Sleeping with Your Cell Phone, and Other Generational Differences

Girl with cell phoneYou think you’re doing a great job in the lab, while your PI thinks you’re slacking off because you text all the time.
You thought you explained the structure and hierarchy of your department and IC very clearly to a new undergraduate in your lab, but he still gets annoyed when he is not included in discussions and meetings that take place at a higher level.
You understand the needs of fellow students in your grad program and don’t understand why their PIs don’t acknowledge and acquiesce to them.
Whence the origin of all of this conflict? This probably occurred to you while reading the paragraph above (or by reading the post title), but the individuals mentioned above are all members of different generations. Does that matter? According to a myriad of research studies conducted over the past decade, the answer is yes, it does.
Particular events, social, political, and economic conditions, helped shape the behaviors and attitudes of each generation. As these behaviors and attitudes differ by group, it might be helpful to understand the differences in work style, communication style, values, and attitudes of each.
Following are the four generations currently in the workforce:
Traditionalists (b. 1900-1945): 75 million people
Boomers (b. 1946-1964): 80 million people
Generation X (b. 1965-1980): 46 million people
Millennials (b. 1981-1999): 76 million people
Where do you fall? What about the people in your lab? Your PI? Once you identify the particular generation a person is a member of, you can explore characteristics common to that group to understand differences between you.
In When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work, authors Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman conducted surveys and focus groups among different generations of people in the U.S. Based on the data they collected, they describe the generations this way:

  • Like consistency and uniformity
  • Are conformers
  • Prefer conversations that stay with “appropriate topics”
  • Are disciplined
  • Are past oriented and history absorbed
  • Believe in law and order, right and wrong
  • Are best described as loyal


  • Believe in growth and expansion, change
  • Think of themselves as the stars of the show
  • Pursued personal gratification often at a high price to themselves and others
  • Best described as optimistic, competitive

Gen Xers:

  • Are self-reliant
  • Want balance
  • Like informality
  • Unimpressed with authority
  • Are technologically savvy
  • Best described as skeptical


  • Have always been included in major family decisions
  • Expect to be involved in high-level discussions/decisions at work
  • Look for ways to collaborate
  • Respect authority
  • Think their hyper-involved parents are “cool”
  • Best described as realistic

More recently, the Pew Research Center conducted a study of 2,020 adults in the U.S. earlier this year, with an oversample of Millennials. The Pew acknowledges that, “while generations may have personalities, they are not monolithic. There are as many differences within generations as there are among generations.” Still, I think it is worthwhile to take a look at the data they collected this year on the different groups.
When asked about identity, the characteristic most often cited (24%) by Millennials as being unique to their generation was the use of technology. While this characteristic was also cited most frequently among Gen Xers, the percentage was much lower–only 12% of people in this group selected this trait–and this trait was not even among the top five responses listed by Boomers.
And while older generations may use technology regularly, none has so completely fused their social lives into technology as the Millennials. For example, three-quarters of Millennials have created a profile on a social networking site, compared with half of Xers, 30% of Boomers and 6% of Traditionalists (whom the Pew study refers to as “The Silent Generation”). Additionally, a full 83% of all Millennials sleep with their cell phones on or next to their beds, vs. 68% of Gen Xers, 50% of Boomers, and 20% of Traditionalists.
And in terms of frequency of technology use, 80% of Millennials reported texting when asked about usage in the past 24 hours, as compared with 63% of Gen Xers, 35% of Boomers and 4% of Traditionalists. Among those who texted in the 24 hours preceding the survey, the median number of texts sent and received by Millennials is 20, vs. 12 for Gen Xers and five for Boomers. And within the Millennial generation, there are a sizeable number of power-texters. A quarter (25%) say they sent more than 50 messages in the previous 24 hours. 50 a day! This Gen Xer can’t even imagine.
So what does all of this mean for the environment you work in day to day? If we revisit the scenarios described at the beginning of the post, it may be now easier to understand why a PI who doesn’t text regularly feels frustrated by a trainee who texts 50 times a day. Or why a new undergraduate expects to be included in high level discussions. Or why a PI may not see needs perceived as urgent by her graduate students as requiring immediate attention.
How can we mitigate misunderstandings across generations? As with most workplace tensions, conflicts, annoyances, and perceived differences, clear and consistent communication is key. Communicating your wants and needs – as well as communicating back to your supervisor what he/she wants from you – will be essential to making progress in science personally and lab-wide. Keep channels open to avoid misunderstandings, and focus on team/lab goals and outcomes, in addition to your own.
And if you get a chance to read the Pew Report, check out the percentages of tattoos by generation. Can you guess which generation sports the most? 🙂

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