Generations of Developers Part One

19 Feb

Episode 105

In the previous two episodes, we have been exploring the world of individual differences and types of personality and dived deeper into one of many ways to categorize those types. It’s an interesting and helpful exercise as long as we keep in mind that everyone is different and requires an individual approach. Our personality depends strongly on the genetic lottery and our environment, especially during childhood and youth. Another interesting device we can use to better describe and understand people around us is the notion of the generation or demographic cohort they belong to. Age is just a number as they say, but aren’t developers ultimately the ones dealing with numbers after all? Today we will look at various aspects of several different generations we interact with, check what events and experiences shaped them, explore what might be particularly important to them and look for influential examples in the tech industry.

Generations conflict. Age gap. This is a really old topic. For centuries and millennia, there was a clash between parents and children, old and young, wisdom and experience, order vs curiosity, energy, rebellion and all that stuff. You can find papers on that dating back to antiquity. There is an ample pool of work about differences, but there is also an array of publications saying that it’s all bullshit and hurtful stereotypes. That you can’t look at a person through the lens of age group, put a label and just act according to it. So, how is it in the end? As usual, it’s somewhere in the middle. Generational differences do exist, but they are weak compared to individual and cultural differences. While the gap is an old topic, our society and workplaces have changed dramatically over the last several decades due to the ever-growing technological evolution pace that is followed by a social and cultural shift. We can think of consecutive generations as the ones that started to emphasize certain aspects of life and work, like autonomy, life-work balance or social sensitivity and popularize them across members of all other generations. We learn from each other and adapt both ways. Similarly, as with the DISC model and Erikson colors described previously, I hope that terms like Baby Boomer, X, Millennial and Z combined with knowledge of how the background and environment influence people’s personalities is a useful tool. Not a hammer, but delicate tweezers or a brush.

The Theory

Ok, but what’s exactly a generation? The common understanding is related to children, parents, and grandparents, but we will be looking at generations from social sciences perspective. Also known as cohorts, a generation is a named group of people who were born in a certain period and experienced similar events. The length of those periods is roughly 15 to 20 years and is determined by disruptive global events, trends and changes such as wars, revolutions, political changes like the fall of the iron curtain, economic crises, and technology shifts like the appearance of radio, tv, computers or the Internet. Exact borders between generations are debatable and may differ by several years, depending on sources and countries. In general, this division is specific to the Western world. The definition of the Western world was shifting over time, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union and the expansion of the European Union and NATO. When doing research for this article, I had to approach it from two sides – American and my native – Polish sources. Nowadays, in the age of deep globalization, it seems that younger generations have more in common. On the other hand, fifty years ago, things looked a bit different. Let’s look at the terminology first. 

Currently, the youngest generation is the Alpha Generation – people born around 2012 and later. Then we have the Z Generation born between 1997 and 2012, the Y generation also famously known as the Millennials born between 1981 and 1996, the X Generation born between 1965 and 1980, Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964, and the Silent Generation born between 1928 and 1945. If we want to dive deeper into the past, there is also the Greatest Generation born between 1901 and 1927 and the Lost Generation of 1883 to 1900. 

There is a highly controversial but somehow interesting theory devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe in the book Generations from 1991, that demographic generations in the Western world, and especially in the United States, follow large cycles comprising of four generations and roughly 80 to 100 years called saeculums. Strauss and Howe argue that history somewhat repeats every four generations, and it influences people similarly every time. The saeculum comprises of the High period, the Awakening, the Unraveling, and the Crisis. The lengths roughly match phases of human life – childhood, young adulthood, midlife and elderhood. Depending on which phase falls into which period, there are four archetypes of people: Prophets, Heroes, Nomads and Artists. Thus, there should be some similarities between e.g. Alphas and Baby Boomers or between Z and the Silent generations. We can try to naively generalize this to: Hard times create strong people, strong people create good times, good times create weak people and weak people create hard times. The circle of history repeats itself. Our brains love patterns, which makes this theory attractive, however, caution should be exercised here. Even Wikipedia puts that article in the pseudoscience category. Enough theories though, let’s move to actual Generations. 

The Silent Generation

We will start with the Silent Generation, people born between roughly 1928 and 1945, so at the moment of writing this in 2023 – being between 78 and 95 years old. Strauss and Howe described them as Artists or Adaptive generation – born during a crisis and raised by over-protective parents when social and political complexity is cut in favor of public consensus. They come of age socialized and conformist. The generation is also known as the Traditionalists. Their parents lived through the great depression and economic hardship of the thirties and often took part or lost their lives in World War II. They lived in fear of immense destruction by newly developed nuclear weapons and the new world order with two great political blocks and ideologies – west vs east, capitalism vs communism. Technology also brought the golden age of radio, transatlantic flights and the discovery of Penicillin. Trade unions started to form. In Eastern Europe countries, Silents witnessed the great destruction of their homeland by Nazis and Soviets and fell under communist occupation for another 45 years. 

The name comes from the strict discipline imposed on children – to be seen, but not heard. While the previous generation fought to change the system, Silents lived within the system, kept their heads down and worked hard.

From the software development and technology perspective, Silents were pioneers in many aspects. The fifties and sixties were a time of mainframe computers, the first mass-produced integrated circuits, first programming languages and operating systems. Some famous people belonging to this generation that are still alive and active include:

  • Gordon Moore (born 1929) – cofounder of the Intel corporation and the author of the famous Moore law.
  • Margaret Hamilton (born 1936) – published over 130 papers in computer science, coined the term “software engineering” and led the team developing on-board flight software for the Apollo space program.
  • Donald Knuth (born 1938) – the author of the multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming, often called the father of the analysis of algorithms  
  • Barbara Liskov (born 1939) – made a pioneering contribution to programming languages and distributed computing, The L in SOLID is from Liskov Substitution Principle
  • Alan Kay (born 1940) – pioneering work on object-oriented languages, co-authored Smalltalk and Graphical User Interfaces at Xerox
  • Brian Kernighan (born 1942) – worked on the Unix operating system and AWK, co-authored the first book on the C programming language
  • Ken Thompson (born 1943) – worked on the Unix operating system, B and Go programming languages 
  • Larry Elisson (born 1944) – co-founder, Executive Chairman and CTO of the Oracle Corporation

The vast majority of the Silent generation has retired from the labor market. They are usually fond of traditional values, high discipline, and financial prudence. They are resilient and willing to make sacrifices for the cause they believe in.  

The Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers were born during the post World War II baby boom, between 1946 and 1964, which makes them 58 to 78 years old now. Strauss and Howe described Boomers as the Prophet or Idealist generation – having childhood during the post-crisis High period – a time of social consensus and in the end, emerging as elders guiding another Crisis. Baby boomers witnessed the peace & love movement, JFK’s assassination, popularization of Rock and Roll. They were often raised in large families.

From a software and technology perspective, pioneering Baby Boomers caught up and capitalized on the popularization of computers in the seventies and eighties. Many of the largest technology corporations were founded by Baby Boomers. Famous members of this generation include:

  • Steve Wozniak (born 1950) – co-founded Apple computers with Steve Jobs, widely recognized as one of the most prominent pioneers of the PC revolution.
  • Bjarne Stroustrup (born 1950) – creator of the C++ programming language
  • James Gosling (born 1955) – creator of the Java programming language, author of more than 100 academic papers
  • Bill Gates (born 1955) – co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft
  • Guido van Rossum (born 1956) – creator of the Python programming language
  • Tim Cook (born 1960) – current CEO of Apple
  • Anders Hejlsberg (born 1960) – creator of the C# programming language
  • Jeff Bezos (born 1964) – founder and executive chairman of Amazon

Traditional Baby boomers may prefer face-to-face communication, radio, tv and printed mail. They have a high work ethos, and high power distance, they value structure, hierarchy, stability, and loyalty and respect authority and their elders. They may have different expectations from work and life as compared to younger people. A good job is one that pays money, and a good relationship is one where there is no domestic violence, and those might be good enough criteria. When considering workplace motivation – a sense of security, clear procedures and rules are important. Baby Boomers like to be appreciated as mentors and authority figures. 

The X Generation

Members of the X Generation were born between 1965 and 1980, being 43 to 58 years old now. Strauss and Howe describe Xers as members of the Nomad or Reactive generation – entering childhood during a time of social ideas and spiritual agendas when young adults are passionately attacking the institutions and established order. The name comes from the “unknown” – chaos and sitting somewhere between traditional and shifting values on the verge of the information technology revolution. Also known as “MTV Generation” or as the “Latchkey kids” – returning to an empty home and needing to use the door key because of reduced adult supervision compared to earlier generation – signs of a higher divorce rate and widespread availability of childcare options. They have witnessed the intensification of the Cold War leading to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the transformation to a market economy in eastern-bloc countries. Information technology started to be ubiquitous. 

From the IT perspective – during Xer’s early adolescence computers are no longer a hobby, but mainstream. The era of lonely pioneers is gone. New languages, frameworks and technologies are emerging. The Internet is starting to be a commercially viable medium and new opportunities arise. Xers created some of the largest tech corporations and are starting to succeed Baby Boomers at the very top of established corporate food-chain.

  • Michael Dell (born 1965) – founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, one of the largest technology infrastructure companies
  • Satya Nadella (born 1967) – current CEO of Microsoft
  • Rasmus Lerdorf (born 1968) – creator of the PHP programming language
  • Linus Torvalds (born 1969) – creator of the Linux operating system and Git version control system
  • John Carmack (born 1970) – co-founder of Id Software and lead programmer on Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake games series
  • Elon Musk (born 1971) – CEO of SpaceX and Tesla
  • Larry Page (born 1973) – co-founder of Google
  • Max Levchin (born 1975) – co-founder of PayPal
  • Jack Dorsey (born 1976) – co-founder of Twitter and Square
  • Brian Chesky (born 1980) – co-founder and CEO of Airbnb

Xers tend to be highly independent, and like to try new things and come out of their comfort zones, but not as much as younger generations. They like to focus on results and outcomes and are more flexible than Baby Boomers while at the same time, they are the last generation who really respects authority. Work and career are very important for Xers, they often identify themselves with their job, are highly engaged and work long hours which makes them prone to burnout. 

In post-eastern bloc countries, they have seen social unrest preceding the collapse of communism, formation of the trade unions and progressive economic struggles. They entered adult life during the turmoil of transition to a free-market economy when western corporations were rapidly deploying in newly opened markets. Often all that was needed to start a successful career were language skills and the will to work. In a country where there was no modern market, every idea could be a good idea and many ideas were born.     

In the workplace, Xers like to have a clear career path and options for promotion as well as clearly defined targets. They might still be a bit attached to rules and procedures and value hierarchy but tend to be more transparent and open than Baby Boomers.

That’s it for Today. In the second part of this article, we will have a closer look at Millennials, Generation Z and Generation Alpha. We will also explore a bit of anthropology, and talk about reverse mentoring as well as the challenges and opportunities of generational diversity. Stay tuned!

Image sources:



The secret garden of my soul


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Posted by on February 19, 2023 in History, Leadership, Technology


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