March 7, 2008

Generational differences

March 7, 2008 - Categories: gen-y

One last big post before I focus on my vacation preparations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about generational differences because of my upcoming presentation on I.B.Millennials. I had a hard time figuring out how to speak about my generation without dealing with too many generalizations, and what to say to people who think that oh, it’s just about age. Today, I finally came to understand why I want to talk about this topic. It’s not about drawing lines, it’s about connecting people.

No one will argue that society today is very different from society in the 1950s or in the 1900s, and that there have been massive technological and social changes. One way to see this is to look at ads and newspaper articles from fifty years ago, many of which would be unacceptable today.

Why is a discussion about generational differences important? You have lived through these changes and adapted your ways of thinking to them, but for people of my generation, this is all we know. We will have all sorts of assumptions. We will take all sorts of things for granted. We will understand some things intuitively, and be stumped by others. ("What was life like before the Net? before mobile phones? What’s job security? Why would you want to work for just one company? Wouldn’t that be boring? If I can do my job in half the time it takes other people to do it, why shouldn’t I get the rest of the day off?") Perhaps some of these differences come with being young. Perhaps some of these differences come with growing up in societies that are radically different from the ones you grew up in. Perhaps we face our own questions and challenges that we are only now learning how to articulate.

Most of us will have neither the experience nor the perspective to recognize these differences or work around them. That’s why it’s important for leaders to be aware of trends, to spot opportunities and weaknesses, to bring people together. And that’s why this conversation about generational differences is important: not to draw lines, not to praise one generation over the other, but to recognize potential conflicts and work around them, and to build on each other’s strengths.

I don’t want to make excuses for my generation. I want people to be able to challenge us to be all we can be instead of shrugging things off with "Oh, they’re kids, they’ll change as they grow up." But the world can’t wait until we grow up. We can’t wait until people of my generation are thirty or forty, settled, ‘normal’. We are here and there are more of us coming; how can we all work together more effectively?

People of my generation are coming into a workplace that’s very different from the workplace you started in. The long time between generations can make companies forget the lessons learned the last time around. Every generation brings unique strengths and weaknesses. That does not make a discussion of those challenges irrelevant. Indeed, it shows that if organizations can learn to manage this transition well, they will reap the benefits with succeeding generations.

And why is making the most of this generation important? Many organizations recognize a need for massive cultural change when it comes to adopting new collaborative and social technologies that can require not only changes in behavior, but even changes in corporate culture and values. It reminds me of the very things that bewilder many parents – my generation’s reliance on electronic communication and virtual social networks, collaboration despite previous norms in education and other areas, and an inescapably globalized world. If organizations can make the most of our energy and our skills, then they can ride that wave into organization-wide cultural change. If not, then they will miss opportunities that their competitors will take.

Generational differences is a political topic, an emotional topic. No one likes being reminded that they grow older each year. It is easy to dismiss it with the same words used to dismiss the voice of youth: "They’ll grow up eventually." But if we can harness those differences to bring us to where we want to go as an organization and as a society, if we can anticipate and deal with the potential conflicts that many might encounter, then wouldn’t that be a valuable conversation?

I need to revise my TLE presentation. I’ve just found the kernel of passion in my talk. I’m not going to have the time to link this to all the conversations happening around this topic, so please feel free to cross-reference the other great discussions happening around this. But anyway, that’s what I had to say.