Divisive conflicts in the workplace, where intergenerational politics are involved seem to capture my notice more frequently of late. Especially those in which I’ve been involved. The represented generations have different ways of dealing with the perceived contrasts between groups, with a fixation on who’s right and who’s entitled, which informs responses, management style, hiring and firing decisions. It’s especially apparent between the Baby Boomers and the Millenials, and it’s both fascinating and frustrating to participate in and watch.
I was born in the very earliest year you can be and still be considered a Millenial. I (mostly) identify with that group, though a key difference is that internet and cell phones came into my life freshman year of college. I’m certainly not a Gen X-er, who were the twenty-somethings going to see Nirvana and Alice in Chains at the rock clubs while I listened to them in my room as a middle schooler. We have a certain ethos that’s beginning to shape the edges of work culture and it’s freaking the Boomers the fuck out. (Side note: when I told my dad about Candid Uprising he asked if I would be willing to help demystify the younger generation for the older generation, so this post was inspired by him.) I have worked with a ton of Millenials within the age spectrum, and we share characteristics in common to how we approach work.
We like information to be “open source”, with people sharing their ideas and knowledge freely to save other people time and energy. We don’t think reporting to an office for forty hours a week makes sense, when we’re three times (at least) more efficient, organized and creative working remotely, wherever there’s wifi. We’re not interested in titles or slow, measured advancement. Whatever with what you want to call us or yourselves at work. Our titles probably don’t accurately reflect the work we do anyway. Once we master something, we want to move on to the next learning curve. We are problem-solvers who like to share credit. If it was your idea, that’s awesome, let’s get going on it and make it even better, together. We honestly believe in the adage a rising tide floats all boats, hence the hunger for information and willingness to share.
What I hear from Boomers displays an unfortunate misperception of our values. We’re viewed as overly-curious, sticking our nose in matters that don’t involve us. We don’t respect the office culture and the need for a team to physically inhabit the same space to function effectively. We’re entitled, wanting to move from admin assistant to CEO in one year, as if! Who do we think we are, showing intense ambition in interviews when we should be digging deeply into the job being offered. And once on the job, why so many questions, and expectation of new responsibilities? And we display such a lack of respect for titles and experience, seemingly not understanding the years of hard work behind each.
The world is changing. Rapidly. I want to see people working with the change, not against it. When I see a director-level colleague criticizing a coordinator for wanting to sit in on a meeting, because it’s “not appropriate” I wonder what they’re hiding. Or when I see a higher-up killing herself to accomplish every task on her list, I think, ever heard of delegating, or are you afraid to let go of one single thing, lest someone improves upon your way? It’s great to have Millenials around to fix Outlook when it’s buggy, but we’re not allowed into a Board of Directors meeting, because it’s “not appropriate”. Since when is mentoring inappropriate? Sometimes I feel like the judgments are so dear they cloud the issue entirely: that the workforce depends on the next generation. We have to share information, solve problems together and listen to each other’s perspectives. No one owns original thought or breakthrough ideas. Neither have a proportionate relationship to salary or titles.
I think the Boomers are feeling threatened. Millenials have come of age in an era profoundly different, as IT has proved arguably to be one of the biggest “game changers” in modern history. It must feel unfamiliar to consider a work world where people plug in where they are and go. Walking into an office five days a week at the same time, settling in at a desk, interacting with the same cast of characters, leaving at the same time each day is a familiar, well-worn work mode. It’s rigid, and no longer necessary for many types of jobs. It seems a form of “bed check”, a means to ensure the payroll is physically present, the illusion of work being done. Shouldn’t work getting done serve as the indicator of whether work is getting done? In many cases, the office holds nothing necessary to completing work tasks, other than maintaining the illusion. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re all working remotely.
Or what about ambition? If I hear one more person in their fifties remark that someone in their twenties showing ambition is entitled I’m going to scream. If one more person says it to me, I think I’m going to laugh. When did coming across as a drone become a sought-after trait? Was it when the older generation starting seeing the sunset of their careers on the horizon? Is it too scary to imagine letting go, allowing the next group to do it their way? Does hearing about someone else’s goals, someone who has decades ahead of them, make you feel irrelevant? Mortality is terrifying, I understand. We’ll all face it. But is pushing forward back the most productive way to manage what is imminent? No. Leave your mark by mentoring and teaching someone else. And I don’t mean controlling and preaching.
A great way to remain relevant is to pay attention to that which is emerging, the new, the untested. Offer your observations and allow yourself to be challenged, and even changed. It’s happening anyway.