Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Generational Fuzziness

Jamie recently made his e-book, Generational Diversity in the Workplace: Hype Won’t Get You Results, free for the asking. Well, I finally got around to reading it, and I have to say, had I known it was such an interesting read, I would’ve bought it when it was available for sale. Jamie, tell you what, if we ever meet in person, I’ll buy you dinner. (I owe you for a few other things, anyway.)

Jamie hits a couple of core themes that we’ve referred to before on Hourglass and probably will again. The first is the fuzziness of the generations themselves.

Some generational theorists have hard definitions for when the generations begin and end—based on population trends that appear in birth records. They say Baby Boomers are Baby Boomers because they were born during the baby boom after the GIs returned from World War II. Therefore, Baby Boomers started being born in 1946. No exceptions.

Well, Jamie disagrees. And so do his muses, William Strauss and Neil Howe. They all say the generations are defined by the broad social context that exists while individuals in that group “come of age,” and set their values. Growing up during the 1960s was a much different experience than growing up during the 1980s, and that’s why Boomers and Xers are different, not because they were born in different years.

The other fuzzy factor Jamie wants us to keep in mind is the concept of life stage. Not only are the generations different because of what was going on in the world while they were coming of age, those same events impact each generation differently because they are all at different stages of life when they occur. A generation, in other words, isn’t carved in stone after its formative experiences. Their values may be sort of baked into them by the social context of their coming of age, but they will evolve and react differently to each successive generation’s social context as they progress through the natural stages of life.

Jamie says he doesn’t like charts that summarize the generations because they overly simplify the complex, and are often taken out of context, but when it comes to the impact of these life stages, I couldn’t fully wrap my head around the idea until I created this chart:
It’s rough and contains sweeping generalizations, but it helps me think about generations and leadership. Right now we have three generations in the workforce. Some say four and a few are saying we’ll soon see five, but let’s limit it to three for the time being.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the “Great Recession” is one of those vast social contexts that will shape the generation currently coming of age. We don’t yet know who they are or what it’s going to do to them, but we can say a few things about the generations already in the workforce and how they may react to it based both on the social context that existed when they came of age and the current stage of life they find themselves at now.

(Hold on to your hats, folks. If I thought I was going out on a limb before, I’m really crawling out onto the skinny branches with this foray into armchair generational analysis!)

Formative social context
– The safety and conformity of great economic prosperity fuels a youthful rebellion that yearns to define the individual as transcendent to what is perceived as the autonomic and soulless culture.
Life stage now – Maturity. Ending their careers and looking forward to retirement.
Leadership perspective for dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession – “We’re doomed! How can I deal with this thing and still actualize myself? Do I need to start a social movement?”

Formative social context
– The rise of the individual over the collective needs of society gives way to social unrest, cults of false personality, and character corruption in leadership, breeding a deep cynicism in the power of the individual to affect real change.
Life stage now – Middle age. Seeking to define themselves as leaders.
Leadership perspective for dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession – “Well, they screwed it up again. Guess I need to keep watching out for myself. But wait a minute, as long as the pieces need to be put back together, can’t we do it in ways that make more sense? Is anyone listening?”

Formative social context
– A tired cynicism turns cantankerous and gives way to a resurgence of individual empowerment, fueled by expanding social technologies that connect people and ideas.
Life stage now – Young adulthood. Entering the workforce.
Leadership perspective for dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession – “WTF? I can’t get anyone to hire me. Oh, well. I still matter to all my friends on Facebook. Anyone want to start a socially conscious company with me?”

Three generations formed by three different social contexts. But in predicting how they each will choose to lead in our current environment, you have to take into account their stage of life. It’s part of what makes this discipline so fuzzy and difficult to pin down.


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