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As simple as X, Y, Z: the complexities of Generational Theories

There are an awful lot of interesting things to do with yourself, and a new one came my way last week: I discovered my local Cafe Scientifique.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, for the price of a tea or coffee, you can listen to some of the latest ideas in science and technology at a local cafe.  Mostly, they will be presented by a visiting scientist – sometimes eminent.  You can learn whether you have one nearby, or how to start one, here if you’re in Britain, or here if you’re not.

My first Cafe

My first experience was great (thanks to Paula Kennedy for organising it) and the speaker, Professor Averil Macdonald, was excellent.  Averil talked about Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.  What makes a good talk is not so much what is said, nor how it is presented.  A good talk sets you thinking…

Researching Generation X

I’m on a cusp: depending on which authority you choose, I’m either an old Generation X (thank you Averil, for placing me in the younger cohort) or the baby of the Baby Boomer generation.  In fact, Averil pointed out that the boundaries are not hard and fast, and differ from one culture to another.  I started my research with Gen X, and found a confusing picture.

The term goes back to the early 1950s, coined by legendary news photographer, Robert Capa.  He was referring to the generation of young men and women of the time.  It is more generally used to refer to the post baby boom era of the early 1960s and 1970s although, confusingly, the book ‘Generation X’ (now out of print) was published in 1965 and referred to the then current generation of teenagers.

The name Generation X was revived by Billy Idol for his band, and then by Douglas Coupland for his novel.

Time Magazine cover 9 June 1997,
Generation X Reconsidered

A management question

What I was trying to find out was an answer to a deceptively simple question:

‘What will be the prevailing management style of
Generation Y managers?’

Generation Y started in the early 1980s – so in the UK, they could be called ‘Thatcher’s Children’ – the generation that grew up in the wake of her Government’s changes to our society – sorry, there is no such thing as society – unless it’s a big one – but then…

As Averil pointed out, Gen Y hit our workforce with some impact.  they are characterised by a strong self belief and huge energy.  Their focus is far more on personal success than on personal fulfilment, which characterises Gen X.  I will say more about Gen Y at work, next week.

A Theory of all History

It was while trying to unravel all of this, that I came upon something really interesting.  In 1991, two historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a book called ‘Generations: the history of America’s future 1584 to 2069’.  I’ve not had a chance to read it yet (on order from Amazon), but it seems from references on the web that it sets out to predict the principle concerns of each succeeding generation, finding and therefore predicting patterns.

The pattern is intriguing.  It suggests that a four generation (c.80 years) cycle has four stages:

  1. A new order is entrenched – the Western vs Eastern block cold war, after WW2 – the Baby Boomer era
  2. Rebellion against that order – the Gen X desire for liberation, emancipation and self fulfilment
  3. Social norms come under threat – individualism takes over and fame and fortune become more compelling than hard work – Gen Y
  4. Crisis comes to dominate society – the current generation, born since 2000 face the fallout of environmental catastrophe and global insecurity

The next generation will grow up under a new order in the 2020’s onward.

Is there anything in it?  I wish I were qualified to assess.  It will be especially hard, as the book focuses on American history for its evidence, after the foundation of colonies in America.

What does the theory tell us about Gen Y as managers and leaders?

Strauss and Howe describe this generation (and others at equivalent stages) as ‘Heroes’.  They say that these are people who will be bound by rationality and who will come to build institutional structures.  They will embrace new technology and seek to improve wealth and social harmony.  That sounds good (and may explain a lot of contemporary political rhetoric as being designed to appeal to young voters).

If it is true, we can expect Gen Y managers to be a lot more conventional than their early years at work suggest, as they slip into a mould and start to build new structures.  Their focus would be more on creating pragmatic solutions to the emerging problems than the prevailing Gen X faith in work as a means of personal fulfilment.

So here’s the deal

Averil’s talk really focused on why we find it hard to understand other generations.  Generation Y does think differently to Gen X and the Baby Boomers.  Today’s toddlers, infants and juniors will grow up different again.  Do they follow a predictable pattern?  I can only anticipate that for every scrap of evidence that they do, we will find another good reason to expect exceptions.  But we do need to understand each other if we are to tackle the mundane management of our workplace departments or global leadership in the face of momentous challenges.

More next time.

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