appeal of generational markers. There’s something resonant about being grouped with the millions of people who came of age around the same time as you and faced similar challenges — whether that meant applying for a first job after Wall Street collapsed or finishing college during the pandemic.

I learned in my reporting that theories about generational division wouldn’t be nearly as popular if it weren’t for their relevance to the workplace. What was once an academic tendency to analyze people according to the global events that shaped them, stemming partly from the 1992 book “Generations,” has become a $70 million industry advising employers on how to market products to various age cohorts or hire them. The commercial focus can make it tempting to dismiss generational analysis as mostly a racket.

Yet as I spoke to managers and executives, I learned that most had stories about shifts they had witnessed. Some said their junior workers insisted on boundaries between work and life; others noted that the youngest employees pushed them to express their values, whether by using gender-neutral language or by demonstrating support for the Black Lives Matter protests.

Those conversations offered promise for workplaces. There were brand-new employees boldly asking their bosses to support movements that mattered to them; there were entry-level staff members who were comfortable saying when they needed a day off. The conflict between millennials and Gen Z may be overplayed, but talking about generational differences is resulting in concrete workplace changes.

As I read through readers’ emotionally charged responses and opinions in the article’s comments and on social media, I also discovered that it’s hard not to react when someone is portraying you as a caricature. Probably for the same reason I could never quit those online quizzes. And in case my bosses care — I’m a Hufflepuff, repeatedly confirmed.