iLearn: Generations and Learning Styles

August 15, 2018
Article by Lexi Wilkinson

If you ask most people what generation they’re from, chances are they’ll have no idea unless they are a Millennial (one of the ones obsessed with avocado toast and social media) or a Baby Boomer (credited with ruining the economy). Regardless of whether you believe in generational differences or not, there are some things to consider when planning events that involve people from different historical contexts and backgrounds. These shared life experiences are what create generations. Baby Boomers, for example, are the group born directly after World War II during an economically prosperous time. Millennials, on the other hand, were born during a recession and during the rise of the Internet and smartphone technology. These differences can account for the mindsets and expectations of people in the workplace; however, it should be said that these are broad generalizations and that individuals are, of course, individuals.

There is a lot of research about learning styles and whether or not someone can exclusively be a “visual” or an “auditory” learner. The research has come to the conclusion that most people use more than one category for learning and information processing. In this article, we will look at how six learning styles – visual, verbal, social, solitary, physical, and logical – can be best utilized to hold the attention of different generational groups, and suggest ways to implement these strategies into your next corporate event.

Before we get started, I feel obligated to inform you that I am a Millennial (and I’m allergic to avocados, so don’t ask about the toast). This means that I grew up during a time of great social change, where we went from playing outside with chalk to regularly engaging with people all around the world via social media. There are a lot of things that I don’t understand about the generations preceding me because of my own experiences and perceptions, but characteristically, I’m pretty open to learning. I recently attended a professional networking conference for women and it got me thinking about how our life experience can affect the way that we think about the world around us. The conference was mainly college-age women like myself, but there were some older people in the mix. A number of them spoke about the changing landscape of technology and how they sometimes feel like they are struggling to keep up. I know that my experience has been different from someone who is in their late 50s, but I can relate to that feeling. I think the most important thing to keep in mind when planning to address groups of people from different generations, no matter the occasion, is that the lines are arbitrary. Just because someone was born in 1976 and I was born in 1996 doesn’t mean that we can’t both be ambitious, driven people who want to see the world changed for the better after we are gone.

In terms of generational contexts, let’s establish some generalizations to work with. For Traditionalists, a group also called the Silent Generation for their relatively low numbers in the workforce, the world was a different place when they first got started. Born before 1945, their historical context involved World War II and the Great Depression. This contributes towards their more formal mindset when it comes to business: that people have to follow the rules and obey authority. If this is the case, it is likely that they would find verbal and logical styles to be the most helpful. The idea of literally seeing laid out what is expected of you would likely appeal to Traditionalists, as well as the use of logic and reason to express a point. Examples of this would be your typical PowerPoint presentations with the information clearly spelled out in plain language.

Baby Boomers are, as I said before, the generation born after WWII and so experienced higher rates of employment due to the economic circumstance when they were entering the workforce. As a result, many Boomers are traditional in their thinking about workplace hierarchy and company loyalty. Researchers suggest that Baby Boomers are a generation that defines themselves by their professional accomplishments. Because of this, the solitary learning style might most engage your Boomer clients as this will promote individual achievement. Again, visual engagement is a must, because while technology isn’t as difficult for this group to grasp as the Traditionalists, straightforward information is likely to grip them more than a fancy display.

Generation X are the children of the Boomers and are defined by their independent, individualistic mindsets. While Boomers placed their faith in the American Dream, Gen X’ers saw this dream become more of a nightmare that involved their parents putting in long hours away from home. A common name for this generation is the “latchkey kids”, referring to how often they found themselves alone at home. This group appreciates individuality but also works well with others, employing a more democratic approach to tasks in the workplace than their predecessors. This generation is smaller than either the Boomers or the Millennials, but no less important. This group would likely respond well to social tasks like group projects and collaborative efforts. They would also respond well to a physical, hands-on activity that will engage their ambitious and competitive nature.

Millennials are generally the children of Gen X’ers. Researchers have found that this contributed to the “special snowflake” mentality people love to rave about Millennials having. In response to being left alone as children, Gen X went overboard with their own. Helicopter parenting is a common experience for Millennials, but so is total comfort with technology. The rise of smartphones and social media has contributed to this generation being considered as the most skilled to enter the workplace in history. Our inability to fully remember a time without instant access to information has led to what some would call a tech-dependency, but most millennials consider technology a necessity more than a hindrance. Millennials thrive off of social learning, even more than Gen X does, and would likely do very well with collaborative engagements. Another style likely to engage a Millennial is physical: a hands-on activity that promotes achievement.

Generation Z, the children of younger Gen X’ers and Millennials, are the next group to enter the workforce. While researchers say that the oldest of this group is around 20 years old in 2018, they are not a group to be underestimated. If Millennials are tech-savvy, Gen Z is tech-omniscient; this is the group of people born with a smartphone in their hands, whose grasp of social media and the digital world is unparalleled. This means that interactivity is essential to engage this group. Social learning is the key to utilizing this group’s potential.

For more information about generational differences, visit expert Jason Dorsey’s website at jasondorsey.com 

 MM&E
(Lexi Wilkinson is an Editorial Intern at Publishing Concepts, LLC and is from St. Louis)

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.