Generational differences

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.

  • Hmm… Generations… Reminds me of the history of computers: from mechanical, to those using electro magnetic relays, to those using vacuum tubes, to those using transistors, to those using integrated circuits, and to those using large scale integrated circuits. I wonder if our generation will invent something better than a large scale integrated circuit. If Sacha does it, I bet she’ll win a Noble prize. hehe. ;)

  • mom

    I am glad that you said that your focus is not on drawing the lines between generations but in bridging the gap between them. Probably for as long as human life history has been, young people dismiss old people as being old fashioned or too settled, while old people call young people immature or too restless.

    I agree that both sides represent resources, capabilities and perspectives that can help each. It is the difference between the two sets that provides the dynamic for change, but maybe appreciation for each other will help eliminate unnecessary tension between the young and the old generations (or on a smaller, more personal scale, between young people and older people – whether in families, companies, organizations or communities).

    Maybe young people (young people of all present and past generations) need to rebel against the ways of the old in order to bring forth change that would bring the world to the next level. It maybe the dissatisfaction with the old (old ways, old products, but hopefully not old people) that forces people to look for and create changes. It could also be the hope or quest to remain young (look at all the anti-aging products in the market!) that bring forth all sorts of discoveries in medicine, cosmetics, health maintenance, etc. Being young is also identified with impatience, which probably explains why machines get faster and faster.

    On the other hand, some older folks like me start to see the folly of working faster, faster, faster on a direction that we no longer wish to take, especially, with the realization that we seem to be on a treadmill that goes faster and faster but is not going anywhere. We realize that there are more important things in life to enjoy.

    When we were younger, we wanted to learn everything, go everywhere and do everything. Now that we are older, we are happy with what we know and can define what we would still like to learn and no longer feel the need to learn everything. We have learned to accept our limitations, which is not to say we are no longer interested to learn new things or new ways. We pace ourselves when we try to learn something new, and choose what else we need to know so we are no longer in a frenzy and no longer going in different directions to learn new things.

    But each generation serves a purpose. The world needs the calm and contemplative contentment and wisdom of the old as much as it needs the tireless energy and intellectual curiosity of the young. It needs the dynamic incompatibility of the two generations in order for the world to move on, but we also need, as you said, for us to understand each other so that we do not diminish each other.

    Note: I am not finished with writing my comment but I need to interview a couple of applicants. I will think about this more and try to finish this before you arrive tonight.

  • Mark A. Flacy

    I do not believe that it is correct to speak of “generations”; we aren’t locusts that appear in floods at 17 year cycles. You should have many shared characteristics of people who are 3 or 4 years older than you. They, in turn, have many shared characteristics of people who are 3 or 4 years older than they are.

  • The following witty commentary on technology across the generations from Douglas Adams, from “The Salmon of Doubt,” seems appropriate here:

    Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
    Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
    Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

    Clicking “Add comment” and crossing fingers in the absence of a Preview feature….

  • LudditeGeek: I love that quote! I’ll be sure to use that next time I talk about this topic. =)

    Mark: Yes, the differences are hard to see when you look closely. But life has changed a _lot_ in the past twenty, forty years, and those changes shape the way we grow up and the way we think. 2008 is not all that different from 2007, and so on, but it is _very_ different from the 1950s. And people (in North America, particularly) do tend to be born in cycles, thanks to the effect of that last World War…So I think it’s worth talking about generations, even though it’s a touchy topic.