Generational differences

The older I get the more “why this generation is so different from that generation” articles grate on me.

Case in point: this Harvard Business Review article on “Generation Y in Workforce.”

If you replace every mention of text messaging with e-mail and replace Josh’s ideas with the idea of building a web site in the first place, this article have run in the mid-90s as an article about Gen X in the work place. The sales exec at the end would be saying Josh didn’t do anything to disprove Gen X’s image as a bunch of slackers more interested in being “free agents” than dedicated salary men.

It could have come out in the 70s as an article on Boomers in the work force and been about how Josh thought they weren’t investing enough in television. The complaint could have been “they’re a bunch of hippies who want to start their own companies in garages and wear jeans every day.”

Every generation looks at the next generation and worries. This isn’t new. I shudder to think of what WWI vets thought of the kids of the 20s. Yikes.

Some people get new technology and business innovation, and some don’t. I think this is more of a cultural disconnect than generational one. Serious technophiles who blog and podcast, Twitter and Torrent seem just as likely to be tech or creative professionals in their 40s or 50s as they are to be teenagers or high schoolers. You know who the first people I knew were to get into Napster? High School teachers. Boomers. Because they had access to high speed internet at work and all of us students still had dial-up at home. Ten years later, I still know people my age and younger who don’t download music, don’t own computers, and/or don’t use text messaging.

I think younger people are more likely to be more tech savvy than our older counter parts, due to having more exposure to computers at school growing up, it doesn’t make us into radically different aliens (like Rushkoff argued in Children of Chaos). Gen Y, Gen X, and the Boomers also have, I think, very similar tastes in music, movies, cars, fashion, etc. What most people perceive as generational differences are usual accidents of culture – when some very traditional rural Christian parent’s kid turns out to be a goth. The parent doesn’t not get her kid because she’s old. She doesn’t get her kid because she’s a traditional rural Christian and her kid is a goth.

Better advice for Gen X and Boomer managers trying to learn how to manage Gen Yers in a corporate environment: think about what it was like to be their age.

Non-generational things to keep in mind, coming from a Gen Y guy who’s been out of college for about 5 years now and is maybe just maybe starting to figure out how this whole “work” thing works:

  • No one took “Office Politics 101” in college
  • No one (except maybe a few business majors) took “Corporate Policies and Procedures 101” either
  • Young workers spent the past 4+ years in college seriously exercising their brains, and now they’re doing menial office tasks that people without degrees can do just as well.
  • In other words: they don’t have a clue about how corporate culture works, and they’re bored out of their minds.

    Here are some things that may be unique to the current generation, not because of some deeply ingrained difference in paradigms but because the economy sucks:

  • Even in the relative hay days of 2005-2006, mass layoffs were common place.
  • Young people consider themselves to be walking targets during a layoff because they lack experience and seniority.
  • Tuition was more expensive relative to wages and inflation when Gen Y was in college than any time in history
  • Thanks to price inflation and stagnant wage growth, entry level jobs pay less now than they have since before the labor movement.
  • In other words, young workers don’t have any job security and don’t make much money. They make less money than their managers did when they were starting out, and have more student loan debt.

    So they’re bored, underpaid, don’t have a clue how the corporate environment works, and know they could be let go without notice at any minute.

    And managers wonder why “young people these days” don’t have any company loyalty?

    It seems like workers and companies are at a stale-mate right now: companies want committed, hard working employees and with good attitudes. Employees want their work to be valued and want some measure of stability Employers can’t offer this sort of stability to their employees (not as long as they have to make job cuts to satisfy their shareholders), so morale suffers. This isn’t some generational paradigm shift, it’s economics. This isn’t to say that the economy didn’t suck at other times – but I don’t think there was the sort of economic nihilism in the past. People have been saying “all jobs are temp jobs” for a long time, but ours is the first generation to be entering the work force with this mantra already a given.

    The creepy corporate paternalism from Enterprise sounds worse than the “get tough on ’em” attitude from General Tool & Supply. But neither one sounds optimal. As a “Gen Y” worker myself, here’s what I would tell managers:

  • Mentor employees and advise them on career paths within the company, giving them an idea on when and how they will be able to be more involved with key decisions, make more money, and do more interesting work. It sucks to feel like you’re at a dead-end, or just stumbling around in the dark.
  • Give honest feedback about their work. The generic “Great job! You’re the best” example from the Harvard case is actually a morale killer. If everything you do is received with the same fake praise the praise is meaningless. It leads to either laziness (“why bother doing a good job if even bad work is praised?”) or paranoia (maybe all my work is terrible and they’re just being polite”).
  • Don’t ask for input if you know in advance you’re not going to use it. Managers do this with the best intentions – to make people feel like they’re involved. But this phoniness is transparent and it makes employees feel like their input isn’t valued ever. If their input isn’t wanted or needed, don’t ask.
  • Don’t be dismissive of ideas (like Sarah in the story above). Take time to explain what’s wrong with an idea. If similar ideas have failed in the past, explain it. Show that you’re not dismissing an idea because you don’t value the employees input, but because there’s a legitimate reason not to use the idea.
  • Advice for young workers (what I’ve learned):

  • Company loyalty is rewarded more than competence or effectiveness. This may sound unfair, but think about this from the company/manager’s point of view: why bother training you, promoting you, etc. if they don’t think you’ll stick around? (I agree: companies should make you WANT to stick around – but if you don’t act like you do they aren’t going to bother promoting you)
  • If you’re not getting mentorship, you’ve got to seek someone out
  • Never go over your bosses head unless you’re reporting your boss for serious misconduct
  • You know you have great ideas and that you’re creative, competent, and have a lot to offer the company. They don’t know that. They hired you because they thought you were minimally competent to perform the duties at hand. If you want to do more, you’ll have to prove yourself. And that takes time.
  • No matter how great your idea for changing how things work is, it probably has problems and there’s always a chance it will fail miserably. People fear change because change IS dangerous. Trying to fix things can make things much worse.
  • Because of this, experienced managers are usually in charge of making these decisions. Trying to make a decision that’s “outside your pay grade” so to speak could make you look creative and ambitious, but it will probably just makes you look pushy, impatient, and/or arrogant.
  • Get involved in things outside of work to help satisfy your creative and intellectual instincts. It could be awhile before you get to do the sorts of things you want to do at work.
  • Don’t be a complainer/whiner.
  • Don’t talk about how much money you make, and don’t complain about not being paid enough.
  • So old timers: tell me why I’m wrong.


    1. Sorry, no error correction available. You’re correct.

      Those sorts of articles get even more enervating, then they are laughable at least part of the time.

      There are specific instances of generation based media alienation I’ve caused or experienced but it isn’t a steady pattern. Or rather, the pattern is ‘yeah that happens sometimes.’

    2. “Those wacky kids” articles seem to be nothing more than an attempt to sell newspapers simultaneously to cynical and nostalgic old people. That said, I think your advice to the business community is very apt. It also has me thinking that the world is irreparably fucked and I should just go find the nearest bridge and take a flying leap.

      The thing I relate to most? If everything you do is received with the same fake praise the praise is meaningless. It leads to either laziness (”why bother doing a good job if even bad work is praised?”) or paranoia (maybe all my work is terrible and they’re just being polite”). Particularly for someone with a communication disorder this drives me fucking nuts. I hate never knowing where I stand because a supervisor would rather blow smoke up my ass than give me meaningful feedback.

    3. My friend Eric mentioned on Twitter that one reason so many young people are unprepared to enter the corporate work force after college is that the vast majority of professors don’t know anything about it.

      Here’s more evidence of the lack of a generational digital divide:

    4. I only have two real points with which I differ. Company loyalty is not valued over competence. It is not valued at all. Secondly, a lot of what complicates attempts at creativity and change is that you are not privy to all of the other factors beig considered by top management. It is often possible to see beneficial changes that could be made in your department or office, but cannot be made because of wider organizational sgendas (such as, say, making their numbers to hit bonuses). The rest of it is pretty right on, other than it was like this for the last few generations. Job stability, in tech at least, hasn’t been possible in my career (I’m 49). As long as people keep in mind that the corporation is not your friend, is not your family, and will not be there for you if your interests diverge, it can be navigated.

    5. Bill – are you saying that company loyalty is not valued or that competence is not valued?

      I think the big difference in terms of stability is between boomers and gen x – you’re sort of on the cusp of those two generations. If I’m not mistaken you were probably hitting the job market just about the time that outsourcing and downsizing got started.

      I think the difference between Gen X and Gen Y in terms of stability is that Gen X grew up with the myth of job stability as passed down by the previous generations, but Gen Y has always just seen precarity as the way it is.

    6. Competence is sometimes valued. Sufficient competence is always valued. As far as company loyalty goes, can you tell me what sort of behavior you are labeling company loyalty and how you would know if a company valued it? I’m serious. I’ve been trying all day to think of what company loyalty would look like in today’s environment (apart from taking the fall for company crimes) and whether management would notice that behavior. …and yes, the first edition of The Way of the Ronin came out about as I was entering the job market. ( I’ve always wondered what it must have been like to have relative job security, a pension plan, and the expectation of retiring from a given company (or at all). I’ve heard of these things, but have not actually seen them.

    7. “Attitude” might have been a better way to describe what I’m talking about than “company loyalty.” But “Company Loyalty” just sounds so much scarier!

      As such, it’s not so much a set of specific actions that can be pointed to as it is generating an air around oneself: making it appear that you REALLY like working for the company, being willing to “take one for the team” (which often translates into not complaining about managerial decisions) – anything that makes it seem like you will stick with the company and not bounce to another company as soon as they make an offer.

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