Richard Glover wrote in his column about the lies and generalisations spread by motivational speakers. He particularly focussed on the lucrative market of motivating so-called baby-boomers to work either harder or slower depending upon the prevailing winds of cod-intellectual fashion. What really caught my eye however was his point that these speakers use a one-size-fits-all template to characterise baby boomers. When I think of baby boomers I think of chardonnay. I don’t know why, but I just get an image of baby boomers blowing their superannuation on chardonnay. Now baby boomers, like chardonnay are no longer so fashionable in the employment world, where instead the obsession is Gen Y and Sauvignon Blanc.
Organisations are spending the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Peru on learning about the mysteries of this new generation, while presumably learning to abandon big buttery wines for something all together more crispy and grapefruity. We are getting bombarded by a load of nonsense about the needs, values and expectations of this so-called group and led to believe that there are genuine differences when compared to older generations. The trouble with nearly all of this type of analysis is that it completely overlooks individual differences and variations, and encourages managers to treat this cohort in a homogenous and ultimately impersonal manner.
It is interesting that we seem to be so tolerant of reducing people to demographic stereotypes associated with generations. It is perfectly acceptable in a meeting to smile knowingly saying, “ah yes, such typical Gen Y behaviour!”. Try replacing the label “Gen Y” with “old persons”, “female”, “gay”, “male”, “ginger”, “Eastern Suburbs” at your next meeting, and enjoy the experience of being sacked on the spot.
When you examine some of the research that is produced in support of these alleged demographic differences, you realise just how flakey a lot of it is. Firstly, there are the studies that compare caterpillars and butterflies. In these studies a bunch of twentysomethings are interviewed about their attitudes concerning work, the world and everything. Then a bunch of fifty year olds are interviewed about the same stuff and their answers compared. Lo and behold, the research shows that older folks are obsessed with money, mortgages, superannuation and job security whereas the younger folks are obsessed with Snoop Dog, freedom, altruism and hair wax. Conclusion – the generations are different. But what we don’t get is a true comparison with those older folk when they were young. If we could turn back time maybe we’d find that the self-focussed, security craving, money obsessed person was actually a Saturday night fever disconista.
The slightly more sophisticated research actually asks the older folks to recall how they were 20 or 30 years before. Of course nobody wants to admit to wearing flares and medallions, and so what the researchers hear is a carefully constructed narrative that serves the purpose of supporting the individual’s identity in the here and now. In other words it is a story about stability, security, industry and diligence. The apparent differences between the stories of the young and old are then presented as evidence of generational difference while conveniently overlooking inconvenient truths such as the very high levels of ownership of that Gen Y icon – the Ipod – amongst Gen Xers and Baby Boomers (apparently including the Pope, George Bush and the Queen).
When I think back to the friends who gathered for coffee at university in the 1980s I find it difficult to apply any meaningful demographic label; the sexist engineer became a tree-hugging feminist environmentalist, the Thatcher loving social conservative became a union representative and came out, the one whose mother used to cut his hair turned criminal, the cricket lover still hasn’t held down a permanent job, the rebel biker was the first to settle into a ‘real’ job, marry and have kids, the egg-head academic now sells soap powder, and the straight-laced northern girl was last heard of running group sex parties in London.
Like Richard Glover’s motivational speakers, what is missing here is the importance of recognising the individual and respecting their individuality. We should be encouraging managers and organisations to take the time to understand what matters to individual employees, and not encouraging them to see their staff as herds of demographically defined cattle. It is about individual differences stupid.
Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy