The Power of Words: Generational Impact

The Power of Words

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse

them with deeper meaning.”

Maya Angelou

Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, published an article in the August

edition of Psychological Science (reposted on that used word frequency

patterns to identify how values have changed over time. Her results are fascinating.

From 1800 to 2000, words such as “obliged” and “give” have decreased while “choose”

and “get” have increased. Other noteworthy changes in frequency include:

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 6.43.21 PM

She contributes this to the change of society from a rural social community to an urban,

wealthy, technological culture.

To quote her directly:

This research shows that there has been a two-century–long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment and away from psychological functioning adapted to a rural environment. The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society.”

Literature reflects life and, looking at each generation, we can see the shift in psychology and organizational culture.

The Silent Generation grew up through the Great Depression and World War II. They watched their parents (the G. I. generation) struggle to make ends meet working menial jobs then fight in or support the war efforts. They were instilled with a sense of duty and responsibility to their county. Many served in the Korean War and believed in a hierarchal organizational structure as it mirrored their military background. The struggle in their youth influenced their adult lives, leaving them cautious and expecting disappointment.  Their literature mirrors their want of better lives, as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Reading the above works influenced the Baby Boomers, who began to question the system their parents lived by. They were the wealthiest and most active generation up to their time.  They wanted to challenge authority, coining the term “thinking outside the box”, and believed that they would change the world. Literature became more imaginative, with Boomer author’s writing Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Golden Compass, and Life of Pi.

Gen-X’s started to shake-up corporate structure, valuing a work-life balance as many were “latchkey-kids” and wanted to be more involved in their children’s lives. Having to fend for themselves from an early age, they are flexible, creative and value responsibility, choice and freedom. Their writing reflects these values with great works like American Psycho, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and The Tipping Point.

The Millennials (Gen-Y and Gen-Z) grew up with Boomers teaching them that they could change the world and they were special (history repeats, which is why Gen-Y’s are sometimes called Echo Boomers). They read stories that promoted freedom of thought, individualism, and standing out from the crowd. From their parents to the education system, they have been taught they are unique and they could do whatever they wanted. It is not surprising they are considered entitled and self-centred. Outside of school, fewer Gen-Y’s read books, favouring to read blogs or e-books online or on a tablet. Organizations have flat structures and encourage individual success.

Interesting how literature reflects one generation and influences the next! Expand literature to include lyrics and you can see the same trend in music. There is also the changes in genres, but that’s an article for a musical historian to write!

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