Thursday, February 14, 2013

When Gen X (+) GenY = ERROR

Many of us go to our jobs everyday, nod to our co-workers, and get to it.  Very few of us stop to think about the people around us in terms of what I refer to as the "Picasso View".  It makes sense that each of us is a product of the sum of our experiences.  If each of us were constructed of the exact same DNA, essentially clones of each other, we would still all be unique individuals.  It's what we see and do that defines us, not our flesh and blood.

I like the term Picasso View because of the way the artist himself created paintings.  Take a look at the one titled "Guernica" at this link:    If you look at it you'll probably see what I see - a number of (seemingly) independent images that make up the whole.  People are just like that.

Why is that important and how does that relate to IT?

Currently within almost every workspace there are three generations co-existing: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y.  Here is quick rundown on the dates associated with each**:
  • Baby Boomers; 1946-1964
  • Generation X (the Busters); 1965-1983
  • Generation Y (the Millennials); 1984-2002
If you read the source descriptions on each one you'll see that the whole grouping of people, not just the individuals, had much different cultural experiences than the others.

The Baby Boomers were taught to question authority and to break down the traditions of their parents, who were born between 1910-1945 (sometimes called "The Greatest Generation).  At the same time, Boomers were taught that if they worked hard and fit in, they would live the good life, which included a nice retirement.  Generation X had a much different experience.  They were/are the first generation of "latch-key" kids - a term given to a household with either one parent or both parents working.  X'ers by nature are a suspicious lot not given to much respect for authority, sensitivity, or a sense of belonging.  To quote the preeminent sociologist Tammy Erickson, "Generation X workers begin looking for work the day they start their new job." 

This now brings us to Generation Y - the Millennials.  This special group is a product of both the previous generations - Boomers AND X'ers.  Not only are Gen Y'ers the first group to inherit the era modern computers, Google, Facebook, and instant communication, they are also what I refer to "Mulligan" or "Do-Over Vicarians".  Neither the late Boomers or early-middle X'ers were satisfied with the lack of personal relationships that their parents had with them.  It was too formal, rigid, and impersonal.  So along came Dr. (Benjamin) Spock and others who paved the way for the self-esteem revolution.  Gen Y'ers have always been taught that they are all special, everybody is a winner, and that their feelings should be of paramount importance to others.

Remember back to the definition of Generation X?

Baby Boomers tend to interact the best with Gen Y'ers because they paved the road for them to be the way they are.  In many cases with the poor economy, you may even find Gen Y'ers still living with their Boomer parents.  However, Gen X'ers have inexorably been moving into the key management of companies for a little over 10 years now.  As a rule, Gen X'ers are skeptical and self-reliant, uncaring about whether someone is looking out for their feelings.  Gen Y'ers are just the opposite.  They are very clannish and need constant reassurance that they are special and that what they think matters.

We are just now starting to see the clash between Gen X and Gen Y and in many cases it's not pretty.  By comparative size, Generation X is a smaller population of people than Gen Y and the Boomers, although, retiring, still remain a fairly large fraction of workforces.  I've seen many clashes between Gen X and Gen Y employees over the past few years, mostly X'ers in positions of authority over Y's.

What is the consequences for both groups and the companies they serve?  While it's still hard to quantify, for the next 15 years companies may start to (a) experience greater turnover than ever before and/or (b) be unable to attract younger workers.  From personal experience I have seen the amount of 20-something employees willing to work in IT shrink year over year.

What's to be done?  For now, Gen X'ers must learn to understand that Y'ers need much more support and encouragement than other employees.  To an extent, X'ers must learn to "babysit/parent" in the workplace as much as manage.  Gen Y's on the other hand must be willing to accept that learning requires failure.  And also that failure can occur but that it does not invalidate their whole worth and value as a human being.

Can both Gen X & Y come to detente?  The next five years will answer that question.


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