Sunday, June 14, 2009

The workplace generation divide is really just a lack of perspective

Since I often tap away on my laptop in the same room that my husband mocks reality TV, he says he's curious about what I write. I occasionally send him links to my posts, although I really think he's just making sure that he's not the topic of a rant. Since my last post was the first one I'd written in a while, I asked his opinion. I didn't expect much in terms of feedback; words aren't his fancy. (True story: he once asked for a towel to "demoistify" his hands because he couldn't think of the word "dry." Dry.)

Much to my surprise, Thing Three's feedback was very insightful. When I wrote that being a mother has helped me see what's important in my work, he agreed. But he said it so much better: he told me that it's given me perspective.

He's so right! (Are you reading, Thing Three? Print this out--it might be the last time I tell you you're right.) That's exactly what being a mother has done--it's given me perspective. I have more context, more life experience, a frame of reference by which I can judge what's important in work and what, really, won't matter if I let it slide a bit. And that makes me a much better worker.

This is what is missing when we talk about the generational divides at work, and how the future is all about Gen Y and we Gen Xers (and Boomers) are so out of it.

While I'm an avid reader of Penelope Trunk's blog and I admire her dedication to the Millennials on her Brazen Careerist website, I'm not totally bought in. I really don't think that the younger generation is going to completely change the world of work. Technology will, the recession will, globalization will, but not this generation. They may benefit from all of the changes in work, but to say that they will cause it is short-sighted. Just because they're demanding more work/life balance doesn't mean companies will change--take a look at how the recession has halted flexible work arrangement. To say that they are working out of their parents basements because they really, truly want to do meaningful work is hogwash--they're doing it because they can! They're young, they're not used to the freedom--and responsibility--that comes from living on their own. Their standard of living is fairly low--mom and dad's basement (and fridge) is pretty attractive compared to communal dorm living. This will change--they'll want more privacy, mom and dad will want their house back.

What I'd like to do is fast forward a dozen years or so and see how unique and idealistic this generation turns out to be. Tell me, when they're in their 30s and 40s, with kids who need good schools and a mortgage that needs to be paid and parents who need help getting to the doctor, will they still be this idealistic? Will they still put meaningful work at the the top of the priority list, or will they need to choose--the way that many of us have--a job with benefits and a 401(k) and--eek!--a commute?

Or, when they get a bit more life experience, will they finally be able to put work in perspective? Maybe time is all that's needed to bridge the so-called workplace generational divide. Maybe Gen Y just needs to grow up.


Anonymous said...

Did he actually use the word "perspective", or did he call it that "different point of view thingy"?

Brett Hummel said...

I think whether you want to say Millennials are influencing work or work/society has influenced Millennials is not necessarily the best way to approach the issue. The world of work is changing, and in many ways it is shifting from the old hierarchical model to a much more organic and dynamic one that Millennials tend to prefer. The economy is moving away from a steady job where a person becomes manager after 10 years and retires with their pension after 20 years, and towards an on demand/independent contractor work style where the employee can work from anywhere that they choose.

And while I agree that some companies are buttoning down and going back to the old ways, I do not believe that these companies will be as successful as those that try new models. To cite a few examples Deloitte is creating a matrix of career options for their new professionals; Best Buy has instituted not only flexible work hours but allows employees to set their own schedules and has made meetings optional; and at Ernst & Young employees do not have their own desks or landlines because they are expected to share their resources.

I do though agree that this generational tension is not a good thing because both sides can learn much from each other. Gen Ys have incredible and innovative ideas, but they are too often crushed by older managers who think they should wait their turn. Gen Ys on the other hand are too impatient and are unwilling to listen to their older counterparts. In a sense if both sides would stop neglecting the other, we would have a perfect situation: Millennials could come up with new ideas, and Baby Boomers/Gen Xers could give insight, wisdom, and the benefit of their life experiences about how to best position the idea.

MDTaz said...

Having kids, which might be termed one of the most meaningful things we do in our lives, is what causes many of us to give up or set aside what we thought was "meaningful work" because our perspectives and priorities change when we have to pay the costs of maintaining a healthy family. Isn't this a passage every generation goes through? The Millennials may be encountering a different kind of working world, but like you, I imagine they'll encounter the same perspective-altering issues when it's their turn to repopulate the planet.

Having said that, I'd do nothing to discourage a next generation from believing they have got it all worked out. They'll need all the hope and confidence they can muster.