The Charlies

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Grey Hair vs. Mop Tops: Generational Divide at Work

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What will your desk look like... will you have one?

What will your desk look like... will you have one?

This evening I attended a Brown Alumni panel on generational divides in the workplace, a topic that is looming over managers in every industry. The panel comprised multiple generations of leaders from finance firms, to arms manufacturers, to tech startups . Each panelist had strong opinions about Generation Y’s supposed sense of entitlement and supposed lack of discipline. Some thought that subtle shifts and compromise could adjust expectations. Others claimed communication technology has changed out expectations around working hours. Those most out of touch with reality asserted that Generation Y was out of touch with “reality.” CIO calls Gen Y “the most high-maintenance, yet potentially most high-performing generation.” No doubt building successful teams will require new relationships with technology, cross generational dialogue, and nuanced management, but there is a greater paradigm shift at hand. Generation Y, the former disaffected youth of the 90s, strives to creatively build meaning into their work life.

The arms manufacturer suffered the most from generational divide: the majority of the workforce was over fifty. With difficulty replacing their aging workforce, the company recently instituted new policies: workers could take a day off if they work four consecutive ten hour days, workers could come in at ten if they stayed till seven, and so on. These sorts of policies only affirmed that this firm’s management has a ten foot poll stuck up their you-know-what. Moreover, young people have little interest trading their working hours for blood money. Gen Y is not just a new breed of tree hugger, they aspire to real meaning in the work place.

Generation Y is not lazy. One audience member and senior staff at a prominent silicon valley manufacturer worried that if we did not breed a competitive workforce, we would lose to China and our quality of life would plummet. The panelist agreed that everything we do is about competition, from getting into school to getting a job (I believe education is a universal right, not a war to be won but that is the subject of another post). Rather than being lazy, Gen Y has new tools at its disposal to accomplish great tasks from ‘virtually’ anywhere (when will Starbucks have free wifi!?). Blogger Nathaniel Whittemore of Change.org suggested that Gen Y will not compete for jobs that compete for their health and home; young lawyers are passing up a go at partnership because their sense of prestige is with their family, not in a corner office late at night, missing soccer games.

Whittemore went on to explain that we are in a fundamentally new time, when Teach For America has become one of the most competitive recruitment processes at Universities. Students are fighting for 11,000 spots at a 10% acceptance rate to work in some of the most difficult school environments in the country because they are willing to sacrifice to be a part of fixing what past generations broke. This commitment to service is not new, the strongest students of the greatest generation served in many wars as a commitment to country. Our commitment to service and meaning is manifesting in the work place. We are entitled to commit to our values and to fight to make a dent in major issues in both the for-profit and non-profit realm.

Meaning in the work force may appear to manifest as iBuds, trendy clothes (thrift shops are more sustainable than tailored suits), flexible hours, and colloquialisms, but these are just outlets for our larger values unfulfilled at work. Writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton argues in this not to miss TED talk that we need to create a generate definition of success, one that accounts for values. He argues for a passionate commitment to hard work and the aspiration of meritocracy, but acknowledges that it is against or moral code and constitution to stratify the winners from the losers. If the previous generation was about fighting for their millions, perhaps the next generation will be about providing opportunity, unleashing the bubbling potential energy, in every person.

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Written by Charlie

August 6, 2009 at 6:20 am