Hal Johnson's Reviews > When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work

When Generations Collide by Lynne C. Lancaster
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Apr 10, 2010

did not like it
bookshelves: current-events, embarrassments, pub-2002
Read in January, 2006

It is difficult to describe how bad this book is, but some record of evil must be kept, so we do not forget, in the future, what a fallen world we live in.

The central conceit of the book is that people fall into four generations (Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials), each with its own set of values, etc., and that when these generations fail to understand each other, ClashPoints (TM) ensue. BridgeWorks LLC , a company founded by the two authors, can by hired to give a lecture or consult or something to mitigate the problem. Lynne Lancaster is a Boomer and David Stillman is a Gen Xer; this is important to remember. (Note that I am not exaggerating, and ClashPoints really is trademarked.)

Now, for Lancaster and Stillman to have a job, they need conflict between several generations, and to have such conflict, they need several generations. Really, they need four. It's clear that they decided that four was the minimum they could get away with, because they have mashed several generations together under the rubric "Traditionalists," which they define as anyone born between 1900 and 1944. It is clear that this 44 year period is, in fact, several generations who are already well-known for having distinct identities (The Silent Generation contrasts with the so-called "greatest generation," for example; and really, what possible umbrella can cover people who grew up before WWI (before the modern world, essentially), and those who grew up during the Depression or WWII years?) Anyone who was actually interested in intergenerational conflict could find much to study in the years 1900 to 1944 alone. But, as we shall see, Lancaster and Stillman are not really interested in intergenerational conflict.

Now, many of the Traditionalists, especially the ones who were 102 when the book was written, are no longer in the workforce. In fact, since they are by definition fifty-eight (at the time of writing) at the very youngest, with a median age of dead, it's pretty clear that most Traditionalists have already left the workplace, and are at best a rapidly dwindling minority. But L&S are at great pains to stress that Traditionalists are retiring later, are returning to the workplace in droves, etc. Similarly, Millennials had just started seeping into the workplace in 2002, and almost nothing could possibly be known about their workplace mores unless the workplace were Stop&Shop; but L&S keep mentioning that Millennials are often (how often? not mentioned) getting white-collar jobs at age 14, and so there really is a lot to say about them at work, honest. (The sequel, eight years later, finds the time right to be all about Millennials' "M-Factor.")

Why the desperate need to shoehorn Traditionalists and Millennials into a framework they don't fit in? Because without these two generations, the book would just be about Boomers and Gen Xers. And that would be too obvious. Well, needless to say, the book actually is about Boomers and Gen Xers, and the occasional nods to sassy grandmas and techno-whiz tweens cannot obscure this fact. Like all good Boomers and probably the majority or Gen Xers, Lancaster and Stillman want to write about themselves. And, indeed, time and again Traditionalists are lumped in with Boomers as having a common set of values, while Millennials are lumped together with Gen Xers, in opposition to the old guard. This is not a book about four generations, it is a book about two generations with minor subsidiaries; in fact it is not a book about generations at all, or at least not about the unique cultures of individual generations. In their ClashPoints (TM) examples, Gen Xers/Millennials tend to be rebellious, less respectful of authority, casual, etc., while Boomers/Traditionalists are statelier, respectful, formal, etc. Every anecdote about the ClashPoints (TM) between Lynne and David are indistinguishable from a scene in a buddy cop movie; they are also indistinguishable from any conflict between a younger person and an older person. The term "generation gap" was coined to describe the disconnection between Boomers and their parents (i.e. Traditionalists), but Boomers are now, in this book, disconnected not from the older generation, but from the younger. That is to say, the gap is not between two generations and their cultures, it is between the young and the old in general. Now you can argue whether this statement is true or not, that is to say you can argue whether the culture of our generation has more or less impact on our behavior than our age does, but that's not the point. The point is that, if you take the facts in this book at face value, the very concept on which the book is based is flawed. (More importantly, L&S would be out of a job.)

Not that it matters, because the facts are all lies. L&S write in a breezy, speech-ready style that is mainly anecdotes linked by cliches, and the anecdotes are made up. Here's a patently false example of a ClashPoint (TM), this one between Gen Xer Stillman and his Millennial babysitter. The babysitter has just asked Stillman where he and his wife had dinner:

"'Well,' he [David Stillman] announced just a little pompously, 'we actually ate at Cafe Brenda.'

"'Oh, I love that place, it's so fat. "

"'Really?' David replied. 'That surprises me, because they pride themselves on low-fat cooking!'"

There are several reasons to doubt the veracity of this anecdote. In the first place, if Cafe Brenda is so swank that wealthy consultant Stillman preens over eating there, why is the adolescent babysitter intimately knowledgeable of its cuisine? In the second place, no one talks that way ever. And most importantly, David Stillman is a fool. This is a sitcom mistake, not a real mistake. Everyone under the age of fifty knows what "phat" means (the variant spelling is introduced in a subsequent paragraph), and, even if one didn't, one could tell from context that the traditional meaning of "fat" does not make grammatical sense in the babysitter's sentence. She didn't say "fattening."

But in case you think this story might be true, here's an anecdote from 304 pages later:

"A Traditionalist boss overheard his Millennial intern talking on the phone.

"'Man, my boss is so fat!'

"The Traditionalist is disgruntled. Sure, he put on a few pounds over the winter, but what is this punk doing insulting him?!"

Oh, and "?!" sic, I assure you. What a remarkable coincidence that the same misunderstanding happens twice. It's almost as if L&S don't know anything about Millennials except that the word "phat" is their ultimate expression of approbation. Also that Millennials are full or energy, are optimistic but naive, etc. In other words, they're just like any kids, except they say "phat" and are called Millennials.

Another example of an anecdote that is clearly a lie: This is a verbatim transcription of a message left about a video project on Boomer Lynne Lancaster's answering machine by an "extreme editor":

"'Uh, dude, I'm a little concerned about the middle montage, it's looking radically raw....Not to worry, we're doin' it digital, we can slice and dice and mix and match, it's going to look stellar, but hook me up with the 411 if you have any questions or I'll just assume you'll call me at three bells.'"

Ellipsis in the original. So this is allegedly an example of Gen X patois, although it sounds more like what a Mountain Dew ad exec thinks Gen Xers sound like than what an real human being sounds like. Three bells? Radically raw? Is this a ninja turtle on the phone?

However, my scoffing is not evidence of mendacity. This is my evidence.

One of the two writers of the book (it appears to be Stillman) is enamored of the word "stellar." This is a perfectly cromulent word, even if not used in its sidereal sense, but it's not exactly an everyday word. But it appears in the book a lot. I didn't start counting until halfway through the book, but once I did I got:

"...the networking and learning opportunities are stellar..." (p177).

"A Baby Boomer supervisor recently complained that he lost a stellar Traditionalist candidate..." (p187). (Incidentally, the book is full of sentences like this.)

"Stellar" is also used on pp198, 226, 243, 253, 316...I probably missed some as my eyes glazed over in the second half of the book. The point is, these guys sure do say "stellar" more often than anyone else in history.

Now go back to the answering machine message, and look for the shibboleth: "It's going to look stellar." A nice try, Lancaster & Stillman, but you are not fooling anyone.

Of course, this generation-as-stereotype is typical of L&S's method. They have one or two adjectives that describe a generation (Boomers are competitive (they had to be, there were so many people competing for jobs, Lancaster whines constantly), Gen Xers are freewheeling, etc.), and they apply them again and again. There is nothing to be learned about generations from this book that could not have been learned from watching, say, three hours of primetime TV.

But it is one of the pitfalls of the motivational speaker (or whatever these guys are) that they confuse cliches with wisdom. Here's L&S again:

"Tried-and-true training courses that have stood the test of time are fine..."

I suppose this might be a reference to Van Halen's "Why Can't This Be Love" ("Only time will tell / If we will stand the test of time"), but I suspect it is instead just what you get when you write without thinking. I mean without thinking about anything ever. At this point we should all read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

Speaking of writing without thinking:

"Managing the boss is older than Brutus and Cassius managing Caesar, and done wrong it can be as dangerous as Sonny and Fredo crossing the Godfather."

Was Brutus and Cassius' managing of Caesar somehow not dangerous? I'd call that dangerous. Two years after their managing of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius were both dead. Notice that the Classical (or Shakespearean) reference will appeal to Boomers, while the pop-culture reference will grab the attention of Gen Xers.

And a final excerpt to show just how little thought went into this book:

"After the shooting at Santee High School in Southern California, counselors convened a large group of high school students to talk about the basic things everyone could do to make the school environment less hostile and alienating. The number one suggestion was that students should make eye contact and exchange greeting in the hallways, rather than treating one another as if they were invisible."

I don't know what kind of high school you went to, but if I in my mid-sized suburban high school half the size of Santee High (actual name Santana High School; Santee is the name of the town, I discovered after four seconds of research) had stopped to acknowledge each person I passed, I never would have made it to the next class. What kind of Kafkaesque nightmare would a large school become? Reading sentiments like this is frankly embarrassing for everyone involved.

Look, the point is that this book is stupid, false, and poorly written. And you can hire these people to tell their lies to you.
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