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Confounding generations?

At the recent Online Educa Berlin, Laura Overton of Towards Maturity presented some stats in our joint session.  While she mentioned that she really had to look for results where there were differences by age, she of course found some. (Which already is a problem; 5% of results are likely to be significant by random chance!). However, in at least one case I think the results is explained by another factor than generations (not that she was making the claim). In those statistics was an interesting result that I want to look at from two different perspectives.

So, this result, one of the most striking, was that 64% of those 21-30 were motivated to learn to obtain certification, while only 22% of those over 50 were so motivated.  That really seems like to might fit the generational differences story, where over 50s, the baby boomers, differ from the millennials.  Here, the millennials are worried that the world is not a safe place, and want accreditation to help preserve their access (my rough story based upon millennial descriptions). And the baby boomers are more positive and trusting, so consequently feel less drive for certification. Or create your own explanation for the divergence based upon the differences between the generations.

Ok, what struck me is that there’s a totally different explanation: those in the 21-30 range are young and new. They want certifications to support their advancements, as they don’t have a lot of experience.  Those who are older have real experience to point to, and have less need for external validation of their learning.  Here what we’re seeing is that this is not related to generations, but by age.  And that’s very different explanation for the same phenomena.

The core point is that if the generational explanation would be true, this would stay true as these generations aged. The millennials, at age 50, would still care more about certifications.   If it’s more a ‘stage of life’ thing, as they aged they’d care less, but those folks who were growing into that younger range would also demonstrate the differences.

The problem is that there are confounding explanations for the same data.   So what else do we look at?  Interestingly, in my research about what the data says, I’ve found several studies that show that when you ask folks what they value in the workplace, there is no significant difference by generation.  That is, generations as defined by societal circumstances at the time of growing up doesn’t have an impact on workplaces.

Now, there have been a few exceptions, including the above (and I’ll reiterate, Laura wasn’t make a generational claim for this), but the question then becomes whether there are other explanations for the differences, such as age, not context.  Could other factors, such as natural age differences, create a perception of generational differences that truly isn’t persistent?

Ok, I’ll buy that WWII was a global event and the impacts were clear and measured.  But other than that, sure there were landmark popular culture elements and zeitgeists, but I think most of the other defining characteristics are nowhere near as clearly delineated in impact (I’ve heard claims of divorce, latchkey kids, etc being generational factors), and I doubt that they’re sufficiently delineated to create the defining characteristics that are proposed.

My take home?  Be suspicious of someone pushing a particular viewpoint without scrutiny of alternate hypotheses (including mine).  There may be a better explanation than the one someone has a vested interest in pushing.  Is there a real millennial difference?  Certainly the so-called ‘digital native’ myth has been debunked (e.g. no better at search queries or evaluating results of same than any others), so maybe we want to be wary of other claims.  I’m willing to be wrong on this, but my research says that the data seems to point to other explanations than defining generations.  What say you?

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