Forget about generational labels like baby boomer or millennial. In his latest book, Mauro Guillén envisions a postgenerational society in which people are no longer bound by the limits or stereotypes of age.
This special series of the Ripple Effect podcast features leading Wharton faculty authors in lively, fast-moving conversations about their research and latest business books.
Why Generation Gaps Can Be Harmful
Dan Loney: The new book you have written is titled The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society. Give us a little bit of the back story as to why you wrote this book.
Mauro Guillén: I wrote this book because the world is changing very fast, specifically in two ways: We’re living longer, and we’re staying healthy for a longer period of time. And that upsets the way in which we’ve traditionally thought about living our lives, which was to go from one stage to another. First we play, then we learn, then we work, and then finally we retire. That is now an old model that is falling apart. The second very important trend is technology. Technological change is enabling us to do certain things that before we wouldn’t imagine doing at different ages.
Loney: In this book, you also talk about the generational labels that we’ve added into our culture over the last couple of decades. You say that we’re going to move away from those labels in the future. Why?
Guillén: We have to move away from generational thinking because they are stereotypes, for the most part. Generations are very diverse, and the differences that we attribute to different generations are actually not real. Most of the time they’re fuzzy concepts. This has been informing for the longest time marketing, advertising, the way we live our lives, also learning. It’s about time that we started to think about individuals and their worth and their values and their aspirations as individuals, as opposed to labeling them part of a generation, and then attributing to them certain yearnings and certain goals in life.
Loney: Have those labels, maybe not intentionally, had some negative impacts along the way?
Guillén: Oh, absolutely. People, as soon as they get labeled as millennials or whatever, they revolt against that because that is negating their individuality. How come everybody who is a millennial behaves in the same way? That’s not true, right? There’s a very big difference between a millennial in New York City who attends college and a millennial in Iowa who works on a small farm. They are completely in two different worlds, and their behavior is very different as well.
Loney: How do we move away from those labels? It would seem quite the challenge to do that, especially since they’ve become ingrained in our society.
Guillén: As human beings, we have this tendency to categorize and then to generalize about those categories. This is just a human tendency, which can be very, very misleading if not destructive. We need to work very hard at recognizing people’s individuality and being a little bit sharper about how we make decisions in the world, not necessarily driven by generational membership.
Loney: Part of this is also the fact that our culture has changed so much in the last couple of decades, when you think about what the family was 30 or 40 years ago compared to what it is these days.
Guillén: Oh, absolutely. Here in the United States, the nuclear family was 40% of all households. That’s two parents and at least one kid, maybe two — a refrigerator, a garage, a TV, and a dog, right? That was a nuclear family. But nowadays, it’s only 18% of all households in America that are nuclear families defined that way.
Loney: You talk a little bit in the book about how retirement and health play into this path we’re headed on.
Guillén: I think more and more people are realizing that retirement has been oversold. There are many good things about retirement, but also really bad things. You get disconnected. You get bored. You get isolated. You get lonely. There is always something that we can do, either for pay or not for pay. Even when we are in our late 60s or early 70s. Here is one of the most important messages in the book, which is we used to say that the future belongs to people in their 20s, to the young. I actually make the opposite argument in this book. The future belongs to people above the age of 60, which is counterintuitive, but this is becoming very quickly the largest age group in America and in other countries around the world. This is going to be the largest consumer segment. And remember, they are also working, so they are really important in companies and other types of organizations. The future belongs to people above the age of 60, so then we are in luck!
Loney: Well, I’m getting close there.
Guillén: Me, too.
The Benefits of Overcoming a Generation Gap Mindset
Loney: How do you categorize a perennial?
Guillén: A perennial is somebody who doesn’t think or act their age. It’s people who refuse to comply with age stereotypes. For example, it’s people who decide, “I can learn at any age, not only when I’m young,” or, “I can work at any age.” Or, “I can do this or that at any age, without having to conform with the kinds of norms or stereotypes that tradition has told us that we should follow.” This is really important, because I think it opens up a universe of new possibilities and opportunities for people.
Loney: That’s obviously where the technology ties in, because technology has opened so many more doors for people at all ages.
Guillén: Technology has both a negative and a positive effect. The negative effect is that people in their 40s and 50s are being displaced by technology. They find it very hard to find their footing and to switch to something else. At the same time, technology also helps with that. For example, online learning, which is becoming so important in the world. Because it’s so much easier for somebody in his or her 40s or 50s to learn via technology than having to move to another city and attend school and move into the dorm. So, technology has both effects — a negative one, but also a positive and enabling one.
Loney: Is part of the goal to try to drive more of a level playing field for everybody?
Guillén: Absolutely. I think that the perennial society is one in which opportunities are more widely available to more people. Remember, under the old system, if you miss a transition — for example, missing out on a promotion — you were kind of left behind. I think our new perennial economy is one in which no matter what you do, you don’t have to comply with these timings, with these transitions that are at very specific moments in your life.
A lot of people actually fall through the [cracks], and they cannot advance. I think this new way of thinking about the economy, thinking about jobs, thinking about everything will help people who, for whatever reason, don’t get ahead in life at the moment they’re supposed to, according to the old way of doing things.
Loney: How does this mindset around perennials potentially impact things like policy, culture, and organizations?
Guillén: Culturally, I think to the extent that we have more people following a perennial way of life, it’s going to change everything. We see workers now who are grandparents and asking for grandparent leave because they want to spend time with their grandchildren. This is something that was unimaginable 20 years ago, and companies are having to adjust.
But I think the biggest effect will be on policymaking. We need laws, and we need regulations to get updated, to recognize that age is not a determinant as it used to be, that now we live longer, and we stay healthier longer. Some of the assumptions that we were making about what is age-appropriate and what is not have to be abandoned.
Who Is Prepared to Close the Generation Gap?
Loney: Do some of the changes going on now in our culture, especially coming out of the pandemic, play into understanding the need for policy change?
Guillén: Oh, absolutely. I think the pandemic was this huge event, but also a policy experiment. We introduced companies and governments to new measures to tackle the pandemic, but measures that, even after the pandemic, are going to have a long-term impact, like remote work and remote learning. I think the pandemic was a watershed, a before-and-after kind of moment, and things got accelerated. Especially, this transition towards what I call the postgenerational or the perennial society was accelerated by the pandemic.
Loney: How are these changes going to impact innovation?
Guillén: Just to give you an example, the workplace is becoming so much more intergenerational or multigenerational with people of very different ages working side by side. We know from research, including research conducted here at the Wharton School, that more diverse teams are more innovative, more creative, and more productive. So far, we have been thinking about that diversity at the team level in terms of gender or ethnicity or background. But I think we also need to start thinking about it in terms of age. Age diversity is also conducive to more creativity, productivity, and innovation.
Loney: Are businesses ready to accept these changes?
Guillén: Not really, because still what we see is that companies, especially the larger companies, continue to discriminate against both young and old workers, depending on what the issue is. They tend to attribute certain types of behavior to young people versus old people. I think those kinds of assumptions need to also be abandoned.
The number of companies that are thinking about promoting a multigenerational workplace is growing by leaps and bounds, starting from a very low level, of course. We also see that more and more people above the age of 30 are attending school, most of them virtually. In the United States, more than 30% of the population right now is attending some kind of learning program online. So that’s a big change.
We’re also seeing, for example, the rise of multigenerational households. It’s still below 10%, but that’s a start. We have a long road ahead of us.
Loney: Is the multigenerational family going to be more broad-based, because I think to a degree it has been set in certain cultures.
Guillén: Well, sure, it has a lot to do with immigration and with immigrant cultures where the extended family plays a very important role. But now we’re seeing more and more families from the mainstream actually thinking that maybe a multigenerational household, where you have more than two generations living together, is a great arrangement. Some researchers at Columbia University have found that actually it leads to better health outcomes, including mental and physical health.
I think that this is social growing. Don’t think about multigenerational households as poor households. In fact, the poverty rate among multigenerational households is only half as high as the poverty rate for the overall American population. And the average income of a multigenerational household is $120,000, which is way above the median income for the United States, which is more like $50,000 or $60,000. There’s an increasing number of multigenerational households that have chosen this arrangement, not for economic reasons, but because they wanted to experiment with this new way of life.
This is going on in many countries around the world. It’s going on in Europe. It’s going on in Japan. It’s going on in China. It’s going on in many different parts of the world. It’s not just the United States.
Loney: Does the public have a greater voice in the say with a lot of these changes that are going on?
Guillén: Absolutely. What I call “the perennial way of life” is something that gives all of us more opportunities at different points in time during our lifetimes. I think this is something that will empower all of us. Again, it’s kind of like removing handcuffs or a chain that we used to have, constraining us in terms of what we could do.
Loney: What is the takeaway for readers?
Guillén: The big takeaway is you don’t have to organize your life in terms of your age. There are constraints, of course. We do get old, and we lose certain types of abilities as we grow older. But I think that age is not the determining factor, that the sky’s the limit, that you can do all sorts of things at different ages. By the way, we’ve also seen that in entrepreneurship. How many entrepreneurs do we have in the United States who are below the age of 20? They are teenagers, right? That didn’t used to be the case 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Entrepreneurs were a little bit older than that.
In companies now, what we have is a lot of people reporting to a boss who is younger. That also wasn’t the case at IBM, let’s say, which was the quintessential American corporation in the 1950s.
Loney: Does it change the mindset around the older generational worker coming back and providing insight and impact on the company longer term?
Guillén: Absolutely, and what we’re seeing in the workplace is increasingly this inverse mentoring or reverse mentoring — younger workers mentoring older workers, and older workers contributing to the development of younger workers. Once again, the effect at the end is to eliminate age as a primary determinant of all of these social relationships at work.