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If Gen Y is nonsense, gen why can't we stop talking about it? Thoughts from truLondon

22nd Feb 2010
Editor, HRzone.co.uk Sift Media
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Beware of bias - I'm talking about my generation. Yes, I'm a Gen Y (circa 1985) and you should see what came out of the Gen Y track at truLondon when the clash of the generations began...

Gen Y. It was a track which, at first, looked pretty small. We were there, recruiters, HR consultants, journalists, bloggers (some of us all of these things) along with Lucian Tarnowski, himself generation Y, born in 1984, and already founder and CEO of Brave New Talent, organisers of One Young World. Sarah White, Chief Strategy Officer at HRMDirect Talent Management Software joined him in leading the track.

Despite seemingly humble beginnings it was a debate which raged on and then continued elsewhere in the unconference. We had a wide variety of ages there, and it's difficult not to get defensive over your own generation. Pretty soon, you couldn't get a word in edgeways.

What was clear was that:

  • The world has changed
  • The world often changes - nothing stays the same for long
  • Technology has vastly changed the way we work
  • Every generation feels special in their own way
  • Everyone feels boxed in and over generalised when subjected to these 'definitions'
  • Everyone wants to be recognised for their own talents, not the 'generation' they belong to
  • 70 years is spanned by three 'generations' - in reality there are more subgroups than this: for example, Gen Y includes those who graduated before and after the terror attacks of '9/11' which had a huge impact economically, particularly in the US
  • Most people were certain that many could, would and do work in a style which does not correspond with their generation
  • Gen Y is centralised around the developed world economy and seems unlikely to apply worldwide.

So - the argument is deeply flawed. This we all seem to accept. However, we still seem to recognise a difference in working styles and attitudes between members in our workforce, and feel a need to define it, somehow. It seems clear the 'generations' are unhelpful, but world events and economic periods clearly have an impact on how people view the world, as do variables such as upbringing, class, expectation and management.

The worrying future that Generation Y are coming into was discussed: a workforce slimmed down by cuts, economic issues and technology. We anticipate a large amount of retirement in the near future and a future where the prosperity amassed by our parents cannot be ours - it's unsustainable, given everything we have to pay for, including education, care and pensions, which former generations have had more support with.

However the older members told the group they felt the same impending doom on entering the workplace (something the ones saddled with incredible student debt, career development loans, no pension to anticipate and a care bill to pay for their parents clearly found hard to appreciate).

Sadly Gen Y has grown up in unbelievable luxury and must come down to earth - the reality is most of us won't be able to afford our parents' lifestyles - and we must manage the expectations of our children too, and not promise them a world they cannot have.

Lucian has seen a huge amount of potential from young people around the world with his One Young World event: his commitment to his generation and belief in them is refreshing, particularly when Gen Y is frequently described as spoilt and impatient. In fact, some Gen Xers were happy to point out that they too were eager to get onwards and upwards too - it seems every generation has this force - and where would we be without the enthusiasm of youth?

Sarah stressed that there remains a need, particularly in the US, to mentor those coming in to the workforce as it's important the experienced workers pass knowlege on to the younger members as with fewer job roles, Gen Y will rise up the career ladder faster than generations before them. Does it mean they are somewhow better? No. But it is how the world works today; currently, although this too will pass.

These may all be valid points. However, there remain further flaws. The generational arguments separate people and make them defensive against each other - not good for teams working together. Generation Y's future is depressing to dwell upon: there must be some silver lining?

Some things never change - the youngest (Gen Y, although 'Gen Z' are fast on their heels too) feel undervalued and not taken seriously, meanwhile, the elders (baby boomers and Gen X, to some extent) feel cast aside and not listened to.

This is why we can't stop talking about it - because we have not yet found a better way of explaining the differences between different 'ages' caused by the climate they live and work through without resorting to mass generalisation - not because we like the definitions.

So here's the real challenge - how can we do this better, and therefore work together better?


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By alanwhitford
22nd Feb 2010 17:14

Hi Charly

Thank you for your active participation this week.  It was useful for me to hear your views, exchange opinions and see how a real journo approaches a bunch of unstructured discussions.  I look forward to meeting you again and to sharing content with HRZone and RCEURO.com.

Terrific analysis of the GenY and broader generational discussions.


Alan Whitford

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By lpotton
04th Mar 2010 19:29

A very interesting point about managing the lifestyle expectations of Gen Y and beyond. A lot of us Gen X people in our 40s enjoyed the relatively rapid affluence caused by easily found jobs in banking and insurance (with subsidised mortgages !) at the age of 16 or 18, then being in "jobs for life" for quite a while (or still there) before walking away with big redundancy packages.  Plus (unless we bought and sold property around 1990) we benefited from the house price boom which gave us growth on and off from the 1980s to 2007 creating healthy equity for us.

Our kids have seen this , enjoyed it, taken it for granted and unless someone whispers in their ear, will probably expect it to fall into their laps when they flee the nest.

The reality for them is scarce jobs (even if they invest their parents money in a degree), mortgages that are almost impossible to come by and a technology driven lifestyle (lap tops, plasmas, I phones etc) that they may well not be able to Finance.

Gen X often watched poor post-war parents struggle to make ends meet in the 60s and 70s, and then left home and made good in the 80s. It will almost go full circle when our kids, who have been brought up in relative affluence come down to earth when they have to pay their own way.

I am going to start managing expectations with my 3 tomorrow !

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