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All Your Context

You are a product of your times.

by Andy Hunt

Generic image illustrating the article
  Are you a phophet, a nomad, a hero, or an artist? Andy explores how your generation shapes your thinking.  

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

—Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Have you ever viewed a new technology suspiciously and felt it went “against the natural order of things?” Are you stunned and sorely amazed that your parents and/or older siblings have so much trouble with simple things such as email, or the difference between a Word document and a JPG image?

Douglas Adams captures the symptoms of the problem very concisely. Depending on when you are born and when you are introduced to certain technologies, they’ll seem completely normal or utterly foreign. Those things you’re introduced to early in your life you consider “natural”—you can’t imagine a world without them, because they’ve always been there (to you). You have some capacity to embrace the new and master it, for a while, but then that wears thin and it’s just too much new weird stuff.

Why is that?

I’m always reminding people to be aware of the context. Everything that happens does so within some context—that is, all of the circumstances that form the setting of some idea or event. But “all of the circumstances” that affect an event covers a huge area.

There’s the obvious local context, of course: particulars of your current job and project, the tools and languages in use, your recent professional experience and so on. All of that influences you, but the effective context stretches far beyond that, to your values and attitudes that are so ingrained you wouldn’t even think to question them. But these values can dramatically affect your judgment and your perception: from what counts as “good” or not, to what counts as “cool” as opposed to “unnatural.”

For example, some folks value the stability of their job at the expense of any amount of abuse from their boss. Other folks will pack up and quit at the slightest perceived offense. Folks who are driven to work all hours can’t understand the folks who cheerfully pack up at 5 p.m. and head home to be with their family, and vice versa.

You can assign many of these value differences to individual variation. People are people, and we’re a messed up and diverse lot. But despite that inherent diversity, when you look at large groups of people, some commonality emerges.

You are a product of your times—perhaps much more so than you think. The attitudes, philosophies, and values of your parents and your cohorts (those born about the same time as you; your peers throughout school and in the workplace; members of your generation) have a tremendous impact on your values, attitudes, and perceptions. Folks born at different times will experience the world in very different ways.

For instance, as far as the freshman classes these days are concerned, MTV has never featured music videos (in case you haven’t been paying attention for the last decade, MTV focuses on reality TV shows, celebrity gossip, and news). Russia has always had multiple political parties. Stadiums have always been named for corporations.

They’ve never “rolled down” a car window or “dialed” a phone. Johnny Carson has never been on live TV; Pete Rose has never played baseball. The Web has always been around; so has Dilbert.

These differences in viewpoint can cause some very funny misunderstandings. A few years ago, a babysitter we had hired gazed in wonder at our kitchen phone. “Mr. Hunt, what a wonderful idea,” she said, “to tie up your phone so people won’t walk away with it! Just like the pens at the bank.”

She had no idea why else you’d have a cord on a phone. It’s typical in her generation’s world experience that all phones are cordless landlines, or cell. The idea of a corded phone as a technological necessity was alien to her.

The Four Archetypes

Each generation has its own quirks, but there’s a pattern. There are only four distinct kinds of generations, and the cycle of four repeats.

According to researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss (see Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 and a nice summary in The Next 20 Years: How Customer and Workforce Attitudes Will Evolve), if you look back through American history in the United States and Anglo-American history in Europe all the way back to the Renaissance, you’ll find only four prototypical, generational archetypes.

These four types repeat over and over again, in a continuing cycle. For the last twenty or so generations in America since the Pilgrim-laden Mayflower landed here in the 1620s, there was only one exception: Following the Civil War, one generation was so badly damaged that they never took their place in society, and the adjoining generations (especially the older generation) filled in the gap.

These generational generalizations help us understand why people value the things they do, and remind us that not everyone shares your core values or your view of the world.

Here are the four generational archetypes and their dominant characteristics:

  • Prophet: Vision, values

  • Nomad: Liberty, survival, honor

  • Hero: Community, affluence

  • Artist: Pluralism, expertise, due process

Strauss and Howe’s research explores how each archetypical generation can create the next: archetypes create opposing archetypes in a typical example of the “generation gap.” But that generation then creates one that opposes it, and so on.

We’ll ignore the under-twenty set for the time being and take a closer look at each of the grown-up generations in turn.

The GI Generation, 1901–1924 (Hero)

This generation produced the first Miss America and propagated the idea of the all-American athlete. They built the suburbs and moon rockets, and they fought valiantly in World War II.

The command-and-control, rigidly hierarchical military metaphor for business—and then for software development—has its roots here.

The Silent Generation, 1925–1942 (Artist)

Next up, the gray-flannel conformists. This generation vastly expanded the legal system and continues a distinct focus on due process but not necessarily on decisive action.

As a possible example, consider a recent Iraq Study Group report, staffed largely by folks in this age group, which listed seventy-nine recommendations but not a single action item.

This group generated—and enjoyed—unprecedented affluence.

The Baby Boom Generation, 1943–1960 (Prophet)

Ah, the Baby Boomers. Perhaps the most recognizable—and largest—generation, formed in the heyday of post—World War II optimism.

This group engendered a dramatic increase in crime rates, substance abuse, and risk taking in general. The tendency for this generation is to see themselves as arbiters of national values; they have always wanted to “teach the world to sing.” (Remember the 1970s Coca Cola commercial?)

But this inherent desire to save the world doesn’t manifest itself in particularly realistic or pragmatic ways. This group is less interested in outcome and more interested in approach. Their moralizing, which reflects their all-important values, may sound preachy to other generations.

Generation X, 1961–1981 (Nomad)

One of the best descriptions I’ve read of Gen X described them as being “raised by wolves.” These are free agents, with an inherent distrust of institutions. They form the greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history.

Fiercely individualistic, and perhaps a bit on the dark side, they’ll just quit and move on if there’s a problem at work. They resist being labeled at all costs. They might be viewed as undisciplined by other generations, or they might be accused of not playing by the rules.

This group is less interested in civics, believing that one-on-one involvement is more effective. They are quite pragmatic, working for a positive outcome regardless of any particular ideology or approach.

Millennial Generation, 1982–2005 (Hero)

In this generation, the pendulum swings away from individualism toward greater team-based work; there’s a decrease in risky behaviors and a noticeably less edgy approach than their Gen X or Boomer predecessors. They are loyal to the organization and not nearly as entrepreneurial as the Gen X’ers.

Although they don’t set out to save the world, they do have a greater emphasis on civics, and they expect that those in authority will fix the problem.

All Together Now

In today’s culture, we have a unique situation, one that has not happened before. We have all these generations present in the workplace at the same time, interacting with each other, getting along—and sometimes not.

While working at a large Fortune 10 company that shall remain nameless, I had the good fortune to be mentored by an older professional who took an interest in me. Even though it was early in my career, I had significant skills in Unix that my peers did not, and so this fellow saw—and adopted—a kindred spirit.

For several years we worked together; he showed me undocumented, arcane tricks and tips, and I showed him advanced theory from my then-recent degree. But the day came when I announced I was leaving that company. He basically never spoke to me again.

He was of the Silent generation that valued company loyalty—for life. My departure was an unpardonable sin to him. Although that attitude seems quaint and old-fashioned now, it was widely held at the time. I was seen by many in the organization to be a troublemaker—a disloyal maverick who wasn’t playing by the rules. In fact, I was just acting as a typical X-er ready to move on, having learned what I wanted to learn and having tired of the commute.

Today, of course, the prevailing cultural attitude has shifted. It’s not generally expected that you should stay with one company for more than a few years. But that will change. The Millennial generation may well come to embrace loyalty, favoring hierarchical, strong organizations. They will react to their collective perception that the Boomers are preachy and impractical and the X-ers are lazy and undisciplined.

Each generation’s reaction to the perceived weakness of the immediately preceding generations creates a repeating pattern over time. In this case, the generations after the Millennials will react to their values, and the cycle repeats.

And I think the most striking thing to me personally is to realize that not everyone sees the world the way I do. Although I can see the Boomers’ point of view on many levels, that group’s ascribed lack of pragmatism—often placing their own values ahead of practicality—frustrates me. Not everyone values pragmatism; this group values ideals more. My approach to pragmatism can be seen as “cheating,” as in “You’re just doing that because it works.”

Well, that is the general idea, as far as I’m concerned. Do it because it works.

But that’s my viewpoint, probably typical of my generation and probably not typical of others. Each generation faces these kinds of conflicting approaches with adjacent generations. And members of each generation will tend to defend their inherent approach above others.

How This Affects You

Not everyone shares your deep-seated values, and that doesn’t mean you’re right or they’re wrong. Instead, look at the context.

Context remains king; sometimes it may be more appropriate to stick to your principles regardless of consequences, as a Boomer might. In other situations it is clearly better to take a pragmatic approach, as an X-er. Command and control hierarchies have their place and can be quite effective; that’s why they are popular (and not just with the GI generation). But in other circumstances, such as many commercial software development projects, a rigid hierarchy is disastrous.

It’s likely that you will naturally prefer an approach that has values favored by your generation. But realize where this influence is coming from. Perhaps your fierce individualism isn’t a trait unique to yourself. Perhaps many of the characteristics you admire in other people and aspire to attain in yourself don’t come from any deep reasoning or logical basis but instead from the times in which you were born.

Bear that in mind as you passionately argue for or against a topic. Are you making a logical argument, an emotional one, or just a familiar one? Is it the right argument in this particular context? Have you really considered other points of view? Does their opinion make more sense when viewed through the lens of generational bias?

The best way to keep from falling victim to your generation’s particular set of biases is to embrace diversity on your project team. If you and your team all think alike, you might see your reinforced collective viewpoint as the only viable one. It’s not. Just because you treasure your approach, your individualism, or your teamwork doesn’t mean that younger or older folks will share that view or that it’s the right answer in this context.

But as with many things, feedback is the final arbitrator. Whatever you do, get feedback on how it’s doing, and do so very quickly. Whether it’s unit tests for code, or goals for a meeting, or the warm glow of happy users from a demo, don’t trust in your own biases to prove you right. Put the proposed solution in context, and see if it really works.

Because context, after all, is king.

Andy Hunt is a Pragmatic Programmer and the author of Pragmatic Thinking and Learning.

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