Have you ever noticed the lack of intersectionality considered in generational research? I mean, we see it all of the time– 43% of Millennials say this… or 75% of Gen Z says that. Don't get me wrong, this information is useful. It serves as great context and a helpful backdrop for seeing and beginning to understand the people around us. I use it often.
However, I can’t help but notice how rarely, if ever, the generational research we often see, consume and talk about examines, or even acknowledges, how data and insights might differ across intersecting identities. Race. Ethnicity. Social economic status. Sexual orientation. Gender identity. All of these, and more, are critical parts of our identities as humans that shape our experience of the world and how the world views and treats us. It is therefore critical to consider how these various identities intersect and collide to drive that shaping. To understand how, and why, we must first start by understanding what intersectionality is.
What is intersectionality?
When sharing with my audiences about DEI foundations and key terminology, I often first ask how many people (in the space) are familiar with the term intersectionality and its meaning. Usually, about 40% are and 60% are not. I always find it worth explaining.
Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. It was conceptualized and coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and has since become “a mainstay concept of critical race studies, feminist studies, queer studies, the sociology of globalization, and a critical sociological approach, generally speaking. In addition to race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, many of today's sociologists also include categories like age, religion, culture, ethnicity, ability, body type, and even looks in their intersectional approach”.
I am proposing that generational research, too, apply this intersectional approach.
Why Consider Intersecting Identities?
When we assign attributes to generations of layered, multifaceted human beings (from studies where findings typically lack transparency around participant makeup), and not actually consider those layers and facets in doing so, we are doing one another and ourselves a disservice, and furthermore, an injustice. Firstly, we are ignoring the full range of lived experience, blindly marking the reality of some, the reality of all. That “some” is typically the majority. When we do this, we fail to see and consider the nuance that the data may reveal to us.
Secondly, we stand to miss critical cuts in the data that may tell a completely different, and more helpful story, to those engaging with our work, using it to make critical decisions and plans.
Lastly, when we look at how identities intersect, we see the unique lived experiences—of ourselves and others—through the lens of privilege, oppression, power, and marginalization. We should be using these lenses when examining, and certainly when teaching, on generational information.
How Could Intersecting Generational Data Help Us?
Consistently considering intersecting identities in generational research and data reporting will help us better understand the groups we seek to lead, motivate, engage and connect with. It will provide more accurate assessments of generational characteristics, trends, etc., leading to deeper use and better results. As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” The more we know and the deeper we know it, the better our output will be.
To crystalize the potential benefits of incorporating intersectionality in generational research, here is an example of how understanding intersecting identities might lead to us thinking and doing differently in our organizational pursuits, whatever they may be.
Example - Gen Z and geography
Imagine your organization is looking to recruit recent college graduates. You look at stats and you find that only 42% of Gen Z find location very important when considering a job. Your organization is simultaneously dedicated to diversifying its employee base, so recruiting Gen Zers with diverse backgrounds is also of importance.
Believing what you've come to understand about Gen Z and the mid-level importance they put on geography, you go out and you approach all of the Gen Zers you engage with the same geographic options. You, instead, focus most of your “pitch,” job description, and employer branding on other items like compensation, flexibility in work hours, developmental opportunities, etc.
Now, imagine if that data was segmented by racial identity. You may have found that to those of underrepresented racial identities, location and geography is not of mid-level importance, but of extreme importance because of its connection to safety (both actual and perceived), work/life balance, and mental wellness.
Let's get specific and consider Black Gen Zers to make this even clearer. A recent McKinsey & Company study on the Black experience in the US private sector reported that nearly 60% of the Black labor force lives in Southern States, while approximately 9% in the West and Pacific states, 17% in the Midwest, and 18% in the Northeast.
If the generational data you originally consumed considered incorporating racial identity in their reporting, perhaps you would have found that for Black Gen Zers, location is even more important and maybe even been pointed to consider where.
Imagine missing this nuance and recruiting Black Gen Zers to West & Pacific states with no option to work remotely? Declination of offers, disinterest or attrition is what you might see.
The same holds true for other data points and factors. For example, over ⅓ of Gen-Zers say if given two similar offers, they would undoubtedly choose the company they perceived as more diverse and inclusive. I imagine that you would find that number to be far higher for Gen Zers of marginalized and underrepresented communities of any kind. But we do not know for sure, because this was likely not considered and certainly not reported.
And it is not just Gen Z data that we need to be considering intersecting identities when reporting on. It is all generational data.
How Can We Change This?
Now that we understand the problem and the potential benefits of fixing the problem, I want to share a couple of things we can do to contribute to change in this area. I’ll start with myself.
Exploring the intersection of race and generations via qualitative research
One thing that I'm doing to examine how intersecting identities impact generational research is conducting qualitative research myself to specifically explore the intersection of race and generations. This qualitative research consists of one-on-one interviews as well as small group interviews. It will undoubtedly take my team and I a significant time investment to conduct enough research to truly identify trends and surmise takeaways concerning this intersection. We are beginning to explore it quantitatively and are seeking external partnerships to support this effort. If this interests you, please contact us.
In a more accessible approach, I am having weekly generational conversations at the intersection of racial identity on my podcast The Generational View that any one can listen to! There, you may hear a discussion with Native American Gen Zers on one episode and skip to another to hear a discussion with a group of White Gen Zers, and another with Latine Gen Zers. If you jump back a season, you’ll hear an episode with Black Gen Xers, or another with Black Baby Boomers, all in an effort to unpack the layers of generational experience and data.
What Can You Do?
Now, about you. What can you do to ensure that we began considering intersecting identities when reporting on and consuming generational content?
Ask questions. Anytime you see generational data, facts, or insights being reported, I challenge you to ask yourself– How might this stat or insight differ across another identifier? Reflect on that. Process that. And inquire about that. Ask the entity reporting the data if they explored that. Or if they think the insight would be different if they did.
Consume resources who are reporting, considering intersectionality in their research. You’ve heard about the ways in which I am doing this, so most certainly, consume my content. But there are others occasionally doing this. Catalyst is one of them.
Consider context. When making your own decisions, personally and professionally, consider the layered context and nuance that exist in human beings. No stat or data point is all encompassing, so it is important that we think critically and consider context ourselves, even if the data doesn’t do it for us.