Part 1- The Roots of Generational Difference.
In the last few years, the term ‘Multi-Generational Workforce’ has been used with increasing frequency in business articles and journals. As life expectancy increases and the age of retirement and state pension creeps upwards, we find ourselves in a new scenario where up to four different generations are working together at the same time. Although many leaders I speak to are facing this scenario with fear and trepidation, I am quick to assure them that this is, in fact, a wonderful opportunity for both organisational and leadership growth across their business.
Terms such as Baby Boomers, Generation X and more recently Millennials and Centennials have been introduced into our daily lexicon. The framing of these terms comes from several different researchers and theorists but are most often attributed to Howe and Strauss, the fathers of Generational Theory. Their research into the cyclical cultural movements in US history led them to surmise that a generational cohort usually spans a twenty year time period and that members of that cohort share at least two defining characteristics:
- Perceived Membership: they have had similar experiences during their formative years of childhood and adolescence, giving them a broadly shared (or understandable) value system which they have in common, and
- Age Location in History: they can remember particular events that defined the world around them during their formative years
An example of this, in the case of Generation X, born between the years of 1962-1977 is as follows:
- Perceived Membership: born at at time when many families started to have two parents at work, Generation X had to look after themselves. Many were given keys to the family home at an early age (well before the formally traditional age of 21) and would let themselves in after school, do their own homework and in some cases cook for themselves from an early age. This level of independence would later become a defining factor in Generation Xers in the workplace and lead them to having less conservative views of leadership and more entrepreneurial approaches to organisational growth.
- Age Location in History: in an Irish context, the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 was a memorable event in the life of young Generation Xers. They usually remember where they were during this historic visit and can compare stories and experiences with each other. But this event also typifies the kind of society in which they grew up and which they were a part of changing; from a conservative and relatively predictable society of institutional hierarchy to the pluralistic society in which we live today. As crisis after crisis rocked the church, the economy, the banking system, the housing market etc. Generation X changed the rules of how we do business. No longer content to accept the status quo to the same degree as their older Baby Boomer bosses had been, Generation X combined a strong work ethic and long-hours work culture with independent thought and entrepreneurial flair, which contributed to the strong growth of the Celtic Tiger.
Baby Boomers (born between the years of 1946-1961) grew up in a world where their parents and grandparents had just survived two World Wars and the 1929 global financial crash. Their world was filled with institutions where leadership was ‘positional’ and hard-earned over a long period of time. Organisational leaders dictated to their colleagues and team members and, in return for being followed, provided job security and a sense of consistency and certainty to their employees. Given the old adage of sticking with a ‘permanent, pensionable job’, providing this kind of security was a huge factor in leading and motivating others.
Generation X seemed to rebel against this and, given the economic growth in the western world and the lack of a third World War, they brought their own distinctive stamp to the world of work. Leaders still cherished titles and roles that delineated them from others, but the paths to these leadership positions was more open and more accessible to people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Generation Xers could ‘skip rungs of the ladder’, innovate and deliver results in non-traditional ways. The arrival of the internet, the dot-com bubble and an increasingly global market and culture of business meant that innovators thrived. New policies and procedures were enshrined as ‘vision, mission and values’ documents became the norm; and as relative earnings increased a 'work-hard, play-hard' lifestyle evolved across many industries and societies - a stark contrast to the ration-book days of only a couple of generations past. In this environment, younger Baby Boomers and older Generation Xers became parents to the next generation: Millennials.
Millennials (born between 1978 - 1998) grew up in a rapidly globalising world where MTV and the internet brought US and global pop-culture values into the home. But growing up with parents who worked long hours didn’t necessarily rub off on the work ethic of all Millennials during their formative years. This is partly due to the fact that many of their parents were 'helicopter parents': overly-protective, wanting to be the ‘friend’ of their son or daughter and often shying away from disciplining them when they didn’t study or behave appropriately. Examples of 'helicopter parenting' behaviours include parents spending their evenings and weekends ferrying their children around rather than letting them find their own way home. Or giving their children pocket money and games consoles, even when they didn’t study or do their bit around the house. Why did this happen and why does it continue to happen today?
Many Generation Xers and Baby Boomers grew up in an environment where children were 'seen and not heard' and took a conscious or an unconscious vow that, when it was their turn, they would not be so distant as parents. They would, in fact, be very close to their children, even wanting to be their 'friend' or their closest friend. This desire for emotional proximity to their children, combined with their strong work-ethic and long-hours work culture- of Generation X parents in particular- often left Baby Boomer and Generation X parents feeling guilty and wanting to 'make it up' to their Millennial children when they did see them. This was especially visible during the heady days of the Celtic Tiger when so many Millennials grew up in an environment of plenty and an atmosphere of possibility.
Patrick Boland, February 2018.