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Lessons to learn from the inter-generational struggles around us

by
01 November 2013, at 12:00am

The Mercury Column in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

One of the things most frequently seen in the US business press is a new-found interest in the differences between the ages. “What is new?” I can hear you asking that from here! 

What is actually new and rather interesting is the work being done to try to understand the representative features of the three principal age groups of workers, all of whom are currently sharing the workplace alongside each other.  

Clearly, things have come a long way since the post-war era when the “Baby Boomers” began, through the period of Generation X which led to a lot of personal and national discovery from the 1960s to the early 1980s to the Generation Y group which carried on the journey through to the mid1990s.  

The reference to “going on a journey” is also interesting as it is the constant mantra of advisers and counsellors empowering a younger generation and is used as a conduit  for whatever organisations want to establish in society: borrowing from the world of midwives, this journey seems to be a legitimate pre- to post-natal approach to almost anything. 

Unscheduled stops 

If that may sound like the grumbling borborygmi of a baby boomer, it almost certainly reflects the attitude of a generation whose own journey has already been around the houses and where unscheduled stops have brought opportunity and frustration in equal measure. 

As even the most seasoned travellers already know, going on a journey can result in one ending up in a rather different place from that shown in the brochure. 

There has been a lot of nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s floating around recently and it is interesting to look back at an era which shaped the transition from the 20th century to where we are today. 

On the one hand, it was redolent with abandon, free love, mods and rockers, a new excitement in music, cheap drinks and petrol at 2s/6d a gallon – that’s roughly £0.12 to any latecomers, and it was, intriguingly, on 15th February 1971, known as Decimal Day, when the United Kingdom and Ireland decimalised their currencies.  

On the other hand, this was the period when post-war austerity morphed into reckless spending, the availability of cheap credit, a decline in manufacturing and a battle between the workers and the establishment – led by the miners but carrying the torch for all unions everywhere – which brought the country to its knees. Free love and cheap wine loses its patina of excitement against a backdrop of blackouts, cold winters and a three-day week. 

Little surprise then that Generation X wanted something different and built upon the shaky foundations of the previous generation, wanting a less authoritarian society, a meritocracy rather than an old boy’s network and a relaxing of the conventions which rewarded age rather than talent.

Technology a new religion 

Their successors are the Generation Y kids, or what the Americans like to call the Millennials, whose talents are lauded in a sharing generation, where much of their lives has been conducted on Facebook and where technology is a new religion with more followers than ever before. 

Although millions of young people are starting out on their working lives in one of the most unyielding and disconnected labour markets in anyone’s memory, things should be very promising for those with talent and the ability to adapt. 

Just look at Spain where the lack of employment opportunity has become concrete and so many of their brightest young people have simply upped sticks and left, taking their skills and enterprise with them – not to South America, where language would have eased their passage, but to places like Russia, China and Korea. 

Adaptive generation 

This is the adaptive generation for whom national boundaries are of less consequence and where the term “global” is a given. Many multinational firms are actively seeking talent even without experience because they are convinced that the economic recovery, which lies tantalisingly just outside their reach, will demand fast reactions and instant acceleration when it arrives. 

In big business, promotion on a meritocratic basis is a no-brainer and so many of an older generation, who may still feel that years of loyal service warrant recognition and reward, are becoming disenchanted with being overtaken by a miasma of bright young things who are already at one with the technology which they, themselves, have yet to master.  

The Generation X hopefuls are seeing themselves squeezed in the middle between an army of Baby Boomers who cannot afford to retire and a tidal wave of technologically-adept, young, well-educated people for whom loyalty is a concept with different meanings and who are ready and willing to try their hand at anything, often because their degree will almost certainly be without relevance for the jobs they are seeking. 

These inter-generational struggles are well-documented in the business press, as are the difficulties experienced by companies attempting to manage the three groups simultaneously. 

Not unlike the situation where middle children often struggle to establish themselves between the fêted first born and the precocious baby sibling, many workers at the mid-point in their careers are fed up with being sandwiched between the older workers who won’t go away and the younger ones who seem to be better treated than they were. 

A recent survey of the three generations and their perceived characteristics was conducted by Ernst & Young among US professionals. The study was not just for clients but the company wanted to learn how better to manage these three groups of workers for its own purposes because, in the US, it features a predominantly young staff with more than 60% being Generation Y, almost 30% from Generation X and less than 10% of Baby Boomers. 

Voluntary work 

So far, to encourage harmony, the firm has suggested voluntary work in multi-generational teams and, while the Generation Y group have taken this entirely in their stride, older colleagues are less quick to adapt.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey concluded that Baby Boomers are seen as hard working and productive, the middle group of generation X workers are seen as the best team players while the youngest group was seen as good at technology but a bit work-shy and truculent. 

The results are not surprising as very few in the youngest group were asked the questions about their older peers. 

Many employers see an opportunity here; they value young Millennials because they are adaptive, they like a meritocracy which keeps salary costs down and they relish responsibility. They are largely unphased by change and if it doesn’t work they’re quick to leave to try something else. However, if they find the work challenging and if it imbues them with a sense of purpose, they are prepared to stay. 

Perhaps the lesson here is not to try to force the Millennials into our work framework but to see how we older travellers might learn from them to behave differently on our shared journey.