Generations and Culture around the world

Updated on 1 December 2009

TomorrowToday is one of the world’s leading generational consultancies. An important part of our suite of services to clients is an understanding of the generation gap, especially focussing on how to attract, retain and nurture the “bright young things”. Our approach is based on multiple sources of research and practical application, including access to the originators of generational theory, Neil Howe and William Strauss, who work out of the USA. We have also done our own extensive research, and have access to country-specific data for South Africa, New Zealand, Mauritius, England, Russia, Hungary, Estonia, Iran, Chile, Australia, China, Japan, the USA and an increasing number of other countries. Our application to different countries is constantly expanding. You can see where we have presented on different generations here.


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There is general global acceptance of the general tenets of generational theory (see an intro to the theory here). There are some specific critiques emerging from certain marginalised cultures within middle class countries (especially from the inner-city African-American communities of the USA), but these are largely critiques of the application of the theory, rather than of the theory itself.

One of the most frequently asked questions about generational theory is whether it applies to non-Western cultures, especially to people living in developing countries. In Africa, for example, there are some people who question the theory’s applicability to black cultures. Many question its applicability in China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

There are a number of responses to these concerns.


1. The theory of generations is a sociological and anthropological model. As such, it deals in generalisations, not specifics. It is in the same style as, “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus”, or Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” – overgeneralisations that are nevertheless filled with truth, and provide a helpful starting point for discussions and understanding.

As with all such models, it has a bell curve distribution of applicability. There are people who do not fit this (or any other) such model of general human behaviour. So, we should not expect the theory to be perfectly predictive in every situation. It provides a high level overlay that can assist us to predict general behaviour patterns, but not individual reactions in specific situations.

A helpful analogy may be that of a forest. Each tree in a forest is unique, with its own colour, height, growth rate and health. To know how a specific tree will grow, you need to analyse that specific tree. However, you can take a group of trees together in a certain part of the forest and make general comments about them. They will receive the same rainfall, grow in the same richness of soil, and receive similar amounts of sunshine. This is similar to psychological models. Then, you can drive 100 kilometres away from the forest to a mountain vantage point and look back over the sea of green. You will notice certain areas of darker and lighter green, of higher and smaller trees and of dense and sparsely grouped regions in the forest. You can make maps of the forest, and identify areas of interest, and then go back down into the forest. Guided by your high level analysis, your detailed analysis of specific areas will be much more fruitful. This is what generational theory can help you to do – to know where to start looking for defining characteristics within a small group of people, such as a team, office, home or church.

2. We are happy to concede that the model is less applicable in rural environments and in very poor areas of the world. Where people have limited access to media and global influence and/or where people are living with daily struggles for mere survival, most sociological models will fall short. People at the lower ends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will not be focusing on self-actualisation issues where generational theory will be most applicable. Therefore, you should only expect generational theory to be applicable in “middle class”› communities.

There are a few researchers doing work on “at risk” communities, and their work is likely to be more helpful in rural areas and areas of vast unemployment.

Having said that, however, the pervasive influence of digital technologies is bringing an homogenisation of cultures to the world. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not just so-called “Western” culture that is being exported to the developing world (although this is a dominant and continuing mega-trend). The developing world has an increasing impact on the developed nations. India refused foreign aid in the 2004 tsunami disaster, and was itself a donor in the region. Indian technology gurus are set to be the rising stars in the next decade or so. Hyundai’s Getz was recently voted the most reliable car in the UK. LG and other Asian brands are pushing for global marketspace – and getting it, with a combination of innovative technology, design and marketing savvy.

The poor nations of the world are now connected. While their banking and economic systems may need more time to fully integrate, global communications have opened up considerably in the past 10 years. In fact, developing nations have been able to leapfrog developed nations, by putting in the latest technology, and not inheriting any legacy systems (such as the USA’s creaking electricity infrastructure and its out of date analog, “tri band” cellphone networks). Many African countries have many more mobile phone users than fixed line users. This is a trend that will continue. It is the younger generations that benefit most, and are affected and influenced most by this rapid leap from pre-technology to post-digital world.

3. In 2001, TomorrowToday.biz did some detailed research with Ogilvy & Mather, Johannesburg (an advertising agency, linked in with the world’s largest WPP group). The research was sponsored by Tholoana Qhobela, a senior executive, and conducted by Kathryn Robinson, O&M’s top researcher. Using data from South African sociomonitor studies stretching back over 20 years (these studies test certain value statement sets over time to plot changes in values), we identified certain key indicator questions that could be used to validate the generational theory. Kathryn analysed the data according to age (groupings of ten years) and race (the four general categories recognised by most South African research). At the same time, TomorrowToday.biz made predictions about what the answers to certain questions were likely to be, according to the age (generation) of respondents. The predictions were tested against the actual data, and a remarkably high correlation was discovered.

In fact, the data indicated that, especially amongst the younger generations, two young people of different racial backgrounds were more likely to be like each other on value issues than either of them was likely to be like their own parents.

This research was developed into a report that won a prize at the SA market Research Association annual convention, and a merit award for research from the global WPP group. One of the reports developed from the research was related to advertising literacy, and is available on request.

Similar studies have been conducted around the world. My own Masters research looked at generational theory in South Africa, using the original research methodology. My thesis applied the results to local churches, but the general research is applicable across many different aspects of life and society. Howe and Strauss host a website that encourages global research based on their theory and generates discussion from different countries and cultures. Follow these discussions at http://www.fourthturning.com.

You may also be interested in a study done by Kelly, the staffing solutions company based in South Africa. In November 2003, they sent out a press release entitled, “Manage the age group, not the race group,”› in which they argue that the younger your employees are the more important age/generations is. In fact, it becomes more important than race as a predictor of behaviour.

4. Especially in South Africa we have a sense of being unique in the world, and immune to global influence. This is not true. In the early 1970s, students protesting against the government caused mayhem on school campuses. The government sent troops onto these campuses, and some students were shot dead. The date was 4 May, 1970. The place was Kent State University, United States of America. A few years later, South Africa’s Baby Boomers did something similar, with similar results, starting in Soweto on June 16, 1976.

From the beginning of the 1970s to the end of the 1980s, the world was in chaos. Everywhere. And then a major tipping point. In 1989 Gorbachev came to power in Russia and announced perestroika and banned the communist party. In South Africa, de Klerk came to power and announced the ending of apartheid, the release of Mandela (he was eventually released in Feb 1990) and unbanned the communist party. In Romania, the dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was overthrown and Eastern Europe opened up. In Germany, students punched the air with the global clenched fist “power salute” as the danced on the Berlin Wall and smashed it to pieces. In China, students did the same on Tiananmen Square, as tanks rolled over them. And America invaded Panama in one of their early “pre-emptive strikes”. All this in 1989 – a tipping point in recent global history. Read more about 1989 here.

A few moments of thought, and a cursory knowledge of your own country’s history may assist you to align the generic generational theories with your own country’s generational history. Certainly in recent decades, global trends have exerted an influence on all countries, including the world’s developing countries. The younger a person is, the more likely that generational characteristics will fit, regardless of their culture or country.

Having said that, however, older generations also display many similar characteristics across different countries, consistent with the predictions of generational theory. In black cultures in Africa, for instance, the older generations are very traditional and conservative. They expect to be respected simply because of their age and social position, and prefer hierarchical structures of control. These, and other characteristics, are consistent with the Silent generation around the world.

5. It is also important to understand that different countries have experienced similar influences, but at slightly different times. In particular, the United States has led most global trends in recent decades, and therefore the effects of those trends would be seen first in the generations in the USA.

So, for example, in the USA, the Boomers are considered to be those people born from 1943-1962. The 1943 year is often cited as it represents the cut off year for the Vietnam Draft. Millennials are considered to be those born 1983-2003(?). The 1983 year is selected as anyone born in 1983 or later graduates High School in the new millennium. Xers are simply the Generation between the Boomers and Millennials, and their start year of 1963 simply identified as being the mid point between 1943 and 1983.

In South Africa, its simpler. South Africans can simply look at the decades, with Boomers being those born 1950-1970, Xers from 1970-1990, and Millennials from 1990 to present. The Millennials are linked to the ending of apartheid and Mandela’s release. The oldest Xers would possibly remember June 16, 1976, and the Boomers are defined from the start date of the National Party’s assent to power and implementing of separate development policies in 1949. There is no doubt that Mandela and his cohort have GI generation characteristics. Neither is there any doubt that Cyril Ramaphosa and his cohort are Boomers. It was their generation that initiated the 1976 student riots, and their generation that is now really cashing in and catching up with the world’s Boomers in unprecedented wealth creation. The current teenagers and university students display very clear Xer characteristics. However, it might be argued that the white Afrikaans Xers have only just recently entered the generational arena, and are a few years “behind”› the cycle. It could similarly be argued that many young black people in the 1960s were disaffected and cynical, and displayed Generation X characteristics earlier than their white counterparts.

The theory is not watertight, nor predictive at every level. It provides a general framework that must still be wisely applied in different countries and cultures.

6. But, finally, we have presented the generational theory to people from every layer of South African society. We have presented it in over forty countries around the world on every continent, and in these venues, have been exposed to people from almost every country in the world. On anecdotal evidence from these participants, we have total confidence that the generational theory, and our particular approach to it, is useful and applicable across multiple cultures and countries, in developed and developing worlds.

Read more about generational theory in our book, “mind the gap!“›, by Graeme Codrington and Sue Grant-Marshall, published by Penguin in July 2004.

Graeme Codrington is a partner of TomorrowToday.biz, a dynamic organisation that is assisting both large and small companies navigate the rich steams of the new economy. Graeme is a sought after local and international speaker, best-selling author and generational expert, with a passion for helping companies choose their futures, get the best out of their “bright young things” and effectively plan for leadership succession.

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