Move over baby boomers. Generation X and your own children, Generation Y, have some work to do. By Nick Way
Ian Jones* pours himself a second cup of coffee. He is just getting into stride on the story of his engineering career: the long hours, the promotions, the realisation the top job would never be his; and the retrenchment: the ultimate betrayal.
He has now been out of work for six months and, with every day, he believes his chances of getting back into the workforce in a position anything like his former job – operations manager of a large manufacturing company with its headquarters in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs – are growing slighter. He has not given up hope yet; but that day is fast approaching.
Ian’s story is typical of many middle and senior managers who have found themselves on the employment scrap heap years before retirement age. But there is another aspect to Ian’s retrenchment that is rarely aired, yet is of great significance to all companies.
He is a baby boomer, born in 1948, and will turn 52 later this year. The second son of a returned serviceman, he shares many of the characteristics of his generation: ambitious, loyal, holds the notion that employment is guaranteed – typically for life in the one company – and believes in process: that there is a right way of doing things to achieve the desired outcome.
As Ian discovered late last year, these values are often not highly regarded in the workplace today. This does not make his values wrong. But it does put them at odds with the values of many of the younger people – those of Generation X – now coming to prominence in the company. As Ian now acknowledges, it was his failure to recognise this, to understand and come to terms with this shift in values operating in the organisation, that played a key role in his retrenchment.
Ian says: “There are many baby-boomer managers out there having trouble coming to grips with rising stars that we loosely term Generation X. What do I mean by Generation X? They are more focused on outcomes than process, in my observation. This typically means they are less concerned about the overall structure of the organisation and more concerned about their individual needs. I would say that was selfish; they would say it was realistic.”
“The other aspect is that they have little or no loyalty to the company, acting on the principle that the company will have little or no loyalty to them. I used to argue with them about this. I wouldn’t now. And their response to the belief that the organisation will set them adrift when it suits is their emphasis on acquiring skills to advance their careers. They’re certainly not relying on the company to do it for them.”
The clash of values that played such a role in Ian’s demise is being played out in most workplaces across the nation: baby boomers in senior positions having to manage staff – many of them with skills crucial to the organisation – with a different set of values. In addition, two other factors are also making themselves felt: the growing importance of technology in the workplace and how this often sets boundaries between baby boomers and Generation X; and the characteristics of baby boomers that make them unsuitable for managing younger people.
At this point, as Ian is quick to acknowledge, not all baby boomers stumble when dealing with Generation X. There are boomers who have taken to the emerging technologies with all the enthusiasm of the younger generation: they can be seen in airport lounges tapping away on their laptops. There are also senior executives who can deal with Generation X. Ian recalls one manager at his company who seemed to have more in common with the younger people than with his contemporaries.
“This didn’t mean he drank with them every night or even went out of his way to fraternise with them. But he did seem to have a better understanding of where they were coming from and more sympathy with the way they operated in the company. With hindsight, I guess I was a bit dismissive of them, seeing them as somehow disloyal, as opportunistic, even money-grubbing. I failed to give them credit for the fact that they were being loyal to their own set of values, just as I was being loyal to my set of values. More importantly, within this value set, they were giving the company loyal, dedicated service.”
In saying this Ian touches on a point that distinguishes the baby boomer from Generation X. While the role of the baby boomer as the rebel, the student who lived through the Vietnam protests, the sexual revolution, hippy culture, even soft drugs, has been well documented, this is not a complete picture. Indeed, as Ian agrees, it is far from it.
“The notion of the baby boomer as the rebel, as challenging society, as being willing to change, to adapt, has been overdone. What people forget is that we could be like this because we had the security blanket of full employment and guaranteed promotion – at least to a certain level if you weren’t a complete dill – and of a secure family structure where dad worked and mum stayed home to look after the children. It was the best of all possible worlds.”
There’s another aspect to this. “When I went to school and university, boys did the sciences and went on to become the engineers, the doctors, the scientists. The girls did arts and became teachers; at least until they got married. There are all sorts of ramifications flowing from this gender division, but two stand out.
“First, there was obviously less competition in the workplace. When you think about it, 50% of the population was effectively excluded from many of these fields. It was an extension of our security blanket. More importantly, however, is the fact that it did not prepare us to handle the well-educated, confident women, aware of their rights, who started to come through into key positions as part of Generation X. So we were not only having to come to terms with a new generation with a different set of values, but the reality that many of them were women. For managers such as myself who traditionally dealt with women as secretaries, that was a huge culture shock.”
Rosemary Foxcroft, managing director of recruitment firm DBM Aust, can appreciate Ian’s dilemma: “I characterise baby boomers as being more focused on process than outcomes, of being less flexible and more conscious of their status in the organisation. Many of them are one company people. They grew up in the best of all worlds: no war, growing affluence, strong jobs market, easy and free access to university. Dad working, mum at home in a typical family setting.”
In this environment, you might question the status quo; but you do not challenge it.
To Foxcroft, the technology gap that separates baby boomers and Generation X is certainly not insurmountable. “In my experience many baby boomers have embraced the e-revolution. In one sense this is not surprising. This is the first generation to grow up with technology: transistor radios, television, videos, personal computers. So it’s not surprising they have adapted to the e-commerce revolution.”
Other consultants concur. Although the technological skills required to manage effectively in the era of e-commerce are something baby boomers have to make an effort to acquire, there is no reason why they cannot do so. The far bigger gap to bridge between baby boomers and Generation X, as Ian would attest, is the different values.
Part of this is the differing notions of loyalty towards companies. Underpinning this are the structural changes in the workplace. Access Economics consulting has done research which suggests that jobs in the manufacturing sector will fall to 6% of the workforce by 2008-09. By then about 22% will work in services. Three important factors in this shift in employment opportunities are: jobs in services have greater mobility, there are greater opportunities in services for women, and the role of trade unions has diminished.
On this last point, the role of unions also is a defining difference between baby boomers and Generation X. This is not just from the perspective of unions having difficulty recruiting young workers whose individualism makes them hard targets for organisations with a collectivist philosophy. There are also ramifications for baby-boomer managers. Unions might have caused you grief, they might even have cost you money; but it was an institution you could relate to.
Ian says: “Although we used to grumble about the unions, about how much easier it would be to run the plant without them interfering, the truth is their existence justified ours. They wanted more money and better conditions. We wanted higher productivity and to pay less money. That’s easier to understand and deal with than some smart Generation-Xer who wants to work from home two days a week, to take his holidays at peak production times and has no respect for your title.”
There is another structural factor at play: the move by many in Generation X from the larger to the smaller company. People of this generation do not attach a stigma to working in smaller companies, especially if they are of the dot-com variety. The movement of skilled people from mainstream bricks-and-mortar companies has been well documented and most analysts expect it to continue, despite the hiccup among e-commerce stocks in April.
Research by Mercer Cullen Egan Dell on retention strategies highlights this trend. In an interview with the Australian Financial Review when the survey was released, Mercer Cullen Egan Dell associate Peter Walker said: “The Generation-Xers are pragmatic. Hierarchies don’t necessarily matter; they are good at coming up with new ways of doing things; and they are a group of people who are deeply independent.
“We are finding at the moment that organisations are having trouble holding on to 18-35-year-olds, particularly the professional services firms. We are seeing a striving for a balance between work and private life because of what they saw happening to their own parents where dad was working too hard and didn’t see them.”
Many companies – and executives such as Ian – have trouble relating to this attitude. Walker again: “Typically the response from these firms is: If you don’t want to play by our rules, go somewhere else. And people are saying: Thank you, I will. The solution is certainly not just throwing more money at these people. It should include redesigning jobs, working from home and equity participation.”
Although Ian now appreciates this, he questions whether baby-boomer executives have the capacity to come to terms with this new work ethos. “You go to the conferences, you hear all the stuff about winning people’s hearts and minds, of how the workplace is changing, of how we have to be more flexible. But, looking back, I wonder whether many of my peers really accepted this message.
“An enormous number of baby boomers are extremely arrogant; we were right about Vietnam and all those other fashionable left-wing causes we adopted in the 1960s. Some of us even maintained our rage at the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975, although I suspect some of the early baby boomers were well and truly off the Labor bandwagon by then.
“Today we’re right about the workplace, about how Australia should compete in a global economy, about how we should tap into e-commerce. The problem is that many of the people with the solutions to these issues – or at least knowing the right questions to ask – are from Generation X. And I suspect the baby boomers resent that. I know I did.”
It is not just Generation X that baby boomers have to deal with. On the horizon is Generation Y, now entering the workforce. If Generation X is technology literate, Generation Y takes it to a new dimension. Their entire education probably involved technology; to say nothing of their recreation.
But Generation Y will bring much more to the workplace than “techno” literacy. To begin with, this will be the first generation to grow up in a genuine multicultural Australia. Many of them were or are in classes where Wong is as common a surname as White. This will enhance their ease at communicating across national boundaries, at being a member of a global village; a great advantage for the economy but another issue that baby-boomer – and even Generation-X – managers have to come to grips with.
In addition, preliminary research of Generation Y reflects greater idealism than Generation X (and probably more genuine idealism than the baby boomers). Adding impetus to this idealism are the mass media and communication tools that are allowing, in the developed countries at least, an international culture.
Such traits are likely to accentuate in Generation Y the emphasis on individualism so characteristic of Generation X. Girls who have watched their mothers balance careers and motherhood are likely to demand greater flexibility in the workplace if they decide to have this dual role. Certainly they will not be prepared to sacrifice their careers. In all likelihood they will expect their partners to play a greater role on the domestic front. This can only mean growing demands for more flexible workplaces.
Karl Marx wrote: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Well, for baby boomers in management positions, you have nothing to lose but your jobs.
*Ian Jones is a fictional name. He is still in the market for a job and wants anonymity.
The characteristics of baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y
Baby boomers: Those born post-World War II and before 1965 are classified as baby boomers.* Their school and university years occurred in times of unrivalled prosperity and unlimited job opportunities. Indeed, this prosperity made many question the economic, social and political structures underpinning it. But revolution was never in the air. Prosperity was too tempting. As they slipped into their 30s and 40s, the long hair got shorter, their ideas more conservative and the pay packets thicker. In the workplace, focus is on output, not outcomes, and job status is important.
Generation X: Those born between 1965 and 1980. The children of those who were too young to fight in World War II, they were the first to experience one of the major consequences of a social revolution: women’s liberation and the desire for women to have careers. For them, this often meant both parents working, arguably making this generation much more resourceful, individualistic and irreverent. In the workplace this has made them more aware of their rights and skills and less interested in long-term careers, corporate loyalty or job status. They are easier to recruit but harder to retain.
Generation Y: Also known as Generation dot-com, Echo Boomers or the Millennium Generation. Born after 1980, their biggest impact to date has been on marketing. Why? The children of baby boomers, they have enormous financial clout. The first generation to grow up in a really multicultural Australia, they are much more at ease with their peers of differing ethnicity. Also technically adept (more so even than Generation X), they are creating a global generation through their access to mass media and communication tools, such as the Internet.
There is a divergence of opinion over the time spans for the differing generations. Some commentators end the baby boomers at 1960 and take Generation X to 1980. Others extend Generation X to 1985. There is no hard and fast rule.
A Generation X Manager Responds
Generation Xers started their careers during the most profound changes since the Industrial Revolution. Technology, globalisation and restructuring are all they have experienced. While baby boomers struggle to cope with the changes in the new economy, they sit there and say “So what?”, because change is all they know.
Says one Xer: “We are free agents who see little difference between change and opportunity. Yes, our values are different to the baby boomers, but only because our values have embraced the very notion of change.
“There is a self-confidence about Generation X that says the only source of success and security in our lives is ourselves. Baby boomers find this difficult to understand. But this is less about selfishness and more about independence and self-sufficiency.
“Generation X has accepted that jobs for life are a thing of the past. However, this brings us freedom not insecurity. Our willingness to walk away from jobs that are failing to meet our needs gives us a very strong bargaining position.
“I think history will show us in the vanguard of the new economy. The market will continue to dictate our future, but we will negotiate the terms.”