Olivia N. Ford
Gwen K. Sweesy
Published March/April 2022
Boomers don’t understand new technology. Generation X are apathetic. Millennials are killing department stores. Generation Z canceled skinny jeans and side parts. It seems every week there is a new gripe from one generation about another. This isn’t just in popular culture either, as these labels and stereotypes have the potential to bleed over into the legal profession and workplace. It is time we reevaluate how we in the legal profession use and view these generational labels and decide if they offer any valuable information or are just a way to cut down those outside our respective “in-groups.”
Defining the Generations
While there is some debate regarding exactly when one generation ends and the next starts, the Pew Research Center has emerged as the “expert” and deciding voice on the most readily accepted generational definitions. Pew Research Center is a self-described “nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research.”
The disagreement on the definitions of generations, aside from Baby Boomers, is that the start/end dates for each generation are picked arbitrarily. The generation labeled “Baby Boomers” is the only generation that is based on a shared demographic event: the post-World War II baby boom. All of the generations following, and even the silent generation before, were simply lumped together in 14–20-year ranges.
Based upon these age ranges, persons within the Silent Generation group are currently 77-94 years old, Baby Boomers are 57-76 years old, Generation X are 42-57 years old, Millennials are 26-41 years old, Generation Z are 10-25 years old, and Generation Alpha are 0-9 years old. See Figure 1.
Legitimacy of Generational Labels
As previously mentioned, the age/birth year cohorts and the names associated with them are for the most part made up and have no demographic reasoning behind them. Adding to this confusion is the length of different generational groupings changing from generation to generation. The only grouping that is based off a distinct demographic event is the Baby Boomer generation. The remaining labels were created by the media and consultants looking for ways to capitalize on what are perceived differences between the groups to make a profit.
For researchers, consultants, and publication writers and editors, picking the winning label for the next generation and becoming “the” authority on that particular generation can be highly lucrative. Consultants and the media add to this “generational warfare” by making generalized claims about how one cohort is so different from the others, causing companies to pay ridiculous sums to hire experts to explain these differences. The Wall Street Journal and Bobby Duff, author of “The Generation Myth,” report that in 2015, American companies spent around $70 million on generational consulting.
Further proof of the illegitimacy of generational labels is the consistent low and mixed results of people within each generational group identifying with the group they are assigned to. Based on a poll taken by The Atlantic in 2021, only 45% of those polled born in between 1981 and 1996 even identify as “millennials.” See Figure 2. The only individuals polled who overwhelmingly self-identified as the age cohort to which they are assigned were Baby Boomers at 74%. Even more puzzling were the results from a 2015 Pew Research Center survey in which 33% of “millennials” self-identified as “generation x.” See Figure 3.
However, just because generational labels are not supported by empirical evidence, that doesn’t mean similarities do not exist among groups of people that belong to the same generational label or that differences do not exist among people who have been assigned to different generational labels. Rather, the argument is that those similarities or differences cannot simply be attributed to a defined range of birth years. In fact, these similarities or differences are better supported by other factors, such as individual differences, the period of time that people were assessed, external environmental factors, and individual development changes.
Yet, despite the lack of empirical evidence supporting generational labels and the stereotypes that have been attached thereto, we still love to use them. Research has shown that the reason why people gravitate back to using generational labels and accepting reasoning based on stereotypes is because the human brain loves cognitive shortcuts. As David P. Costanza and Lisa M. Finkelstein put it, “[g]eneralizations and heuristics save us time, and anything timesaving is hard to purposefully part with in exchange for commitment to the extra cognitive effort it takes to discern people’s individual qualities.”
Stereotypes associated with generational labels are often false and over-generalizations
Relying on stereotypes that have been assigned to different generational labels is not only fallacious, but it can also be harmful. Most of these stereotypes, beyond the ones sensationalized by the media, are rooted in misguided human perception rather than any concrete evidence. Take for example the classic gripe of older individuals that “kids these days” are in some way lesser regarding a particular trait than when said older individual was the same age.
In a 2019 study, two researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara found that the degree to which an older individual negatively views certain traits of “kids these days” is associated with their current perception of their embodiment of that trait. For example, the researchers asked their sample participants to what extent they believe “kids these days” enjoy reading compared to when they were young, then took an objective measure of how well-read the sample participants were.It was found that the more well-read an individual was, the more they believed “kids these days” do not like to read. This study found the “trait specific tendency to see today’s youth as especially lacking on those traits on which one particularly excels (respect for elders, intelligence, and enjoying reading).”
The use of generational labels in the legal profession among peers or in the workplace lacks any discernible value
Generational labels have no value. Rather than focusing on the stereotypes about a particular generational group, the legal professional, and the workplace as a whole, should shift their focus to the differences among individuals that actually impact performance and outcome. Like we stated previously, the differences that can be seen among different generations exist for reasons, such as social changes, technological changes, and other developmental changes in the workforce, not because of generational memberships.
The age that a person becomes an attorney is not set in stone. Some people opt for the kindergarten straight through law school route and take no time off between high school and undergrad or undergrad and law school. Others may take a year or two off to work before law school, such as these authors, or law may be a second career coming later in life. This variance further blurs the lines and usefulness of generational labels. When two people enter the field of law at the same time, maybe even hired at the same firm, but one is a “baby boomer” and the other a “millennial,” do these arbitrary terms matter or provide any significant information on what they know about the law or how well they work? We think not.
Idaho is unique with our small and cordial bar. Even from our limited time in practice, we both have noticed the welcoming and professional attitudes of our peers all over the state. Generational labels are easy to use and confirm our preconceived, and quite often incorrect, assumptions and stereotypes about those we don’t know outside our own age cohorts. We want to ensure that the civility and professionalism we have had the pleasure of experiencing in our first couple of years in practice continues for all future attorneys joining the Idaho State Bar. Dropping these arbitrary generational labels appears to be one easy way that we in the legal profession, at least here in Idaho, can work towards keeping civility and professionalism at the forefront of our interactions with our peers.
From our perspective, the only generational difference that holds any value in the legal profession is the debate of one or two spaces after a period.
Olivia N. Ford is an associate at Quane McColl, PLLC practicing medical malpractice insurance defense. Olivia graduated from Concordia University School of Law in May 2020 and is a member of the Idaho State Bar Young Lawyers Section and Idaho Women Lawyers.
Gwen K. Sweesy is an attorney at The Law Offices of Maybon, PLLC practicing property, real estate, estate planning, and business law. Gwen graduated from Concordia University School of Law in May 2020.
 Jona Jone, 5 Reasons Baby Boomers are Tech Resistant, (June 8, 2016), https://www.inman.com/2016/06/08/5-reasons-baby-boomers-are-tech-resistant/.
 Lavanya Ramanathan, We Thought Gen X Was a Bunch of Slackers. Now They’re the Suits, (March 1, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/we-thought-gen-x-was-a-bunch-of-slackers-now-theyre-the-suits/2017/03/01/eba47346-f924-11e6-9845-576c69081518_story.html.
 Izzy Greenblatt, Millennials are killing…department stores, (July 16, 2019), https://www.abc10.com/article/life/millennials-are-killingdepartment-stores/103-e066d55e-d8d1-437d-90a5-223917c31035.
 Priya Elan, ‘No skinny jeans’: Gen Z launch TikTok attack on millennial fashion, (February 12, 2021) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/feb/12/no-skinny-jeans-gen-z-launch-tiktok-attack-millennial-fashion.
 Joel Stein, Gen Z Has Arrived At the Office–And It’s Freaking Everyone Out, (December 29, 2021), https://www.lamag.com/article/gen-z-has-arrived-at-the-office-and-its-freaking-everyone-out/.
 Michael Dimock, Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins, (January 17, 2019), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/. See also Joe Pinsker, Oh No, They’ve Come Up With Another Generation Label, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/02/generation-after-gen-z-named-alpha/606862/.
 Id. See also Joe Pinsker, ‘Gen Z’ Only Exists in Your Head, (October 14, 2021), https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/10/millennials-gen-z-boomers-generations-are-fake/620390/.
 Lindsay Gellman, Helping Bosses Decode Millennials—for $20,000 an Hour, (May 18, 2016), https://www.wsj.com/articles/helping-bosses-decode-millennialsfor-20-000-an-hour-1463505666. See also Louis Menand, It’s Time to Stop Talking About “Generations”, (October 18, 2021), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/10/18/its-time-to-stop-talking-about-generations.
 Pinsker, Supra note 7.
 Pew Research Center, Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label, (September 3, 2015), https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2015/09/03/most-millennials-resist-the-millennial-label/9-2-2015_03/.
 Pinsker, Supra note 10.
 Pew Research Center, Supra Note 13.
 David P. Costanza & Lisa M. Finkelstein, Generationally Based Differences in the Workplace: Is
There a There There?, Industrial and Organizational Psychology 3, available at CJO 2015 doi:10.1017/iop.2015.15.
 Id. at 5.
 John Protzko & Johnathan W. Schooler, Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking, (October 16, 2019), 1–2, available at https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aav5916.
 Id. at 2.
 Id.at 3.
 Costanza & Finkelstein, Supra note 16 at 11.
 Pinsker, Supra note 10.
 Costanza & Finkelstein, Supra note 16.