It’s a generational thing

Have you noticed that your attitudes and values are different from that of your parents or grandparents? Perhaps they keep the old wrapping paper to reuse, saying “waste not, want not” and get upset when you change jobs after “only” five years.
If you have children in high school or older do you sometimes clash with them over their attitude or values. Are their friends more important than their own family and would they prefer to send a text message instead of talking face to face?
This is apparently because we belong to different generations.

When I first heard about generational theory I thought it was nonsense. I believed my children differed from me because they were going through a teenage phase, which would pass. And I differed from my mother because we have different personalities. Then I began noticing that the younger staff in our office, were different from myself and colleagues of my age, in some ways that were consistent amongst themselves, regardless of personality.

Unlike many other theories about people this one is not psychological but sociological. And it isn’t new. A 14th Century Bedouin, Ancient Greek writers, Chinese philosophers and the writers of the Old Testament all noted the cyclical nature of history and generational development. However it was really popularised by two Americans, Howe and Strauss, in the 1990’s. Since then our own Graeme Codrington, with his company TomorrowToday, has made it easy for all of us to understand through his talks and his book called “Mind the Gap”.
Graeme explains simply, “Generational theory explains that the era in which a person was born affects the development of their view of the world.” Strauss and Howe point out that “History creates generations and generations create history”.

A generation tends to be about 20 years in length. Because it is bounded by significant events in the country or region the dates can differ from place to place. According to Codrington people in South Africa with the same generational characteristics are 3-5 yrs younger than the same group in the UK and that in turn is 3-5 yrs younger than the same generation in the US. Therefore in total there is up to 10 years difference between SA and the US. This is important when reading articles about the latest generation – the millennium generation. Most of these are written from the States and speak about their place in the workplace. Here in SA those people are just finishing school now and have not yet entered the workplace.

Tonight I would like to briefly look at two of the generations that are very active in our workplace at present: the baby boomers who were born from around 1950 and the Generation Xers who followed them from about 1970 until the end of the 80’s. So for us here that means if you are over 40 years old you are possibly a Boomer and if you are younger then you maybe a Generation Xer.

Those who have studied these two groups in the workplace describe the Boomers as a workaholic generation, driven, goal oriented and bottom line focussed; motivated by vision, mission and strategy. They are principled and optimistic with a leadership style that doesn’t consult much with other generations. They hate ageing hence the booming industry in anti aging products.

On the other hand the Xers look for quick, short term rewards and for a work-life balance. They are informal, self reliant and individualistic. All of which can make them appear arrogant and rebellious. They dislike bossiness and company culture. And they need constant change and experiences. They are sceptical of hype and being “sold” and tend to be more pessimistic.

People born as the generations changeover are called cuspers. According to Codrington they tend to take on the characteristics of one or the other generation but they are comfortable with both. This makes them very good at bridging the gap.

Why is it useful to have some understanding of how generational theory applies to the workplace?
Well differences between people are often a cause of conflict. But if we understand where that difference is coming from it is easier to tolerate and accept it and potential conflict can then be reduced.


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