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I belong to the ______ generation

08 March 2012

In what might have been a prophetic moment, or maybe just the need for a catchy title, American punk rock band Richard Hell and The Voidoids released a single and album in 1977 called “Blank Generation”. (The year marks the end of Gen X and the beginnings of Gen Y according to some social science experts.)

The lyrics to the song went a little like this:

“I was sayin let me out of here before I was

even born – it’s such a gamble when you get a face

It’s fascinatin to observe what the mirror does

but when I dine it’s for the wall that I set a place

I belong to the blank generation and

I can take it or leave it each time…”

Rightly or wrongly, a great many Baby Boomers may see the words summing up their attitude toward any generation that’s followed them. Unsurprisingly, research and surveys show generational stereotyping is often way off beam, baring no relationship at all to what people are actually like. In fact, the stereotypes may do everyone a disservice, creating an atmosphere of adversarial opposition often played out on the workplace stage and exacerbated by media hype. (But, like reading your star sign, we all love to explain the actions of others by dragging out a convenient box of attributes and putting them in it.)

According to that invention of the Baby Boomers, and now the staple research tool of Gen Xers and Millennials, the internet, and in this specific case Wikipedia: “Generational change is radical change that occurs in an organisation or a population as a result of its members being replaced over time by other individuals with different values or other characteristics.

“Generational change generally presents both a real and a perceived crisis. In an organisation, the unspoken cultural values held by the longer serving members may be challenged, threatened or abandoned by newer members. In an ecological system, generational change of the representatives of one species may threaten the survival of other species.”

In 2012 no one would deny that our workplaces, our communities, our societies are undergoing change. How people experience this change and what they make of it differs in any number of ways.

Westpac has conducted a number of public and internal surveys around inter-generational thought on subjects as far reaching as age diversity issues in the workplace, financial literacy and planning issues, and lifestyle attitudes in general. The results reveal interesting and surprising patterns. Empirical researchers argue that these surprises are the reason for putting aside the divisive nature of lumping people into stereotypes under the guise of someone being from one generation or another.

Westpac’s ‘It Runs in the Family: Finance Survey’, in late 2011, gathered information about how people and families deal with their finances and plan ahead for the future: “under-prepared for retirement and lacking in financial confidence” seemed to be across the board traits for Australian women. Ruby wanted to find out more and our new survey, “Generations of Women” (released in time for International Women’s Day 2012) looks at women’s attitudes to money and other lifestyle issues and provides some interesting insights. 

Gen Y women it seems are more financially minded and ahead of the game when it comes to doing things with their money than either Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. But even the Ys could be doing more to ensure their future financial stability, especially for later life. Gen Y is much more likely to think about whether they can afford to have children before they go there. Baby Boomers and a majority of Gen Xers just jumped straight in without a thought. 

And then there are the differences within generations.

The 2010 Westpac Group Diversity Survey, which was an opportunity to get to know what its employees were “thinking” with regards to a range of workplace diversity and inclusion issues, identified that there was significant diversity within age groups. For example: not all mature employees wanted the same thing. Some are starting to think about their move to retirement, while others are keen to continue developing their career and growing their skills and experience. 

Flexibility for employees to create work life balance was important across the age groups but for very different reasons: more mature employees may have wanted or needed to have more time for grandchildren and carer duties. The younger age groups are keen to make sure that both areas of their lives remain as equal as possible, believing what they bring to work will be better if they’re not stressed out about having no life of their own. 

 

“Thriving workplaces matter, they also defy generational gaps.” What the researchers mean by this statement is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a Baby Boomer, part of the Jones Generation, Gen X, Y or Millennial, a thriving workplace rather than just a ‘content’ or worse-still unhappy workplace is a must for every individual and for companies to grow and have the edge. 

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the authors of one research project, Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath, found a thriving workforce to be one in which “employees are not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future—the company’s and their own. Thriving employees have a bit of an edge—they are highly energized—but they know how to avoid burnout.”

To thrive, say the researchers, you must have: Learning with passion or your employees could burnout and there must be “vitality”, because “if the work doesn’t give you opportunities to learn, then it is just the same thing over and over again.”

In another study (The Changing of the Guard: What Generational Differences Tell Us About Social-Change Organizations by Frances Kunreuther

http://leadershiplearning.org/system/files/Chaning%20of%20the%20Guard%20etc.pdf), following different generations working in not-for-profits (NFPs), it’s not what the organisation is doing that causes problems for employees but rather the underlying generational differences between people around ‘why they are working in the area’ and ‘what they expect’. The different expectations have the potential to disrupt any workplace no matter how thriving. 

The Changing of the Guard goes on to conclude, among other things, that Gen X and Y come to NFPs for very different reasons and have very different drivers but are just as committed. They often come to a cause through a very personal interest or connection, and they often want new organisational structures and work life balance. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, who are still running the show, came to the cause through political and intellectual awareness, are less interested in finding balance and even less interested in trying new ways of working.

But all is not lost, concludes the study. Once we recognise the differences, work on changing attitudes and find workable compromises, the future of the world is looking very promising.

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