Tag Archives: douglas coupland

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”.

I can’t stand meetings

I have decided that I have become unemployable. This does not reflect some mid-life crisis of confidence, rather I have just realised that every career move I have made has been the result of near death experiences in meetings. Now no mad machete wielding colleague has jumped across the board table in response to one of my highly witty interjections, nor indeed have I had to remove the knife from the shoulder blades (that happens before and after meetings). Rather I have had to apply to myself the mental equivalent of a “Packer wacker” defibrillator to prevent a potentially fatal attack of boredom or I have had to execute the reverse Heinrich manoeuvre to block my throat to prevent an uncontrollable diatribe of derision and frustration.

For a start there are those people who haven’t got a clue how to run a meeting. They would not know a point of order from a standing order, and inevitably they end up chairing the meeting. The trouble is their idea of a chair, is the type that you sit in when you fly to London – in other words, you may as well settle in because you are going to be here for another 22 hours. So the chair hasn’t got a clue, and possesses the organisational prowess and sense of timing of a Qantas takeover bid. The only people I hate more than the meeting ignoramuses are those who know all the rules. And I mean all the rules.

This is the catastrophic bore who can tell you (and will do so at the drop of a piece of headwear) about the rules for getting the floor and the difference between when a debatable question is immediately pending and when an undebatable question is immediately pending and when no question is pending. It is a debatable point, no question about it, whether one’s only course of action is to lie down on the floor and go to sleep, or floor the bore and storm out.

At least it can be vaguely amusing to see the bore tear strips off the hapless chair who has about as much control over the proceedings as George Michael behind the wheel of a car. Even that scant pleasure is denied us when we have to sit in the dreaded teleconference. “Hello are we all here?”, “We don’t know David, how can we tell?”, “oh I am not sure, err..”, “why don’t you get everyone to go around and introduce themselves?”, “who said that?”, “It is David”, “David?”, “yes”, “oh hello David why don’t you start?”, “ Hello I am David”, silence,”Who wants to go next?”, “who said that?”, “I think it was David”, “yes it was David”, “which David?”, “David from Dapto”, “is there another David then?”, “yes me”, “who said that?”, “David”.. At this point you pop out to the shops, purchase a 4 litre cask of Premium Unleaded Fruity Lexia, come home, have a bath, and rejoin the conversation to hear David berating David the chair over a point of order regarding whether the last motion was passed on a show of hands, and if so who saw them….

Then there is all that false politeness in meetings. “David was talking about the Fig and Prune surprise package, and I think that is very worthy, and I’d just like to add to that David if I may, that we might want to consider the Rhubarb Brick”. Which is code for: your idea stinks and it obvious to any fool that my idea is a winner.

Meetings seem to have 5 purposes – to present the illusion to the slow-witted that the decisions haven’t already been made and that their view counts; to present the illusion to others that you are actually doing something about the problem; to present the illusion that the chairperson is really important and running the show; to provide people with an excuse to fly on expenses inter-state; or finally, to provide an excuse to wield power by forcing others to rearrange their schedules and lives on one’s say so. No real decisions get made in meetings other than personal ones such as to leave the company immediately or to take up a second career as a mass murderer.

The final word on meetings should go to author Douglas Coupland who said: “the three things you can’t fake are erections, competence and creativity. That’s why meetings become toxic they put uncreative people in a situation in which they have to be something they can never be. And the more effort they put into concealing their inabilities, the more toxic the meeting becomes. One of the most common creativity-faking tactics is when someone puts their hands in prayer position and conceals their mouth while they nod at you and say, ‘Mmmmmm. Interesting.’ If pressed, they’ll add, ‘I’ll have to get back to you on that.’ Then they don’t say anything else.”

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.