Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Shaping of Generations

Anybody who happens to be connected to me on Facebook also has seen my recent comments in a string of responses to a recent Kiplinger.com article (shared via the Yahoo.com website) entitled "Make Way for Generation Y".  For your reading convenience, the original Kiplinger article is located here and the Yahoo! version is here.
There have been more than 1,000 comments (original comments, not including comment replies, of which there are countless more) on this article right now.  Most of what has been happening is the usual "finger pointing" exercise that one generation claims superiority over another generation, most typically the (Baby) Boomers are slamming the Gen Y crowd while the Millenials have attacked not only Boomers but also the Gen X bunch (of which, by most definitions, I find myself).  Gen X repliers, for their part, have gone on the defensive against unwarranted attacks but, maybe not totally surprisingly, have sided more often than not with the Boomers in general disgust of the opinions of the Gen Y responders.
Depending upon whom has made the response, I have agreed with some points that every group has made up to now, but, in the same breath, I recognize none of them are completely right.  Maybe might generational positioning is part of the rationale.  I'm in the bridge area between Gen X and Gen Y (depends where the "official" line gets drawn by the people who decide these things), but I personally have a perspective that melds some of X / Y ideals together.  My parents were of two previous generations: dad from the "Silent Generation" (1925-1945) and mom from the Baby Boom (1946-1965). 
Since I started to write a specific response to someone, I decided to keep this particularly section.  I think you will understand what was said originally [bracketed for clarity] ...
[It's a pretty bold statement to say Baby Boomers "need to leave the workplace" when it's not really in your place to decide that.  Actually, given that retirement ages keep getting pushed back further and further (from early 60's to almost 70 the way things are headed), I find it hard to believe that I would tell my own parents (both of whom are still working) just to "step aside" and let someone younger take their places.  I don't know too many people in my dad's generation who aren't or weren't hard workers in their time (many working long hours in factory jobs with high amounts of physical labor).  My dad is 70 years old, and, while his job isn't high physical strain like some of those jobs are, I wouldn't think of him walking away from what he does.  I guarantee he works harder than men half his age, and I know people in his same occupation who wouldn't try half as hard to be employed or work only part-time doing the same job.
My point isn't to say Gen Y is bad because it's not.  No generation bears the burdens of all previous generations (as evidenced that future generations will come after it), but I will go so far as to say you imply your generation "knows it all" by saying you don't need experience when you have knowledge at your fingertips.  This is the classic youth trap ... you just won't realize it for another decade or so.
I don't know your exact age (my guess is early to mid-20's but you are welcome to correct me), but I remember when I started in the workplace a little over a decade ago.  I thought I knew as much as those I worked around in the short time I was there, and I thought I could do their jobs better than they did.  I grew up with computers, too ... even if that means my first system was DOS-based (nearly a foreign concept to anyone under 30) that actually required more understanding of how technology worked than the "point and click" Windows / Mac world in which we live now.  The evolution of what kinds of "pains" technology or the lack thereof used to be (not even attempting to grasp how annoying things like punch cards used to be or having to use typewriters over word processors over PC's, etc.) is what makes experience meaningful.
Yes, new ideas are fantastic.  Yes, new technology has a place.  While you think that Baby Boomers may or may not be receptive to all of the "information at your fingertips" that you believe only your generation sees, you forget the first PC generation wasn't yours.  Apple put computers in the classrooms in the 1980's (I remember them as early as third grade), so Gen X had them, too, throughout their formative years at the very least from junior high into high school and beyond.  I had my own desktop system (since computers used to cost way too much) from the time I was 13, and I have never looked back.
Don't confuse having access to information with knowing how to use it.  There is a BIG difference.] 

At this point, my reply to the specific poster wasn't going through on Yahoo!'s comment section, so I started writing my own personal response, which follows below. 

As someone who hits at the tail end of Gen X and beginning of Gen Y, I feel like there is something to be said for what this piece is trying to articulate. 
I find it interesting that the Baby Boom is defined as 1946 to 1965 and Gen Y as 1981 to 1999.  Both periods are 19 years long ... but that leaves the intervening group (Gen X) only 16 years in between.  The Gen X group would be "small" already relative to the other two (the Boom and the Echo Boom), although trimming off three years of population on either side seems disingenuous.  A generation, under "normal" definitions, should span at least closer to 20 years (or about 22 years under historical models).  This is probably why the X model doesn't seem all that effective.
Maybe history will re-write itself as time moves forward, since the torch passing from the Baby Boom to the Gen Y crowd is a ridiculous premise.  Sure, upper leadership in most organizations is currently the over-50 to under-65 crowd (which would be largely Baby Boomers), but are they passing the baton to the under-30 crowd when they retire?  I guess I don't understand organizational succession planning or career progression if that’s the case.  I realize the point attempting to be made is that, by sheer population numbers, one large group of people is going to sway marketing and workplaces from the largest group that preceded it.  The funny thing is that workplace evolution has already been happening for over 20 years now, from the strictness of dress codes to flexible work schedules to more incorporating of technologies. 
Generation Y may be taking advantage of more of what is now out there (being “information managers” more than their predecessors), but why then is 1982 a “defining moment” if technology is the driving force?  A defining time period for technology was the proliferation of the World Wide Web, starting around 1993 or 1994 with the advent of web browsers.  What “generation” benefited or took most advantage of this?  Well, besides the “techno-geeks” of any age range (who were online even before this time), any children / young adults in schools (up through college) were benefiting from the technology wave.  Think about Yahoo!’s creation – 1994, by grad students.  Think about Google’s creation – 1996, by grad students.  The broader conclusion is that the foundation of some of today’s most-used websites happened at an interesting point age-wise … since these technology “leaders” are, by definition, Generation X members.
Here’s a more relevant point: knowing how to use Facebook, Twitter, or text messaging, amongst a myriad of technology choices, doesn’t make you “tech savvy”.  It doesn’t make you actually KNOW how those technologies work.  That may be the greatest shortsightedness of the point of the article.  The people who shape the future are the ones actively defining it.  People who are behind the scenes creating new technologies (such Gen Y’s own Mark Zuckerberg) are the major influencers.  To think that the generation as a collective thinks accessibility of information (whether or not it is factually right and having ability to differentiate the sources) is acceptable for the level of discernment needed to make good decisions is a travesty.  I don’t point the finger at Generation Y alone in this regard … critical thinking, in general, is missing in recent generations of people.  With more information available to us than ever before, someone needs to filter Niagara Falls into a garden hose.
I could say more, but there really is no point.  Many of the comments have digressed into the typical “flame war” that should be expected when one generation is threatened by another.  Accept the points made for what they are.  Agree or disagree because ultimately most of what has been said, including the article itself, is just subjective opinion.  Stereotyping an entire grouping of people by a limited number of characteristics is a fruitless exercise anyway.

Post-script conclusion:
I don't find any significant value in the grouping of entire age ranges (particularly 20-year ranges) as defining every member contained therein.  I started to make that point at the end of the above opinion.  Yes, some generalizations apply to some groups, but subsets might better be defined than the whole.  *Most* in Gen Y use technology in ways their predecessors never did ... but this is no different than how members of Gen X used technology more than their predecessors, and so on.  It's a cycle that doesn't end.
One of the early remarks was made by a Boomer who called Gen Y a "me" generation.  Wow, pot must have seen kettle on that one ... as the Baby Boom was the *original* "Me Generation" as many, many experts have seen it.  The Boomers, by and large, were raised with a sense of entitlement.  They were a generation raised with Social Security as a promise, the last of a breed of company "lifers", and a strong sense of loyalty (to their employers, to brands, etc.).  They fueled the American economy by spending money, as evidenced from the 1980's to now (where fiscal conservation hardly seemed the norm for wage earners in the prime earning years from their 30's to their 60's).  
The oldest of the Boom turns 65 in 2011, why all this "fuss" is being made at all.  Boomers will continue "retiring" at the rate of about three to four million people per year (assuming they don't continue employment after age 65, which is not really a given any longer) and start drawing the Social Security system even faster than it's been depleting so far.  They will be the last generation with a Social Security "right" (if that's not a real misnomer at this point).  Conveniently, the Social Security trust fund is projected to run out of actual securities by 2041 (if current projections hold), the year I am "projected" to turn 65.  I haven't been counting on SS benefits for my retirement up until this point, and I certainly won't be counting on them then, either.