There is a lot of hype out there today, and there has been for quite of a few years, regarding generations in the workplace. It has become one of the key topics to focus on when it comes to interoffice dynamics and diversity issues in the workplace. And its fun to talk about it and classify people as such.
While it is obvious that different events and cultural norms shape us all and these things can help define a generation of people (for example, who is dumb enough to think that 9/11 and the computer haven’t shaped the thought processes, ways of working and ways of interacting and communicating with others as clutch things of the millennial generation) it is also obvious that many of the things we chalk up to generational differences are quite plainly, age differences, not generational differences.
Take for example this quote from Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s much anticipated second book that was released this past summer:
“Alexandra was not amused. She was extremely annoyed. She could not comprehend the attitudes of young people these days. Not that they needed understanding- young people were the same in every generation- but this cockiness, this refusal to take seriously the gravest question of their lives, nettled and irritated her.”
This quote addresses Aunt Alexandra’s (Scout’s aunt, Atticus’ sister) feelings regarding Scout’s take on her marital prospects and priorities. The book is set in the 1950s, and Scout at the time was 26. She would be labeled a “Traditional” by generational standards, born before 1945, yet she is taking on the generational characteristics much like those we would see people complaining about today as millennial. Her aunt is serving the role of the traditional, traditionalist.
Is it generation or is it just simply a product of age?
A more personal story might help illustrate this dynamic. I used to run quite frequently with my dad. Full disclosure, he was born in the 1950s and therefore part of the Baby Boomer generation; I was born in the 1980s so I’m a part of the millennial generation. On one morning run, I asked him about a friend of the family who had just started work fresh out of college at a government contractor. I asked if she liked her new her job. To which my dad replied, “Well her dad said that she doesn’t really like it all that much, but if I were her, I’d tell her to stick with it. Government jobs have great retirement and in 25-30 years she is going to need that.”
To which I replied, “Yeah, always wise to stay in a job you hate for 25-30 years just to have the retirement package that may or may not be there 25-30 years from now.”
You could chalk this dialogue of ours up to classic generational differences and it would make a lot of sense. That’s why people love all the generational stuff. However, if you stop and think about it, when I run with my now four year old and/or one year old 30 years from now (which I hope I will be doing), could the same conversation play over again and I have the response of my dad and they have the response I have? If so, that’s not a product of generation, that’s straight up a product of age and what is important to people given the certain “season” they are in in their life not the time period in which they were born.
So before you go blaming your next workplace squabble on generational issues (or any one, single factor), stop and think about what combined factors shaped the person that you are disagreeing with. You may see generations at play, but you may also see a host of other factors at work (no pun intended).That’s why it is best to focus on training that captures the heart of all the sources of our differences and challenges as a framework to focus on the important takeaway: capitalizing on those differences by turning them into competitive advantages that create more productive and passionate workplaces.
What do you blame on generational issues? What could you be doing to capitalize on these differences?