Generation: dead

When I read the comment “there are likely to be generational issues”, forming part of a tweet from a “smartworking summit” (kill me now) last week, I nodded sagely. Actually it was more of a headbutt, aimed at a door. Repeatedly. Here is the blogged version of that moment of clarity.

It may hasten the demise of “generational issues” if we replace the word “generations” with “cohorts”. The sheer ugliness of the word may relegate it to the Isthmian South. In an onomatopoeic sense, its an inflated, snorty, windy word. The internet doesn’t like those.

Its the age, not age:
The fundamental characteristics we attribute to cohorts are just the features of the age itself. All cohorts are free to explore and attract these features in equal measure, not just those reaching the workforce for the first time. Those beyond retirement are just as likely as the intern to be digitally savvy, consider global warming more important than a Ukrainian meltdown, and wear Dr Dre’s in bed. And “ages” don’t start and stop at intervals convenient to those preparing powerpoint slides.

Our definitions don’t work:
We don’t seem to be sure what we are talking about (hardly a first, admittedly). While most agree on the birth years of Baby Boomers and Gen X, thereafter it all falls apart. The whole “Gen y” thing arose over a decade ago, so those guys are now in the workplace (albeit its been a struggle of late). There is now an attempt to define a Generation Z. There is even talk of a Gen-C. We are not sure whether Millenials are one or both. Or maybe something else. To most, they are all just young people. Or younger people. At least, “not us”.

Technology is not the defining factor it is made out to be:
For other cohorts, it was major societal and global events and upheavals that defined them. For Millennials, its technology. Young people may have grown up with social technologies and apps for everything they can’t be bothered to get out of bed for, but it hasn’t necessarily made them any better at using them than those who remember that you couldn’t correct a mistype when using telex. They just use them. And because “search” is in their DNA doesn’t mean to say its an advantage. Those who remember having to request books or journals at the library and wait three months because fifty people were given the same reading list have in many cases taken to the wonder of the ubiquity of information even more than their offspring. Technology comes with the age, what we do defines the age. And those who remember life without a particular technology usually consume it more greedily.

A focus on a tiny but high-profile minority has warped our perspective of the lot of the majority:
We may be making far too much of the trust-fund fuelled world of “start-up” as evidence of a game change, of the ridiculously young getting ridiculously rich and making our career choices look ridiculously pedestrian. Yet the success stories are – as in most sectors – few and far between, and most end in the character-building pit of failure. Indeed failure is now becoming a badge of honour in these circles. Most young people have to navigate the misdirections of the careers advisory service, and end up (fortune-permitting) with a payslip with a logo in the corner.

Why do we think that there should be an issue?
When someone realised there might be four generations in the workplace, that had to mean something, surely? When we recognise a “situation”, there have to be implications, lessons, issues, a need for change. Why have all those WordPress accounts, if not for this? When I first started work almost thirty years ago no-one said “ah – you’re a Gen Whatever. We have to treat you differently because you want different things and probably know how to use a fax machine”. I just got on with it. My older colleagues just got on with it. There were people of all ages around me, and yes, I grew up too. My first “line management” subject was over twice my tender age. We all just got on with it.

Generational consciousness is created by previous cohorts:
The first coining of Generation Y was (it seems) in a 1993 Advertising Age editorial, with the birth year of 1982 as the starting point. The attachment of ideas such as “echo”, “net”, “boomerang” and “we” only served to stimulate a growing debate about whether this was a new cohort with an identity to itself, which as the bandwagon gained momentum solidified around whatever could be found. This is turn created a self-perpetuating consciousness amongst the cohort itself: “we are different”.

We have succumbed to trivialisation of the issue in the advanced economies:
In Angola, Africa’s fastest growing country, about 60% of the country’s 21m people are under 25 – and they want (and need) jobs. The benefits of its oil wealth have not created much in the way of employment for the young, and it needs to diversify to continue its remarkable transformation. And so it will be quite some time before anyone in Luanda is pondering whether its Millennials may need a different tone of voice. They just need to be included.

We should appreciate age diversity in the workplace for the richness and perspective it brings, as with all other forms of diversity – not use it as another excuse for separate treatment. There are not “likely to be generational issues” with that.

The ultimate test in this case would be that if we never mentioned generational differences in the workplace again, in any context, would we be any poorer in our thought, or remiss in our action?


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