Thought Leadership Article by William Gartner February 2023

Talking About My Generation

Lubinski, Christina, and William B. Gartner (2023). Talking About (My) Generation: The Use of Generation as Rhetorical History in Family Business. Family Business Review.

The concept of “generation” in family business scholarship is primarily used genealogically to reflect family lineage. This approach fails to account for complementary perspectives that are more established in history: “generation” as a category of societal belonging and a form of rhetorical history. Using a constitutive history approach to archival materials from the German printing and publishing business Bagel, a seventh-generation family firm, we identify four usages of “generation” by which these narratives can establish continuity or change in how families talk about themselves and foreground either the family or its embeddedness in society.

The article explores two research questions:

  1. How does a history-informed approach uncover how the word “generation” is used in family narratives to talk about themselves and foreground either the family or its embeddedness in society?  
  2. How do actors in family business strategically use “generation” to convey and legitimize their vision for the future? 

How might families use insights from this study?

We offer a framework (see Table below) that identifies four ways that actors in family businesses use “generation” to signal either continuity or change in the family business or in its societal context. 

 “Generation as lineage” is a way to discuss family continuity across generations, that is focusing on how important aspects of the family business are the same over time. 

Generation as myth” connects the family business to continuity narratives in society, that is, on ways that the family business reflects how fundamental characteristics of society have not changed over time.  

Generation as reinvention” focuses on actors’ changing roles and tasks within the family, that is, a way to talk about how each generation is tasked with making changes to the family business. 

Generation as critique” foregrounds how actors talk about engaging with major societal changes, and responding to emerging opportunities or novel threats. 

Table: 4 uses of generation in family businesses