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.