The Generation Game and evidence-based ageing

There’s been a bit of a flurry in the academic community (well actually, community is a bit of misnomer; it’s really a bunch of clever people criticising each other’s research) about this whole generational labelling thing. I confess that I nearly stopped paying attention after realising I was alarmingly close to the baby-boomer dividing line. They are the generation born in the birth-rate spike that followed the end of the second world war. I was born 20 years later, so that would be more of a meandering high-altitude plateau than a spike. Anyway, after lots of googling I was reassured that on all measures, I just (just) make it into generation X, which already sounds an awful lot cooler.

That was the first indication that these categories might be a bit broad-brush to say the least. But they seem to be taking hold in our collective psyche and as I advance ever closer to the old/young demarcation I find myself paying greater attention to generational differences.

Take language for instance. Already my reference to “cooler” places me in a certain very uncool category of middle age. I should instead be saying “peng” or “lit”; and I now know to comment on my son’s “trim” rather than his “hairdo” as he leaves the house wearing half a pot of styling cream on his way to school in the morning. So is it a normal part of the ageing process that I no longer understand half of what my children say to me, or is it the first rumbling of a new generation making its own rules? Then there is the question of whether, for fear of finding yourself on the wrong side, you try and straddle the generational divide; a perilous path in my view. For example, as their children start to head off to higher education, I notice an increasing number of my parent peers talking about “Uni.” Now “Uni” has never been part of my vocabulary, being a term that belongs exclusively to the post-Neighbours generation. Before Kylie and Jason graced our screens, nobody’s voice in the UK went up at the end of a non-interrogatory sentence and nobody said “Uni”. Do you remember the days when it was really easy to know when someone was asking you a question? If so, you are definitely generation pre-N.

All the kerfuffle, however, is about deeper questions such as whether decisions should be made and money invested by organisations in change programmes on the basis of generational markers. According to the management literature, which by the way is a euphemism in the academic world for work that should be ignored, written by people who sold out to the cult of self-help books and consulting. Anyway, according to them, generation Y (or the millennials) are tech-savy, family and team-oriented. They are focused on achievement (too many sticker charts at school - generation X were never motivated to do well, we were just caned if we did badly). They also crave attention and they job-hop. Generation Z (roughly mid 90s-2009, or the “neo-digital” generation) meanwhile are mainly still quite young (I have two at home). They are the first to have experienced total technology immersion since birth - apart from those rare moments when their parents have wrestled the technology out of their hands and found somewhere inventive to hide it. They are enterprising and entrepreneurial - in other words they want to work all day in a nice independent coffee shop using the free WIFI without ever having to wear a suit, and they’ve watched too much Dragon’s Den. They don’t drink and they don’t date, other than virtually, which is something I approve of for my children, but am relieved I didn’t experience myself.

This adds up to generations who want to spend less time in the office, more time not drinking with their families or their avatar friends and to be able to communicate their great ideas to the CEO on their first day in a new job. Which all sounds pretty “lit”, although those pesky bah-humbug academics are rightly pointing out that the evidence is second-rate at best. According to them difference is much more subtle and complex, existing within generational boundaries as well as across them and that some differences (such as propensity for risk taking) are effects of ageing rather than generational changes. In any event, they assert, the generational lines are vague and vary between studies and it is, therefore, difficult to identify any trends at all. Valid though these objections are, they may perhaps be over-complicating a nice simple concept, thereby throwing out the baby-boomers with the bath water. My '90s-mid 2000s tech industry experience suggests that there are quite a few older people out there who were ahead of the curve in terms of these new generational trends, but those I know still in that industry (don’t criticise my research sample, this is a blog not science) are significantly altering their structures and practices to meet the needs of their younger workers. And, they are doing so on the basis of their experience rather than an article they read in Harvard Business Review (for academics, the Hello! magazine of management literature) - or perhaps a bit of both. Even some of those at the helm of more traditional UK Plcs are questioning whether their existing corporate structures are right for attracting and retaining younger workers. You call that humbug at your peril, potentially sacrificing innovative change at the altar of decent research, which is notoriously difficult to do, and thereby preserving a status quo in UK corporates that works for the few (generally pale, male, power-hogging baby-boomers) rather than the many.

What strikes me most, is that the proposed optimal features of generation Y/Z work environments would also suit an awful lot of women (both young and older). We have been struggling for years to gain real meaningful flexibility to enable work to be balanced with the rest of our lives and our voices continue to go unheard in far too many organisations. Having failed to achieve much discernible change, perhaps the added voices of younger men as well as women will save us. So, forgive me for jumping on the generational band-wagon, but rather than dismiss these trends, we should perhaps capitalise on a good idea and do better research into differences across generations and industries. Perhaps then we can shape workplaces that really are fit for the future.