I recently read a post that was listed on Hacker News titled How to tell a young(ish) person their behavior is inappropriate at work, and I got into it a bit in the comments with the author of the post.

It was an interesting read, until I got to his tips for dealing with “millennials,” which really rubbed me the wrong way (as does the word “millennials,” hence the scare quotes).

3­. Remember, people who are now young adults have been raised on a steady diet of compliments and praise.

Today’s young adults grew up searching for just the right post to get “likes” on Facebook, and we were all given trophies for trying. Every generation thrives on praise but there was a marked change in parenting behavior when self-esteem became a high priority in the 80’s and 90s. This is important to remember if you want to build a connection with a young adult.

-Vance Crowe, ArticulateVentures.com

First of all, I’ve never received a trophy in my life, despite participating in many extracurricular activities. My school track meet gave out “Participant” ribbons, which everyone knew were worthless, and 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place ribbons for actually placing in an event. Trophies just for showing up? Never. I’ve never even heard of anyone getting a trophy of any kind outside of like, winning state in a varsity sport or placing in a tournament of some kind.

Here was my reaction to his article:

I think it’s dangerous to lump everyone together as though an entire generation all behaves exactly the same way. Sure, there are trends, but individuals are individuals. Applying a bunch of half-baked psychology about why people behave the way they do and ascribing everything to some generational phenomenon is likely to get you nowhere.

Substitute any classic minority group for “Millennials” in the sentence “Remember, Millennials have been raised on a steady diet of compliments and praise” and you might begin to see the problem.

Now, as I said in my comment, I do believe that there can be general behavioral trends among generations, especially regarding usage of technology and attitudes about social issues. But this got me thinking… how do we actually define a generation?

It’s easy when there’s a huge bubble, the classic example being the “Baby Boomer” generation, the huge class of people who were born shortly after U.S. troops returned from World War II. But it gets increasingly fuzzy after that.

Generation X is supposed to be the generation that followed the Baby Boomers, but is generally defined as anyone born between 1965 and 1980. That’s a pretty large range, making it difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions about the members of that generation. There’s some commonality to being “the first generation after the baby boomers,” but do you consider yourself to have a lot in common with people fifteen years your elder?

It only gets worse from there. Generation Y, increasingly referred to as “Millennials,” has no precise start or end date, birth dates ranging from the late 1970s to the early 2000s.

I was born in 1984, which places me toward the upper end of Generation Y. So I guess I’m in the same generation as people born after George W. Bush was elected president, at which time I was old enough to drive. I don’t know how many useful inferences you can make about the shared traits of a group when some of its members recall the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and others don’t remember a time when Facebook didn’t exist.

To add insult to injury, the steadily increasing globalization of the last century makes it almost impossible to define a cultural epoch or any experience shared broadly enough in order to define a generation. It’s no longer possible to point to events that only affect U.S. citizens as markers for the start or end of a generation.

So my question is this: is the entire concept of a “generation,” in a national or cultural sense, outmoded? Barring another Baby Boomer type bubble, what use do we have for the concept when we can no longer define when one starts or ends, and no useful insight can be gained by assigning someone membership in one?

Believing that someone’s personality is defined by the year they were born is, at this point, not too far removed from believing in the zodiac. I think it is time to start treating people as individuals rather than trying to assign preferences or behavior to them based on what year they were born.