I’ve lost count of the number of times over the last decade that I’ve watched presentations that make reference to the generational differences in workplace motivation between the Baby Boomers and the younger generations of X (~1961 to ~1981) and Y (~1982 to ~1999).
For the most part, they all tend to focus on the what and ignore the why. They aren’t generally negative or judgmental in tone — they’re business presentations, after all — but without any historical perspective to ground the differences to probable causal factors, what’s the probable take-away for Baby Boomers? They leave with yet another version of the inventory of demands and expectations of their subordinates and co-workers, and whatever preconceptions they entered the presentation space with left firmly intact.
It’s tempting to think that the differences in younger people are tied to flawed character, unrealistic expectations, ambivalence about traditional values, disconnection from organized religion, lingering preoccupation with comics and video games… A conscious choice to ignore the lessons of the older generation. General failure to grow up.
I’m in Gen-X; right in the middle, actually. I don’t purport to speak for the whole of my generation nor any other. I can only speak for myself, and I’m going to try to explain why I may be different from a Boomer, and why that’s not a bad thing.
This could be long, but it won’t be. I want you to read it all. The rest we could share over a coffee or a juice somewhere.
I’ve worked hard(er), for less money
I have a Master’s degree and two Bachelor’s degrees: about 8.5 years of post-secondary education. I was never a “career student”, I just love to learn. I had a plan for my life since before becoming a teenager, and it never included “astronaut” or any of the other pie-in-the-sky wishes stereotypically attributed to wide-eyed youth.
When finances fell through, I worked for a mining company for a year. When my educational interests changed, I changed degrees, but not without completing the first one. When the economy changed, I adapted. I sandwiched a full career and a stint running my own business in between my undergraduate degrees and my graduate education. My graduate degree and 2nd career were the result of more adaptation, planning, and hard work to cope with a growing family and a grim economy.
My father never finished high school. My mom did — as an adult student. My father has been in management since his 20s. I’ve never earned a higher salary than he has, and wonder (now, infrequently) if I ever will. My dad doesn’t understand this; his mindset is firmly mired in that old economic trend where each subsequent generation prospered more than the last one. That changed with my generation. His perception hasn’t, and perhaps won’t.
Gen-X is often written off as the lazy slackers. The spoiled kids. The “me” generation. A sense of entitlement without the sense of duty. This isn’t me, and probably isn’t the majority of my cohort either. I believed that my investment in myself would pay off as my father believed it would. It hasn’t. I’m successful, but not in comparison to my total investment.
I don’t carry a chip on each shoulder ruminating about when I’ll “get what’s coming to me”. I do admit to some envy of my father’s era, where a smart haircut and a positive attitude could really get you places. But I don’t have high expectations anymore. No-one works their way up to CEO after starting life in the mail room, except in old stories.
Personal satisfaction and individual growth through my daily work is more important to me than raises or promotions. Perhaps this looks lazy, disinterested, or selfish; it doesn’t feel that way inside. The world may not be what it once was, but I still trust myself to make good on the promises I make to myself. I’ve made my own brass ring. I’ve taken full responsibility for my own happiness. And I’ve rarely let myself down.
That said, there has to be room for me to find fulfilment, and eventually this will be upward, or I’ll move outward.
I do respect you; please respect me
I’m not the same fresh-faced youth that my father was. I entered the workforce with roughly equitable (but different) life experience and a healthy appreciation for punctuality, but more education and more perceived value of myself and what I had to offer. It was only with time that I learned that people with experience value experience, and my lack of experience really limited my value as perceived by the organization. It was a struggle for me to rectify this internally.
It’s difficult to be a young and educated person full of ideas, and feel muzzled. Conversely, it’s also difficult to be an older, experienced person and feel bombarded with the energy and expectation of a young person who wants to do it all, right now.
I wasn’t a queue jumper or an egomaniac; but I’d witnessed what my father had achieved without a high school diploma (but, in fairness, with a community college certificate). I could be a manager, too, and in less time. Or so I thought.
Had I come to the table with nothing, my expectations would have been much lower. I would have most certainly demonstrated more of the humility and deference that Gen-X’ers are thought not to possess by the truckload. But I did feel like I was a more valuable acquisition than my father had been in his day.
If I was perceived to have issues with authority, I can only apologize for having the normal reaction that youth have to people they feel rejected by. I’m well past that now, at least chronologically (look! Gen-X self-deprecating humour!), but I probably don’t perceive authority the way my father did.
I admit that my education and my personal experiences have shaped in me a way not entirely positive. I’m skeptical of motive and slow to trust absolutely. I respect the power that people have, and am more than able to extend genuine courtesy, but on some level I’m also usually wary of people and their power, at least to the degree that it could be used for ill.
I’m still eager to meet leaders, learn about them, and work for them to the best of my ability… but I don’t assume that everyone in power got there purely on their individual merit, and haven’t for a very long time. Absolute good and evil — or even substantive correlation between perception and reality — was a phenomenon that lasted for a period of my early childhood.
At this point it’s important to quantify my earlier mention of ‘personal experiences’ by saying that only part of my experiences occurred in real life.
No, I’ve never done drugs. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. But I have ‘done’ a lot of television. I’ve used it extensively throughout my life — for entertainment, for education, for companionship. A constant and dependable presence in my life. I think Gen-X was probably the first generation where TV became a form of child care. It had reached saturation point as a cheap and widespread technology, even among the poor, and the variety of programming was expanding with the emergence of cable. For me, it was beyond information… it was comfort: from boredom, from loneliness, from the worries of the world — nuclear war, divorce rates, AIDS.
I soaked in so much — more than one should from a device designed to entertain, not educate. But it did make me think about morality. It wasn’t that I was particularly gifted or insightful, but even a casual fan of the World Wrestling Federation could draw correlations between the larger-than-life personae in the ‘squared circle’ and the larger-than-life politicians at the television podium. When I wasn’t watching Hulk Hogan, I got to watch Ronald Reagan wage war on Communism, with the most important battles being fought within the American psyche. “The Great Communicator” was called such for his ability to engage people charismatically, by distilling complex political and economic issues in simple (and simplistic) terms. Black and white in the age of colour television.
I’m doubtful of authority. I question it. Funny perhaps that I should work for government today? Not really. I absolutely believe in the necessity of being involved with something so powerfully invasive. Governments are ruled by legislation, but also the conduct of the people within in. I want to be here, to act, but also to witness. My oath as a public servant was to uphold the government and serve Canadians in an ethical manner, and this is what I do regardless of the governing party or the individual leaders. These can change overnight.
I don’t. I’m here to work.
Lead me with persuasion, and with respect. Communicate your vision to me in specific terms, without hyperbole. And please listen to me. Share with me as you would an equal. Tell me what your deficits are, what my strengths are, and how we can work together.
Lead me without force. Keep your power safely tucked away in the inside breast pocket of your jacket, and keep it buttoned up.
Poor leaders leave buttons undone. Poor leaders want to show the lining of their coat periodically, for demonstration. Poor leaders place a hand over that pocket when in distress.
Don’t. We both know what’s in there.