Generational harmony, what a beautiful dream
MY EXTENDED family recently celebrated my uncle and aunt’s 60th wedding anniversary. From their great-grandchildren to the aunt of ‘the bride’, the revellers traversed five generations and ranged in age from 10 to 95.
Until recently this would have seemed remarkable, but life expectancy for Australians has increased by more than 20 years over the past century. We are just beginning to realise that our workforce will have to be active for longer. Retirement at the ages of 55–65 will be economically unsustainable, and people in their 20s will be working alongside colleagues in their 70s and 80s.
Ask yourself if someone in your workplace has grumbled in the past few months about “young people today”, particularly in the context of how they interact in the workplace. While the generational label construct is inherently superficial, it does recognise that people born in a certain culture during a certain time do experience a generic set of environmental influences at a formative time in their lives.
Along with my Baby Boomer colleagues I grew up during the Age of Aquarius, and in 1969 a group named Blue Mink put out a track that called for a “great big melting pot”, where racial tensions would be forever abolished. Fast forward to 2012 and the ‘melting pot’ that we need is one where the various generations can live and work in harmony.
So, if we consider Gen Y to include those who were born between about 1980 and 1995, how do we expect our young co-workers to behave?
There is an extensive negative literature full of comments such as: “By the time Generation Y walks through the door on their first day of work they will have up to three degrees and their sights firmly fixed on their first promotion. If that promotion does not materialise... Gen Y is out the door on their way to their next job. Even if they like a job, they will probably only stay two years”.
However, viewed from a different angle the situation doesn’t have to be negative. Yes, Gen Y is highly trained, largely as a result of the importance that their parents attached to education. They have also been taught to negotiate and to give feedback, a part of the ‘life skills’ curriculum that we (wisely) insisted they experienced. They know not to tolerate bullies or inequity, and to work to the maximum of their abilities. Why are we then surprised if they seek both challenge and equity?
Remember that Gen Y has also been described as the first generation that may not achieve or surpass the material wealth of their parents – home ownership and early retirement may be unachievable for many.
Small wonder that as a group they focus on personal satisfaction and multi-skilling; characteristics that help you survive in an uncertain world. And for those who think Gen Y lacks commitment, the evidence suggests they have as much commitment as previous generations, but are not prepared to pursue someone else’s goals if they do no align with their own. Sounds sensible to me!
Much of the intergenerational angst we see in the workplace stems from a failure to understand and respect the motivations of our co-workers. When interpreted from our personal perspective others can appear selfish and disruptive.
However, consider what we can learn from the adaptive abilities of our Gen Y colleagues (including their tech-savviness!), and they in turn benefit from the wisdom and experience of older generations. Ultimately this is not just about peaceful coexistence, where divided communities live in an uneasy truce like ‘over 55s’ behind the walls of an exclusive development. The generations need to really mix it up with each other.
Blue Mink knew this 40 years ago when they sang “You know you lump it all together and you got a recipe for a get along scene – Oh what a beautiful dream”.
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