The power of hegemony is that even something with very limited applicability can be packaged as ‘universal’. You want to explore decolonizing instructional design? Start here with how we define, analyze and characterize people. It is a necessary act of epistemic rebellion to stop using these generational categorizations to describe our learners, as if these have any kind of universal validity.

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I’ve noticed an uptick lately among L&D people in the usage of the term ‘digital natives’. And in general, if you happen to hang out on Twitter, Instagram or any other social media, you’re bound to hear different age groups lampooning each other using generation-based labels. This is so common, that for instance, saying “OK, Boomer” or “snowflake” is shorthand for a whole essay of criticism spanning social, political, economic, psychological fronts.

We’ve had clients approach us with concern, even anxiety, about what special learning culture modern youth may have and how the youngest in their workforce have unique needs and high expectations from any training they undertake. How should we cater to all this? Microlearning is the popular refuge, along with anything else that seems to go with social media culture or characteristics.

On all fronts – in-house L&D teams, staff, training vendors, the online world at large – it seems that generational grouping and characterization is de rigeur. If you’ve read anything I’ve written before (like, ever!) you’re probably expecting me to take a totally unfashionable stance and dig in my heels.

…And I live to deliver! Let’s unravel this knot of generational characterization and what drives it, the influences – past and present, conscious and unconscious – that underpin such notions.

Some Useful Background

I like to understand the evolution of ideas to help me see concepts in perspective. Let’s begin with a look at the list of every named generational grouping to have been made so far –

Arthurian Generation1433-1460
Humanist Generation1461-1482
Reformation Generation1483-1511
Reprisal Generation1512-1540
Elizabethan Generation1541-1565
Parliamentary Generation1566-1587
Puritan Generation1588-1617
Cavalier Generation1618-1647
Glorious Generation1648-1673
Enlightenment Generation1674-1700
Awakening Generation1701-1723
Liberty Generation1724-1741
Republican Generation1742-1766
Compromise Generation1767-1791
Transcendental Generation1792-1821
Gilded Generation1822-1842
Progressive Generation1843-1859
Missionary Generation1860-1882
Lost Generation1883-1900
Greatest Generation1901-1927
Silent Generation1928-1945
Baby Boomers1946-1964
Generation X1965-1981
Xennials (Oregon Trail Generation)1977-1985

And then the start of the ‘Digital Native’ categorization:

Millennials (Generation Y)1982-1996
Homelanders (Generation Z)1997-2011
Generation Alpha2012-2023/2024

(Next to come is Generation Beta in 2024/2025)


  1. Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth
  2. The Atlantic

The Undeniable Problems

Some of you may have already astutely realized, looking through that list, that this is a description of the white colonial’s world. The (initial) implicit but deafeningly loud assumption on which this categorization was built, was that Britain was the center of the world. And then, this center eventually shifted to the US. I put it to you, we may not want to embrace a colonial stance and view of the world.

Why are we inundated with this perspective in the first place? The power of hegemony is that even something with very limited applicability can be packaged as ‘universal’. Hegemony is also interesting for us practitioners to consider because instructional design is a field very much still dominated by white people in the US. They have more of a platform at conferences, they are published more in our industry journals. And if you consider even mundane business dynamics, more companies in third world countries seem to ‘feature’ a white consultant as a brand addition, than the other way around. We have an undiscussed power dynamic in our profession and if you ask me, it’s time we challenged it.

For now, let’s at least challenge the relevance and validity of this generational construct. To pretend that these categorizations represent the peoples of Africa, South America or Asia is laughable. When we start talking of millennials in India (as an example) – it makes no sense! Boomers? That would be the first generation born into free India. Did they grow up in a thriving economy, with a high standard of living and the prospects of great savings and security? We were building our newly freed country after centuries of being savaged by white colonial powers. No, our sociopolitical and economic histories are not comparable. We need to stop using such grossly inaccurate, ill-suited terminology and constructs.

You want to explore decolonizing instructional design? Start here with how we define, analyze and characterize people. It is a necessary act of epistemic rebellion to stop using these generational categorizations to describe our learners, as if these have any kind of universal validity.

Even when speaking of learners within the geographies where this categorization may hold true, such as Britain or the United States, the categorization does not adequately consider and represent indigenous peoples or migrants. So, any workforce that is diverse is going to be remarkably poorly represented in this system.

But is all that enough reason to write off the system of categorization, just because it has limited relevance for contemporary workforce composition? Well. That takes us to the next part of this article…

Theoretical Foundation and Robustness of Categorization

The first interesting thing to note: the validity of generational groupings is an ongoing debate among researchers and academics even now. There is no conclusive validation that this grouping is highly useful or reliable or that it makes sense.

I’m no expert in this particular field; with my student’s exposure I’ll share a bit of what I’ve learned. The arguments for and against are nuanced, various and are on highly specific counts such as methodology, study design, interpretation margins, statistical significance, etc. It’s hardly cut and dry, let alone ideal for us in L&D to brandish these terms and characterizations as though they are clear, well-defined and established.

One of the most cited papers I’ve come across on generational differences at the workplace is by Lyons et al. Two of the authors (Lyons and Kuron) also did a comprehensive literature study / review of evidence prior to the later paper I’ve quoted below and they keep referring to the review in the later work to explain the confirmation and development of their thinking. But even in this later paper which defends the notion of categorization, the authors acknowledge these problems nonetheless (emphasis added):

“… (T)he research on this “hot topic” has often seemed opportunistic, lacking rigor and depth.”

“There has been a lamentable tendency toward blind empiricism with little or no connection to theory, as has been stated elsewhere (Lyons & Kuron, 2014; Parry & Urwin, 2011)”

“We concur with Costanza and Finkelstein’s apt warnings about the dangers of relying on weak research evidence and generational stereotypes as a basis for managerial and human resource (HR) decision making, which reiterate similar warnings made in previous reviews of the generational literature (Lyons & Kuron, 2014; Parry & Urwin, 2011; Twenge, 2010)”  

Like I said, not at all a cut and dry concept! Costanza and Finkelstein make our lives clearer when you read their work, because they explain that the construct of generation should be challenged because generational effects are inherently confounded with age (i.e., life cycle) and historical period effects. And more and muchly like this!

On top of this absolute pea soup, we’ve added a garnish – generations exposed to tech from a very early age, whom we club together as ‘digital natives’. Ye gawds.

Then, the Role of Tech

Y’all remember what happened with Knowles? He initially proposed the concept of andragogy, and retracted it after being comprehensively challenged. But, by then, the term had taken on a life of its own and people just ran with it making ever-expanding claims. And it’s out there prowling in the wild even today.

Well, Marc Prensky launched the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ and made assertions about each… with even less basis for these claims. However, by now the claims and conversations about digital natives is a Thing. Apparently, no ragrets.

There’s a beautiful paper cited nearly 5000 times since being published in 2008 by Bennett et al. The paper was a review of the evidence to date for the construct of ‘digital natives’. I of course urge you to read the whole thing, because it’s so wonderfully reasoned and articulated. For now, this is what I want to quote (emphasis added):

“The claim that there is a distinctive new generation of students in possession of sophisticated technology skills and with learning preferences for which education is not equipped to support has excited much recent attention.

Proponents arguing that education must change dramatically to cater for the needs of these digital natives have sparked an academic form of a ‘moral panic’ using extreme arguments that have lacked empirical evidence.

The picture beginning to emerge from research on young people’s relationships with technology is much more complex than the digital native characterisation suggests.

While technology is embedded in their lives, young people’s use and skills are not uniform. There is no evidence of widespread and universal disaffection, or of a distinctly different learning style the like of which has never been seen before.

We may live in a highly technologised world, but it is conceivable that it has become so through evolution, rather than revolution. Young people may do things differently, but there are no grounds to consider them alien to us.”

If the sheer sense in their reasoned position is not persuasive enough, we just need to look at the findings and studies that have emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve a lot of data that underscores the need for a more cautious, reasoned understanding as the authors recommend. We can safely park the entire ‘digital natives’ shtick as just some clever, opportunistic sound bites to garner fame. It certainly isn’t a good construct for an instructional designer to use to profile learners.

In Summary (For Now)

I feel you. All of this may feel like yet another fight about Political Correctness. That’s nothing to get so worked up about, right? I mean setting aside the givens at the heart of any PC issue, what’s the big design implication? What, we want to murmur, is the big deal? Sounds like all we have to avoid doing, is using a certain kind of term to label an audience!

But nope, there’s actually a lot more to it. So, in the next post, I’m gonna lay out for you what happens when an instructional designer uses these messed up constructs to approach a training need. Stay tuned… And in the meantime, keep challenging hegemony in our practice and field!

(A collated list of references will be available at the end of part 2)

Written by Mridula R., Principal Learning Consultant @ Learnnovators

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