Tag Archives: career change

The Edge of Chaos Posters

I want to share a resource I’ve been working on over the last week called the Edge of Chaos Posters.   I’ve designed a couple of posters that try to illustrate the idea of the relationship between certainty and uncertainty.

I decided to select words that in some way illustrate the ideas of certainty and uncertainty, order and disorder.   I decided I wanted a complete A-Z of words which was something of a challenge.   I determined to put words redolent of certainty on the left hand side and words indicating uncertainty on the right hand side. I found it easier to think of or find words for certainty. It was more challenging to find words for uncertainty. In fact often, just like the word “uncertain” – the uncertain has to make do with a modification of a word about certainty.  This I find intriguing.

The poster above is the “Yellow” version. Click it to download a 6Mb PDF version.

The poster above is the black version. Click the poster to download an 8Mb PDF version. Note you may have to right-click to save these posters to your computer, or look in your downloads folders, or even look in Acrobat as different browsers do different things.

All the words on these posters will be familiar to you.  On the left there are words like Plans, Goal, Control, Prepared, Stuck. Similarly on the right there are words like Exploring, Change, Serendipity, Vulnerable and Magical.

The purpose of these posters is to help people appreciate that a full life needs all of these words.  However when we are feeling confused, sad, unsure or vulnerable we tend to retreat into what we often see, or are encouraged by others to see as reassuring, and somehow more legitimate, more proper left side words.  However, this can only provide short-term succor. Sometimes we believe that all we need are the right-hand side words, but these alone wont do either.

A full life requires all these words – order and disorder, chaos and certainty, strength and vulnerability.

There are lots of uses for this poster.  You can circle the words you identify with – are you more left or right sided?  You can use words on the left to help you strive toward words on the right. You can use words on the right to help you arrive at words on the left. You could even measure new ideas, initiatives and policies against these words – is a balance of left and right achieved?  The possibilities are endless.

You might be interested in this related post on Why people don’t get uncertainty

You can download low-res posters in yellow or black and white by clicking on their images above – they are 2381 x 1684 pixels, but they are still large files (6Mb and 8Mb).  If you want high-res versions, you’ll need to email me as these are very big high quality files suitable for making large posters.  I am happy for you to use them with acknowledgement. I’d love to know what you make of them.

 

 

Embracing Uncertainty in Life and Careers

What does uncertainty mean to you?  To many uncertainty is a threat to be avoided or overcome. To others it offers surprise and opportunity.  For some it is both of these things depending upon the context.

Uncertainty has a love-hate relationship with planning.  On the one hand uncertainty is one of the major reasons people make plans in the first place (if there was no uncertainty plans become redundant – what is going to happen will happen), but on the other hand uncertainty represents a threat to those plans.  Uncertainty has the potential to undermine the plan. See this link

It is not contentious that uncertainty exists in the world, and it is well established that uncertainty affects the careers of almost everybody.  We know that between 80%-100% of people report that an unplanned event has significantly altered their career plans for better or worse.

So the way people respond to uncertainty is likely to be an important factor in their success or well-being.   And this is where people do not get uncertainty.

Here is a graphic that I am going to use to illustrate why people often don’t get uncertainty.

Three Models of Uncertainty

Broadly speaking there are three different ideas about uncertainty:

1. Uncertainty is an occasionally present feature in otherwise predictable and well planned lives.  This model assumes that certainty can be attained for significant periods of time, and can be achieved through traditional planning methods like goal setting. Certainty and uncertainty are treated as polar opposites. I’ll call this the Traditional Planning model.

2. Uncertainty is rampant, extensive and ever-present. This model assumes that despite our best attempts, all plans are illusions of control.  This approach suggests we should give up on all planning and resign ourselves to whatever happens.  I’ll call this approach the Fatalistic Anarchy model.

3. Uncertainty is a constant and inevitable feature of all situations. It is wrong to think of Uncertainty and Certainty as opposites, rather they are composites – everything is comprised of a mixture of order and disorder.  Further the nature of uncertainty is non-linear and scalable. This means that sometimes very small, seemingly banal or trivial changes that have had little or no meaningful impact in the past suddenly change everything out of all proportion, or enormous changes can have surprisingly little or no lasting impact.  And every combination in between. This is the Chaos Theory of Careers account of uncertainty.See this link for more on Chaos Theory of Careers.

Depending upon which of these models of uncertainty people are using, they are likely to have different reactions to uncertainty.

Model 1 Traditional Planning Model reactions to uncertainty

Uncertainty is dealt with primarily with planning techniques, typically focused on goal-setting activities.  It is claimed the plan will provide certainty, motivation and reduce anxiety.  When uncertainty raises its head, it is assumed that people will be readily aware that circumstances have changed, and once aware they simply enter another planning circle to navigate them away from the uncertainty back onto their original course, or onto a new course of their choosing. This thinking is reflected in the idea that we going throiugh a planning phase. Then let it settle down, while we follow the plan, and then we go through another planning phase later on.  Turmoil-plan-calm-certainty-turmoil-plan-calm-certianty is the way the world is envisaged.  The diagram below illustrates this point.

 

Typically Model 1 thinkers claim that failure to plan will inevitably result in adopting Model 2 behavior.

Model 2 Fatalistic Anarchy Model

Everything is random and out of our control. The best course of action is to simply react and act in the world with little regard for the future, because the future is too unpredictable.  We are so limited in our abilities to plan, it is a waste of time and we are better off pursuing pleasure seeking, living in the moment, going with the flow.  Direction is a meaningless concept.

Model 3 Chaos Theory of Careers

Control and self-regulation comes from being aware that we are all living on the Edge of Chaos.  This is a place where there is order (and predictability) but there is also disorder (uncertainty).   These two components are ever present, meaning that self-determined action is best achieved through having a repertoire of approaches that help establish a direction but at the same time maintain openness to uncertainty and responsiveness to change.  Like any other skill, this needs continual use and practice.  Too much Model 1 type planning runs the risk that the person will unable or slow to spot when uncertainty has made their plans nonviable or is presenting a better opportunity.  They will also be less able to deal with unexpected change as they are less practiced at considering it and engaging with strategies to cope with it.

Critically, it is not a case of continually swinging between order and disorder, certainty and anarchy. Rather both certainty and uncertainty is considered, held and explored continuously and simultaneously. This is illustrated in the figure below.

Is this model more complex? Yes unashamedly.  Is this model closer to reality? Yes I believe so (and argue extensively for this position in our book, The Chaos Theory of Careers, Robert Pryor & Jim Bright).

From the Model 3 (Chaos Theory of Careers) perspective, the fact that we are limited in our ability to plan, predict and control (and therefore that implies that goal setting is a limited technique) does not automatically mean that everything is chaotic in the vulgar sense of that word. To argue that is to see the world solely in Terms of Type 1 and Type 2 models.  Rather our plans need to be dynamic, truly continually monitored and blend of green band open (e.g. exploration) and red band closed (e.g. goal setting) strategies.

Another concern is that such an approach means abandoning a sense of direction.  Again this is to see the world solely in Terms of Type 1 and Type 2 models. A sense of direction can be achieved (within limits) and the more people are taught and practice skills aroun responsiveness, awareness and reinvention the greater the sense of self-determination they will have.

A final concern I’ll address here, is that Model 3 thinking will create or exacerbate anxiety as it so clearly acknowledges uncertainty.  There are several responses to this.  Firstly, there are many examples in life where we point out sources of uncertainty including: safety demonstrations on flights; fire drills; rockfall/landslip warning signs; cattle on the road warning signs; low battery indicator; low fuel indicator; exhortations to look both ways when crossing the road etc.   For most people most of the time, these actually serve to reduce anxiety because they allow us an opportunity enrich our planning to include the possibility of uncertainty and a range of strategies for dealing with it.

Furthermore, in our own research, we have found in career planning, that exposure to uncertainty actually increases self-efficacy (see McKay, Bright & Pryor, 2005; Davey, Bright, Pryor & Levin, 2005).

Most people don’t get uncertainty and continue to see it in Model 1 terms.  From this perspective anything that challenges that certainty and the planning tools like goal-setting that are imagined to provide it are seen as threats and often assumed to be advocating the anarchy of Model 2 thinking.

Uncertainty, planning and life are more complex than that.  We can do better than that. We can embrace uncertainty in life and careers!.

If you’d like a high quality version of the Edge of Chaos poster, get them here.

 

 

 

Is goal setting past its peak? Some new data.

How long has there been serious interest in goal setting?  You might be forgiven for thinking it has always been a key approach to changing human behavior.  However according to PsycInfo (the largest and most authoritative database on published psychological research), between 1900 and 1980, a search of this data base on the terms “goal setting” yielded only 39 publications.  The first being in Harry Spillman’s chapter Tides of Life in Personality: Studies in Personal Development. New York: Gregg Publishing US.

The 1980s were not much better, in fact they were worse than the average of 0.5 a year, with only 2 publications (both in 1986).

The 1990s were when goal setting really started, well, kicking goals. A whopping 335 publications turned up in the search – more that the previous 90 years combined.

But it was the 2000s when we became totally obsessed with goal setting as the answer to just about everything, a whopping 1168 publications came out about goal setting.

However, something interesting may be happening.  Have a look at the graph below that shows the search results for “goal setting” across all types of publications by year.

It seems that goal setting publications peaked in 2008 and have been in decline ever since.  (Note the figure for 2011 has been adjusted by taking the figure produced at the end of September, dividing it  by 9 to get a monthly figure and multiplying that by 12 to get a comparable annual number – given the dramatic drop off, this probably over-estimates the true figure for 20110.)

There are a few intriguing things here.  Firstly, are we over goal setting?   Regular readers will appreciate that from my theoretical perspective of the Chaos Theory of Careers, goal setting can be seen to be limited in its efficacy, especially for longer-term behavioral change (because complexity and change serve to move or obliterate the goal posts) this is not an unwelcome thing if it turns out to be true.

Secondly, is it the case that goal setting has been in decline since the GFC?  The GFC really hit in mid to late 2008 (see graph below of S&P 500 since 2006).  2008 was the peak year for goal setting papers, and 2009 was not far behind.  However journals and other forms of academic publications and outputs (like theses) tend to reflect work that was done or submitted 2 or 3 years earlier.  So there is likely a lag effect in operation here.  And sure enough if you look at 2009, and 2010 and almost certainly 2011, we see an exponential drop off in papers on goal setting.

So, is it a little like the financial markets, that people are beginning to appreciate that the world is more uncertain and changeable than we realised, and that maybe we need techniques that are not so firmly rooted in the idea that the future (goal) is relatively unchanging and predictable.

It is truly fascinating, and reminds me of the Peak Oil debate, have goals reached their zenith – have we reached a tipping point on goal setting? Is this just a temporary blip? Is goal setting so accepted there is nothing more to say, or is it the case as I am hypothesizing that we are beginning to appreciate goal setting as useful, but an over-simplified response to complex and changing problems?  Or is it simply turbulence in the numbers?

Who knows for sure, but this graph certainly makes interesting reading to me.  I guess we must wait to see how it emerge over time, and on that chaotic and complexity-laden bombshell, I shall leave it to you to ponder!

 

 

Note: Psycinfo is “Unrivaled in its depth of psychological coverage and respected worldwide for its high quality, the database is enriched with literature from an array of disciplines related to psychology such as psychiatry, education, business, medicine, nursing, pharmacology, law, linguistics, and social work” according to Proquest.

Make or Break Moments in Careers and Life

Make or Break Moments in Careers and Life

Are there moments in life that are make or break?  In Chaos Theory of Careers Terms, tipping points, where everything changes? Can we predict them, how do we deal with them?

This link here takes you to an ABC broadcast “Life Matters” where I was interviewed alongside Peter Fitzsimons, an ex Australian Rugby player, and now a prolific journalist and writer.  We discuss the nature of these events and how linear thinking and narrative can sometimes contribute to these events.

About midway through Sharelle McMahon a champion netballer shares her dramatic make or break story.

In the second half of the program, Dr Andrew Martin, a leading Educational Psychologist picks up on these ideas in relation to the make or break of final school year exams.

Sadly in the photograph below I was not given a box to stand on when surrounded by the giants of Dr Martin on my right, and Peter FitzSimons on my left!!!

 

 

Transform your career by shifting: Shift 10 – From Knowing In Advance To Living With Emergence

Here is a spoiler alert – if you are likely to be going to the cinema or watching TV in the next while, you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Rosebud was his sledge.  They all did it.  The dog dies in the final reel.  The shark gets blown up with a scuba diving tank. Nixon resigns. She dies.  He dies. Dr Evil escapes.

In this time-poor world you can thank me for giving you the endings to some of the better films in cinema history thus saving you having to watch them.  Curiously not everyone I meet is thrilled when I tell them the ending to a movie.  Oddly they prefer to be surprised, and let the movie unfold for them.

However this attitude of going with the flow, seeing where it ends up, living with emergence rarely extends to our careers.  Here we are encouraged to plan thoroughly, to visualise or imagine how things will play out, to know in advance what are next steps, and indeed are foreseeable steps will be.

So why this disconnect? Why is surprise ok in the movies, but less in careers?  Maybe we are more personally invested in our careers. We believe we stand to lose more if we do not keep on top of our careers, and know in advance where we are going.

We often admire people who know where they are going.  But think about that statement for a second.  What does it mean to say you know where you are going?  Well about the only certainty (I think) is that we are going to be dead at some point, and even then, we are not certain what it means to be dead, or what “dead” is like, if anything, and if it is not like anything, what it is like?

“I know where I am going”. No you do not. Not entirely. Not certainly. Ok, I hear you say, that much is a given, but we can gain a lot from planning out a direction, and a good plan incorporates the possibility that it will not work.   From there it is but a short step into all of the popular planning tools out there – whether it is setting goals, developing strategies, or exploring the most likely outcomes.  All of these methods whether they use testing, imagination or narrative, work on the assumption that we need to narrow down a range of probable alternatives to explore more fully before finally deciding upon a course of action.

Such approaches can be useful and reassuring (especially they are reassuring to others, like parents, spouses, friends and teachers).   However the Chaos Theory of Careers characterises people as limited in their ability to fully know their own circumstances or indeed needs and wants.  It is a work in progress and over time these will change, sometimes trivially, and at others more dramatically or uncontrollably.

From this perspective, the planning model is also seen as limited.  There is no guarantee after our careful and rational deliberations that we will end up on a satisfying path.  The sense of confidence about our new found direction may ultimately serve only to send us focused and furiously up a blind alley. But hey, at least we exuded confidence as we ground to a halt.

An equally valid method of exploring our world is through living with emergence.  This is the suck and see approach, the curiosity driven approach, the experimental approach, the small steps approach, the planned failure approach.  Here the emphasis is constantly testing ones thinking, ones skills, or knowledge as well as the opportunity structures in the world.   It involves trying things out, not fully knowing how they will end up.  It is setting off on a journey and seeing where it takes you.

Such an approach involves not ever more focus, clarity and control, but continued curiosity, openness, flexibility, efficacy and optimism. It involves what Steve Jobs of Apple has referred to as “I do stuff, I respond to stuff” (Steve Jobs being interviewed by Stephen Fry in Time Magazine. Jobs responding to Fry’s question about his “career” said “”I do stuff. I respond to stuff. That’s not a career — it’s a life!”) (see this post).

Interestingly we are so conditioned to accept planning approach as superior, people often dismiss or worry about following the emergent approach.  “You must have a direction”, “You must make a choice” etc.  I think part of the problem is that people are less clear what the emergent approach really is, and perhaps confuse it with ideas like dropping out, drifting, being fatalistic, avoiding difficult choices, running away, being childlike etc.

However it is a mistake to equate an emergent approach with these kinds of notions.  An emergent approach is about continually engaging, gauging and engaging, often in lots of different directions simultaneously.  It is not about passively sitting back and waiting to see what happens. Rather it is about immersing oneself in a range of activities, and actively monitoring and reflecting on our attitudes to these, so we can modify, amplify, diminish or extinguish the activities as we see fit.  As Jobs puts it, it is about doing stuff and responding to stuff.

Ironically, it is more likely that the planning model with all of its assumptions that one can discover and think through in advance sensible options to move you in a good direction that can lead to inaction as people stall with fear lest they make the wrong choice, or choose to explore a dud option.

This is evident in situations where, for instance, a College student cannot choose a major.  The planning perspective is that there must be a correct decision.  Planners are likely to throw their arms up in despair at any suggestion that the student do anything other than think even more deeply about their situation and preferences.   There is money at stake here afterall!

For some students, this may be helpful if they have been partying so hard they almost forgot why they had gone to College in the first place.  However for most, this injunction to think harder or deeper serves only to frustrate – as though they haven’t already tried this.

Here it may well be better to suggest an emergent approach.  Simply go with one or other choice, but at the same time try out other things. Take other courses on the side, get more experience in a range of other things, see what comes of those endeavours.  It may well be the case that one of these avenues leads somewhere entirely different and more enjoyable than any of the original options.  However it may also be the case, that they would never have known this at the time.

But this is not optimal, and the student ends up with a degree (and a bill) in a subject area they are no longer interested in.  Well that is the point, and that is life.  We cannot always know these things in advance. However that student, if they followed the emergent approach will have been energetically exploring, doing and responding to stuff that will likely have sharpened their likes and dislikes and exposed them to things that are more likely to provide them with some satisfaction.

So the student ended up with a degree that they do not use directly. So what?  Tell that to the 60% of Engineers who end up in Business, or the vast majority of Psychology graduates that do not practice Psychology.  It is not a tragedy. It is only a tragedy if they are encouraged to see their choices as being sub-optimal failures, rather than in the context of ongoing exploration, self-awareness and environmental awareness.

One of the benefits of the Emergent approach is that in adopting it or recommending it, we are privileging ideas like flexibility, curiosity, openness, adaptability, opportunity awareness and skills of reinvention.   These ideas are actively downplayed or seen as weaknesses or problems in the planning approach.  However in a world that is increasingly unpredictable and chaotic, employers are crying out for flexible workforces, and the person who is able to re-invent themselves or be flexible in what they can offer is likely to be more gainfully employed, as well as more satisfied with what they do.   Emergent approaches are good approaches for the times we live in.

Ultimately, we all live with emergence whether we like it or not. It is our reactions to this fact that can lead us astray.  An over-reliance on planning, and on insisting on knowing in advance places unrealistic demands upon the world, and can have counter productive results.

Our careers are not like movies, we cannot know the end, even if we wanted to. They do not follow the script, even if we wanted them to.  And they are not best enjoyed as a viewer in the 2nd row with a box of popcorn.

Living with emergence, means just that. Living.

Shiftwork is the work we have to do to manage, thrive and survive in a world where shift happens.  I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here), so far I’ve addressed the first nine, and in this post, I addressed the tenth shift.  The earlier ones you can read by following these links:

  • first shift Prediction To Prediction And Pattern Making (see here)
  • second shift From Plans To Plans And Planning (see here)
  • third one From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness (here)
  • fourth shift From Control To Controlled Flexibility (see here)
  • fifth shift  From Risk As Failure To Risk As Endeavour (see here)
  • sixth shift From Probabilities To Probable Possibilities (see here)
  • seventh shift from Goals, Roles & Routines to Meaning, Mattering and Black Swans (see here)
  • eighth shift from Informing to Informing and Transforming (see here)
  • ninth shift from Normative thinking to Normative and Scaleable thinking (see here)

Transform your career by shifting: Shift 9: From Normative Thinking To Normative And Scalable Thinking

Transform your career by shifting: Shift 9: From Normative Thinking To Normative And Scalable Thinking

When I was a child, I didn’t want to be with the other young kids in the shallow end of the pool, but I was also secretly too scared to want to be at the deep end where the cool kids hung out and dived in. So I settled for the middle of the pool, and I wasn’t the only one. In fact, that is where most of the kids were – in the middle, with some at the shallow end and some at the deep end.  It was normal to see the kids spread across the pool like this.

You see a similar pattern at the beach, some kids close to the shore, some way out beyond the breakers and most somewhere in the middle. In fact quite a few things in life seem to be arranged in this way: a few at each extreme, with lots in the middle. Think of weight, height, the length people wear their hair, length of movies, and political views.

Indeed it is tempting to think that all human behaviour and qualities conforms to this pattern, which of course is otherwise known as the normal curve, or the bell-shaped curve.  The trouble is that life is not always like that.

Thinking that things conform to a normal curve – normative thinking – can be quite misleading. One of the most common fallacies is to under-estimate the potential that outlier events have in transforming our world.  In a normative way of thinking, outliers are exceedingly rare events, and because of this, it is “safe” to act as though they really do not exist.   However such a view completely misconstrues the nature of things.

 

Bell shaped curve monster

Bell shaped curve monster

Nassim Taleb makes this point in his book Black Swans, by contrasting two imaginery worlds, Extremistan and Mediocristan.  Mediocristan is world that contains things that conform to the normative rules, where things change only in small increments.

Height is a good example of a mediocristan quality.  Imagine you had 99 people whose mean average height was 165cm.  Then imagine that Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest ever living person wandered in. Adding his 272cm height to the average, we find the average goes up to a whopping (wait for it), 166cm.  In other words, a once in human history event leads to a change in our height less pronounced that putting on a pair of Jimmy Choo’s or a pair of Dock Marten’s.

In Extremistan, things are different. In this world, things are scaleable.  This means that when change occurs it can be changes in the order of magnitude, change that changes everything.   Now imagine our 165cm 99 people had an average wealth of $500,000.   Now suppose instead of Wadlow, Warren Buffet walks into the room and in a philanthropic gesture offers to share his 62 billion dollar wealth equally with the others.  The average wealth in the room increases to: $620 million or enough for 413,000 pairs of Jimmy Choo’s (enough to shoe the entire population of the Assabet Sudbury & Concord rivers district of New England) or 3.12 million pairs of Docs.   In other words you could be a Rude Boy with a new pair of Docs every day of your life (assuming you lived to be 8500) or alternatively you and your life partner could have matching Docs every day of your life and still had enough to shod every man, woman and child in Madrid) .  That ladies and gentlemen of the jury is life changing.

Slipping into my comfortable, yet challenging and exciting career development slippers, the implications for career development planning are that careers too are subject to change that can change everything.   One management decision, one idea, one meeting, one workplace accident can change ones world in unimaginable ways – be it positive or negative.

Some scaleable events that occur in careers include:

  • the closure of a complete industry due to economic, legal or political factors
  • the impact of a war or terrorism
  • a chance meeting leading to a new career path
  • a conversion or enlightenment moment leading to a new path
  • the acceptance of a new philosophy or faith or world view
  • an exposure to a life experience that is transforming
  • an accident
  • an inheritance or lottery win
  • the invention of a new technology
  • the opening (or closure) of a new or old business nearby
  • a mistake or failure that exposed you to new unanticipated experiences
  • and on and on

If we think and encourage our clients to think in normative terms, then we will be encouraging them to think that the present is as it always will be, and any change will be small, incremental and largely controllable and predictable.  In other words we will be encouraging them to either be overly optimistic about their ability to predict and control their circumstances, or overly pessimistic about their ability to radically change their situation.

Recognising that Extremistan not only exists, but may account for most of the important moments in the history of mankind (Taleb), means to alter our approach to career counselling.  It means helping clients to understand these realities and to see the potential for reinvention within them. It also means helping them to understand that risk management strategies, like career plans can be sometimes be overwhelmed by change on a scale that was unthinkable.

It might seem easy to write about this idea having witnessed the madness that are the current global markets, but it is worth remembering that when Taleb started writing about these notions, the GFC was not upon us, and some commentators (like Standard and Poors) were predicting stock market growth in 2008.

Some things in life are normative – they are generally the rather boring and unimaginative things.  Whereas other events in life are scalable – their presence is sufficient to change everything.  Those break-through moments in counselling are not merely the slow movement toward to a new outlook, they tend to come suddenly and unexpextedly – like an “aha” moment, when things combine, a new possibility emerges, a new insight or direction becomes clear.
It is our job to help clients see the difference between normative and scaleable thinking, and when a scaleable event occurs, we want our clients to be ready with their bags packed, and a fresh pair of Jimmy Choos or Docs on their feet, ready to travel whatever pathway emerges from these sudden transformations.

Shiftwork is the work we have to do to manage, thrive and survive in a world where shift happens.  I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here), so far I’ve addressed the first eight, and in this post, I addressed the ninth shift.  The earlier ones you can read by following these links:

  • first shift Prediction To Prediction And Pattern Making (see here)
  • second shift From Plans To Plans And Planning (see here)
  • third one From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness (here)
  • fourth shift From Control To Controlled Flexibility (see here)
  • fifth shift  From Risk As Failure To Risk As Endeavour (see here)
  • sixth shift From Probabilities To Probable Possibilities (see here)
  • seventh shift from Goals, Roles & Routines to Meaning, Mattering and Black Swans (see here)
  • eighth shift from Informing to Informing and Transforming (see here)

Being spokesman for a generation is the worst job I ever had: Gen Y myths dispelled

Redundancy is generally a bad thing but there are plenty of people who should be made redundant without delay: Kim Jong Il of North Korea, and Omar Al Bashir of Sudan spring to mind.  They should be joined by the self-proclaimed spokespersons for a generation.  Especially the Gen Y spokespeople because of the widespread disservice that they have done to the reputation of their own.  It is time for Gen Y to reclaim their own identity and set the record straight.

It is beyond me why anyone would want to develop a career as a generational spokesperson, a job that has a finite shelf life.  The Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland was the spokesperson for Generation X after publication of his novel in 1991. Yet by 2006 Coupland was admitting in his New York Times blog that he was now occupying his time in Vancouver chewing up his own books (literally) while watching Law and Order on television.  This does not bode well for the aspiring generational spokesperson.  A quick search on the internet failed to unearth any current Gen X spokespeople, and only a handful of Baby Boomer spokespeople. Most of those were authors of books about how sex and sciatica can be bedfellows, or how to retire.  By contrast, the Internet is heaving with apparent authorities on the topic of how to talk to 18 to 28 year olds. Qualification for this role? Being aged between 18 and 28.  It also helps if you can claim that you have spoken to someone older aside from saying “I wont go to bed it’s not my bedtime”.

 

Being a successful generational spokesperson falls into the get in quickly, make a quid and then get out category of occupations. Therefore it can be safely grouped together with con-artists, Senators (but I repeat myself), and boy bands.

 

It is time to make these chancers redundant because there is now a lot of good evidence that casts serious doubts on most of the central claims made about the Gen Y generation.  On the off chance that you have managed to avoid to breathless claims made about this generation, and at the risk of perpetuating untruths, the claims are broadly that Gen Y’s (born late 1970s to late 1990s) are: technologically savvy having grown up with it; socially highly inter-connected; impatient for career responsibility, consultation and advancement and quick to quit if their needs are not meet.  It is claimed that these (and other) characteristics differ from previous generations.

 

Late last year the Journal of Managerial Psychology devoted a whole edition to examining these claims for a generation.   The editors open the examination with the statement that “rarely do such generalisations seem to be challenged, or even the basic assumption that there are generational differences questioned…”. The existing evidence they did unearth was hardly promising either.  One study they cite found that Gen Ys and Gen Xs “were identical” in ratings of their top six work motivators as were Baby Boomers and Pre-Boomers.  That study found that steady employment was the top motivator for Gen Ys. In a further four studies cited, all of them found little or no differences, or trivially small differences that were contrary to the generational stereotypes.

 

The special edition of the journal presents a further series of evidence that draws on very often large samples from the USA, Australia New Zealand and Europe.  To sum up the results, the editors, Auckland-based academics and consultants Keith Macky, Dianne Gardner and Stewart Forsyth  conclude that “many of the empirical findings are less strong and consistent than popular sentiment suggests. Indeed, there may be more variation among members within a generation than there is between generations”. (pp860)

 

Perhaps the most relevant study was one conducted by staff at SHL Australia, a company that for many years has specialised in objective assessment in the workplace. Melissa Wong and Leah Coulon from SHL teamed up with Whitney Lang at Deakin University and Ellirona Gardiner at the University of Queensland to examine whether personality and motivational driver differences exist across Baby Boomers, Gen Xs and Gen Ys.  They examined the profiles of 3929 professionals who had completed the SHL Occupational Personality Questionnaire and the Motivation Questionnaire. They did find a couple of differences between the generations but these were not supportive of the popular view of Gen Y. They summarised their results in the following terms: “In practical interpretation terms, these differences are almost negligible. More importantly, even where differences exist (even where there are moderate to large effect sizes), the direction of the differences is often contrary to the differences suggested in popular management literature.” 

 

What other evidence is presented in this special edition?  A similar pattern emerged in a study of 1422 employees across 8 organisations in New Zealand with the authors concluding “The Baby Boomer, Generation X and Generation Y had some differences in work values but fewer than expected”.  Data from 1.4 million Americans over the last 80 years does reveal some small differences in personality when test-taker profiles across the generations are averaged and compared. However the data points to higher levels of narcissism, self-esteem and depression amongst Gen Ys.  However these differences if they exist – the results are not without their critics – are hardly strong support for the common stereotype.

 

In seeking to establish an identity and a place in the world, one strategy is to invent, emphasise or even exaggerate the differences between you or your group – the in-group, and others, the out-group.   It is a strategy that has served advertisers well for decades.  Set up simplistic stereotypes pitched at the target demographic group because it is uneconomic and unrealistic to pitch to individuals. Just pretend that the individual and the stereotype are inter-changeable – “Because you deserve it”.

 

 

Gen Y have been sold short by the industry that has grown up around them. Many Gen Ys that I spoke to resented being reduced to a stereotype and objected to being treated as disloyal flibbety gibbets.  The attempts to translate marketing strategies based upon demographic analysis of customers into an effective model of management and leadership of employees is a questionable practice that is not supported by the available empirical evidence, and may serve only to alienate the very people promoters of such approaches claim respond positively to them.

 

It is a sad truth that those self-appointed spokespersons for Generation Y are too young to have heard of a certain Mr Billy Bragg but they could look him up on their FaceSpace social networking interweb site. If they had heard of him, they could consider this piece of wisdom from the songwriter of 30 odd years: “Being spokesman for a generation is the worst job I ever had”.