Fair warning: If you are prone to tl;dr, you might want to skip this one.
So, the other day, in my Organizational Communications class — for which the homework was, as usual, some seriously dry chapters to read (seriously, guys, you could not have made this textbook drier if you’d buried the manuscript in an arid desert, or perhaps on the Moon, for forty years before publishing), but also as usual turned into an interesting discussion — we talked about diversity in the workplace, and integrating cultures therein. One of the questions our group was assigned to discuss and do a short presentation to the class about was this:
On the basis of the descriptions of the four different age groups provided in the chapter (Traditionals [Greatest/Silent Generation], Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials) what sort of problems do you anticipate occurring as these different groups interact in the workplace? What sort of advantages of opportunities exist in combining people from these different groups in one department?
The descriptions they referred to encapsulated each generation with a short blurb on birthdates and some tendencies they embody plus the feelings they hold toward others. One other woman in my group and I sort of took over the group discussion and talked about our perspectives; she, the Boomer, and I, the Gen Xer. As it happens, I have pretty pronounced opinions on the topic of Boomers and GenXers, which I know will come as a massive surprise to all of you reading this blog.
What the textbook says is this:
Baby Boomers … created [or] grew up under the influence of the 1960s counterculture. They regard Generation X as selfish and manipulative, and Millennials as lacking focus.
Generation X … are also more likely to view work as a means to support their current lifestyle interests … versus viewing work as a means to support retirement activities. They … regard Boomers as disgustingly “New Age” workaholics, and see Millennials as too optimistic and insufficiently rule-governed.
Although they are children of the counterculture, Boomers nonetheless tacitly accepted many conventions that Traditionals hold as bedrock principles of work life. … Generation X is turned off by inflexible time schedules, workaholism, and close supervision. They like to learn new things, … [and] want to be encouraged to display creativity and initiative to find new ways to get tasks done.
We’re also cynical little beasts. Coupland:
“As luck would have it, that was the morning the public health inspector came around in response to a phone call I’d made earlier that week, questioning the quality of the working environment.
“Martin was horrified that an employee had called the inspectors, and I mean really freaked out. In Toronto they can force you to make architectural changes, and alterations are ferociously expensive — fresh air ducts and the like — and health of the office workers be damned, cash signs were dinging up in Martin’s eyes, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth. He called me into his office and started screaming at me, his teeny-weeny salt and pepper ponytail bobbing up and down, ‘I just don’t understand you young people. No workplace is ever okay enough. And you mope and complain about how uncreative your jobs are and how you’re getting nowhere, and so when we finally give you a promotion you leave and go pick grapes in Queensland or some other such nonsense.’
“Now, Martin, like most embittered ex-hippies, is a yuppie, and I have no idea how you’re supposed to relate to those people. And before you start getting shrill and saying yuppies don’t exist, let’s just face facts: they do. Dickoids like Martin who snap like wolverines on speed when they can’t have a restaurant’s window seat in the nonsmoking section with white napkins. Androids who never get jokes and who have something scared and mean at the core of their existence, like an underfed Chihuahua baring its teeny fangs and waiting to have its face kicked in or like a glass of milk sloshed on top of the violet filaments of a bug barbecue: a weird abuse of nature. Yuppies never gamble, they calculate. They have no aura: ever been to a yuppie party? It’s like being in an empty room: empty hologram people walking around peeking at themselves in mirrors and surreptitiously misting their tonsils with Binaca spray, just in case they have to kiss another ghost like themselves. There’s just nothing there.
“So, ‘Hey Martin,’ I asked when I go to his office, a plush James Bond number overlooking the downtown core — he’s sitting there wearing a computer-generated purple sweater from Korea — a sweater with lots of texture. Martin likes texture. ‘Put yourself in my shoes. Do you really think we enjoy having to work in that toxic waste dump in there?’
“Uncontrollable urges were overtaking me.
“‘…and then have to watch you chat with your yuppie buddies about your gut liposuction all day while you secrete artificially sweetened royal jelly here in Xanadu?’
“Suddenly I was into this trÃ¨s deeply. Well, if I’m going to quit anyway, might as well get a thing or two off my chest.
“‘I beg your pardon,’ says Martin, the wind taken out of his sails.
“‘Or for that matter, do you really think we enjoy hearing about your brand new million-dollar home when we can barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner sandwiches in our own grimy little shoe boxes and we’re pushing thirty? A home you won in a genetic lottery, I might add, sheerly by dint of your having been born at the right time in history? You’d last about ten minutes if you were my age these days, Martin. And I have to endure pinheads like you rusting above me for the rest of my life, always grabbing the best piece of cake first and then putting a barbed-wire fence around the rest. You really make me sick.’
“Unfortunately, the phone rang then, so I missed what would have undoubtedly been a feeble retort…some higher-up Martin was in the iddle of a bum-kissing campaign with and who couldn’t be shaken off the line. I dawdled off into the staff cafeteria. There, a salesman from the copy machine company was pouring a Styrofoam cup full of scalding hot coffee into the soil around a ficus tree which really hadn’t even recovered yet from having been fed cocktails and cigarette butts from the Christmas party. It was pissing rain outside, and the water was drizzling down the windows, but inside the air was as dry as the Sahara from being recirculated. The staff were all bitching about commuting time and making AIDS jokes, labeling the office’s fashion victims, sneezing, discussing their horoscopes, planning their time-shares and Santo Domingo, and slagging the rich and famous. I felt cynical, and the room matched my mood.
So anyways, during the group discussion, my one classmate and I mostly ran with the conversation in our little group of six. She complained that Gen Xers are always off re-inventing the wheel, as though what already is in place isn’t good enough or we can’t be bothered to look for it. I complained that the last thing I want to do at work is to get dragged into a meeting to talk for thirty minutes about other people’s children. We agreed, at least, that we don’t have to deal with many older Traditionals or Millennials, so we focused mostly on the differences between us. Though, I’ll note, I have no beef against Millennials at all: they seem like fairly sensible sorts… well, those without serious helicopter parent issues, anyway.
So my classmate and I were the last to get up to make our presentation, and so we had just under ten minutes before class ended. She fielded one question, about the issues surrounding “feminizing” workplaces, which we all agreed was a silly question best forgotten. I had the age question, so I opened my mouth and started talking.
(I don’t recall my exact screed, and when I did and neatly wrote it down here a day after class, an errant mouse button click sent me away from my unsaved draft and I lost it, and I can’t be bothered to try again to reproduce either the speech or the text about it. Typical Gen X slacker, I suppose. Instead, I’ll paraphrase — and save much more often.)
The problem in integrating these two styles of working, the Boomer collaborative style and the Gen X independence, is that Boomers do not understand why we don’t want to be like them and they keep trying to convince us, and we are tired of tilting at windmills, trying to break through. Boomers grew up with extended families and neighborhood communities, and they learned that collective efforts can make an impact, like, say, protesting the Vietnam War. We, on the other hand, have been on our own since always; we don’t have the same support systems that Boomers did and do; we grew up in suburban wastelands with nowhere to ride our bikes to but other featureless cul-de-sacs, frightened of our neighbors because they probably poisoned our Halloween candy. We’re latchkey kids and many of us had divorced parents and fewer siblings. Through our experiences, we learned that we can’t rely on others to do things for us, and we’d rather discover a failure early and work around it than spend time beating up on it. (E.g., walking away from what might be seen as a one-sided discussion rather than trying to convince the other: if you can safely suppose that a person is just trying to convince you to do what they want, and is unwilling to be convinced of your reasoning, why bother wasting your time just to get frustrated? Give up on the no-wins early, and extricate yourself as soon as possible. Sure, you’ll lose some things you maybe could have won, but you’ll also be spending your time much more effectively and enjoyably.) What a Boomer sees as independence to the point of intransigence, an unwillingness to play well with others, we see as a virtuous, and necessary, responsibility to do things for ourselves: “If you want something done right, … ,” and all that. And what we see as mind-numbing, mumbo-jumbo pattings-on-our-own-back, time-wasting affirmations of our own effectiveness, Boomers see as … meetings.
(I think that was about the time where, in class, I got a shouted “Preach it!” from my fellow Xers in class, although it might have been about the crack about meetings to talk about other people’s kids.)
That is not to say that all meetings are evil, or that willful independence is a particularly effective way to get things done. I’m just talking about the prejudices that we have, that we bring with us to the workplace. The trouble is not even necessarily with having the prejudices (which is great, because good frigging luck shaking them off), but when people use them as weapons in a workplace culture. If you’re an independent sort alone surrounded by a bunch of meetings-to-plan-the-meeting-about-having-the-meeting types, get used to being the elitist cowboy snob; if you’re a collaborator lost in a sea of do-it-yourselfers, welcome to your new life as The Interfere-Tron 3000.
Gen Xers are few in number, bracketed on both sides by more populous generations — 76 million Boomers, 44 million Gen Xers, 78 million Millennials. One natural outcome of being a minority population is that we have to sit around and listen to how great and significant everybody else is, which is unbelievably tiresome and completely inescapable.
I’m not denying the X’ers the right to a name. Personally, I don’t care. But do they really need or warrant one? Do they have enough in common with each other and yet unique about their circumstances (as the baby boomers do) to warrant a defining name? Why not just leave them alone? Why do we have to categorize them? Oh well, I’m probably spitting into the wind here, aren’t I? I am just suggesting that it may not be fair to categorize and compare any other generation to the boomers, that’s all.
He probably intended that to read as: “Why do we try to force everyone into a category? Is that fair, to label everything endlessly and foist these expectations upon others?”
But what initially I read that as, before putting on my Boomer-awesomeness-field correction filter, is: “Why are we asked to label anyone else? Boomers are a huge group that should be celebrated for our self-evident awesomeness, so clearly paeons should be written to us, but these other guys, what have they ever done to deserve having even a name for themselves?” This interpretation lends itself first to hilarity oh, those wacky Boomers, and then to writing it off, because what else can we do? In combination, that is expressed as dismissive snark. Let’s call that the cynicism/pragmatism divide: What a Boomer sees is us being catty, and we see it as justified realism.
(Actually, the entire “Boomers, Gen X, and Beyond” essay there is well-worth a read. Boomers, you’ll be happy and smiling along as you go, maybe shaking your head here and there, probably pensive but upbeat by the end. Xers, you’ll be falling out of your chair laughing, if you bother to finish it once you see how the wind is blowing. I’d summarize it as writing ‘they just don’t get it’ as an act of just not getting it.)
Here’s an op-ed I was reading this morning: The Fat Lady Has Sung, by Thomas Friedman. I’d arrived at the page from someone’s tweet about a community charging for 911 calls, but found that the piece was actually about politics, and surprisingly, had a generational disconnect twist:
Our parents truly were the Greatest Generation. We, alas, in too many ways, have been what the writer Kurt Andersen called â€œThe Grasshopper Generation,â€ eating through the prosperity that was bequeathed us like hungry locusts. Now we and our kids together need to be â€œThe Regenerationâ€ â€” the generation that renews, refreshes, re-energizes and rebuilds America for the 21st century.
This illustrates one personal prejudice I do have about Boomers as a class, and I’ll own it: I feel like they ate everything on the table and left scraps for the rest of us to scrabble over. As an example, I grew up being told by laughing adults to not count on Social Security, the system would be bust before I got there. I remember this distinctly, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen as a young child, an adult jokingly lecturing me that above all, I had to save for retirement because Social Security was going to be gone before I got there. (Never mind the problem inherent with that suggestion; that Social Security is meant for security, i.e. a basal level of support to avoid destitution, not to finance a comfortable retirement. It’s a common mistake.) Surprise, surprise: the prophecy is coming true. I pay substantially into the system, and I absolutely support my taxes being used to help others avoid starvation and homelessness. But it burns my toast on a massive scale to see people being gleeful about their own irresponsibility. Listen up, my precious darlings: Y’all are the ones who left Social Security a messed up pyramid scheme doomed to failure, and screaming now about maintaining your entitlement benefits after you had 40 freaking years to fix it — seriously? Seriously? You don’t get to moan about the fruits of your own recklessness and cast us as the villains. I’m only 32, I didn’t break this. This one’s on all y’all. And considering your benefits checks are coming out of my salary, I think you’d better shut up about cold-hearted younger people not caring about your golden years. I conserve gasoline, I shut the lights off when I’m not using them, I reuse and recycle, and I save. I am responsible, and I am doing my duty to support myself because you guys made sure that I knew I had no safety net. I’m doing my duty to future generations by doing my best to make sure that I not just do not diminish but actually improve their positions. And I gotta support a bunch of selfish blowhards who were given so much, and blew through it all like life was just a bad run at the craps table. Don’t talk to me about your retirement plans, don’t talk to me about the fabulous, fabled 1960s; I don’t even want to hear it. (You’ll tell me anyway.) When you need me, and you will: you always do, I’ll be there to save you because it’s my responsibility to support the society I live in, but don’t expect me to be giddy with delight as you’re reminisce about how great things used to be. Things could have been great now — it’s 2010, for God’s sake; we could have a colony on the moon and a cure for cancer! — but you guys got bored in the 70s and so we’re shutting down our space program and still driving cars that get 17 miles to the rapidly-disappearing gallon. Don’t talk to me about social security, man. Just don’t.
…but I digress. And I’d been so good up until now!
A frequent complaint that I see about Gen Xers is that we are, allegedly, just waiting for the Boomers to die. (You’ll see that come up over at that Baby Boomer HQ site I mentioned earlier, if you visit.) It’s a suspicious, furtive accusation, and it makes me sad. We’re not, you know. You’re still our parents, even if you are idiots with your money. I’m not sure what it is that we’re just waiting for the Boomers to die, for — presumably the supposition is that we’ll swoop in and snatch up all those sweet CxO corner offices. But the corner office isn’t a big deal for us. I’m not saying that there are no avaricious, social-climbing Xers, but that’s not what it’s all about. One remark I made in class that definitely earned me a shoutout was when I said that my work is not my life. I told an example of a discussion I’d been having with some coworkers at lunch. Someone was shocked to learn that although I have a smartphone, I do not use it to keep up with my work email at all times. (I maintain a pretty sharp work/life distinction, having learned the hard way that if I never stop working, my life sucks. I made a decision to not read work email on the weekends unless I’m on call or it’s an emergency several years ago, and never looked back.) Someone asked, “why don’t you read email before you come to work like we do?” And I stared at him and answered, like I was talking to a three year-old, “Because I’m in the shower, dude.” Working before work is the equivalent of the meeting-planning meeting. At some point, the abstraction gets a little silly.
Boomers have admirable dedication to their jobs, and are tenacious when it comes to accomplishing what they want. The unflattering name for this is “workaholism.” The generational disconnect here comes because Gen X watched these workaholics have their loyalty and dedication rewarded by layoffs and disappearing pension plans, and shifting the kids between the parents two weekends a month. So, again, we learned to work around the failure in the system: if our employers treat us as fungible or disposable, we will figure out a way to flourish regardless of the environment. That translates to us not depending on the company, and being protective of our individual development, so that we always have a backup plan.
When I want to go off and learn something new, to me, that feels like a positive act — I’m happier and more capable, which benefits my employer (thus the time is justified), and I have a new bullet-point for my CV, which benefits me. It’s worth pointing out that this is an prescribed behavior in some business practices: Agile programming practice, for example, insists on “refactoring,” which is the art of going over a working program in order to make it better. The wheel’s there, sure, but let’s throw some sweet rims on that baby and take her for a spin.
But that sort of thing can be interpreted as standoffishness or a selfish insistence on reinventing the Boomer’s perfectly good wheel for no reason other than self-aggrandizement, as my classmate (remember my classmate? This is a song about me and my classmate.) said was one of her hangups about younger workers. So it’s important for a Gen Xer to be able to explain this in a way that it makes it clear that it’s not because we don’t value the work that was already done, so we don’t make people resentful. And it’s important for a Boomer to recognize that just because something benefits us doesn’t mean that it’s devaluing them.
You’ll have noted by now that continual improvement, and acting to preemptively avoid disappointment, is a major factor in Gen Xer behavior patterns. That’s the thing that seems to be perceived as our cynicism; if you assume things are going to end badly all the time, well, how pessimistic of you, Debbie Downer! I don’t think it’s a negative though. It’s actually more optimistic: we see things that can be improved everywhere we go! If the rules don’t get us to success, we invent new ones. The accusation of cynicism assumes we see everything labeled “this sucks,” but in reality, it’s like seeing everything labeled “hope” everywhere we can go, because we can really do so much with what we’ve got at hand.
I like to joke, when people ask me what operating system or computer is “best,” that everything sucks, and you just have to find the one that sucks least for what you want it to do. But that’s just a joke, guys. I don’t really think everything sucks, because seriously, if I did, I would have given up years ago. (See earlier re: “Gen Xers and windmills, tilting at.”) If I were truly the cynical pessimist that people paint us as, don’t you think I would just phone it in, rather than showing up at work just trying to get to the point where I get to gleefully tell someone “I learned something new today”?
In practical terms, the work-is-not-life split means that I view myself as selling a product, my time, to my employer, and I don’t subscribe to the company-as-family metaphor. If the company and I do mesh well, that’s fantastic!, but I don’t count on it. I don’t set my sights on twenty years advancing through the ranks at one place, because in my experience, that’s unrealistic and setting myself up for disappointment. I set my sights on making sure that what I do is interesting and rewarding to me in terms of continual learning. If someone else is happy spending 70 hours a week slaving over a hot terminal, well, whatever floats your boat… but dude, it doesn’t float mine.
I think that one thing that gets frequently overlooked in trying to navigate tricky generational work-style conflicts is that, y’all, we’re all focused on the same end. I want to achieve things at work because it is interesting to me to make things better. Boomers want to achieve things at work because they like to win. So what if you want to have a meeting and I don’t? It’s hardly a crisis. Go schedule your meeting. Send me the agenda; if it sounds useful, I’ll tag along. If I don’t, send me the summary later. Don’t assume that just because I’m sitting at my desk, it’s because I’m plotting against you, and don’t use it as a weapon against me. In return, I’ll try and avoid assuming that you’re meddling with me just for the sake of being a meddling meddler. You might have to remind me that you are curious because you want to be involved, and I might have to explain that I’m not throwing out the wheel you already invented just because I didn’t invent it. But if we can put aside some of those differences, we can come up with some really great ideas, with each of us compensating for the other’s failings. You bring the beer and I’ll let you play the jukebox. It’ll be great — just so long as you know that if you play that “does your bubblegum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight” song, I am totally making you listen to Green Day.
I will close with a couple of jokes, stolen from someplace else, because I just wrote an essay that’s about twice as long as one of my homework projects I was supposed to be working on, and I’m about out of steam. First, I shall disrespect my elders:
Q: How many Baby Boomers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Not really sure, but they’re going to have a day-long retreat to brainstorm on the issue and will report back their recommendations.
Q: How many Baby Boomers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: The light bulb committee has determined it will take two – one to screw it in and one to supervise. Once the bulb is screwed in, there will be a group hug and a team building exercise.
Next, I shall be a realist about myself:
Q: How many Gen Xers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Just one – the slacker who blew off the brainstorming session.
Q: How many Gen Xers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Ehhh…. it’s not that dark.
And because there has been far, far too little taunting of the younger generation in this blog post:
Q: How many Millennials does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: All of them. And they worked as a team! And it was the best light bulb screwing in that any generation ever did – so I gave them all a trophy!
That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading to the end, you slackers. Now make like a tree and get out of here, McFly.