Generations in a flat world

Generational theory is beautifully summed up in a message from author Thomas Friedman to his own children, included in his 2005 book The World is Flat :

“The world is being flattened,” he wrote. “I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. If it is to be for better, not for worse, then you and your generation must not live in fear of either the terrorists or of tomorrow, of either al-Qaeda or of Infosys. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination, and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be the generation of 11/9 (the falling of the Berlin Wall) – the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

This story discusses the changes we need to make in our thinking, to keep pace with the way our world is changing. It is an exciting, creative process, and the rewards for embracing change are wonderfully enriching.

Generational theory is not an abstract or academic study. It’s not a scientific formula or a researched model. All it is, is a dipstick into a period of time that produces people who tend, generally speaking, to think and act in a similar manner at certain times.

Think about yourself, your parents, your children (if you have them). All of our attitudes, values and expectations are based on what life was like when we grew up. What was happening then was the norm.

This is just one tool in your box to understand people around you. So generational theory is a filter to bring understanding to those you interact with through work and play.

At present there are four different generations in the workplace. Some are just leaving and others are just arriving. Technology, which drives much of the change at work, is causing many more differences to surface in the world of work than may have been evident in the workplace 10 years ago. Technology is, to use the language of author Thomas Friedman in his wonderful book The World is Flat, causing the world to flatten, meaning we interact both locally and globally with a much broader range of people. This brings its own challenges and opportunities.

Here is a brief overview of the four generations currently in your workspace. Each enters the workplace with a set of attitudes molded in their formative years:

  • SILENT – Born 1920-1940s. Their world of work was a world at war, or in post-war Depression, and work was scarce. When they had a job, they worked hard and were very loyal.
  • BABY BOOMERS – Born 1940-1960s. They entered the workplace in an economic boom. Most Boomers have loved and thrived in the world of work and many have been labeled as “workaholics”.
  • X GENERATION – born 1960-1980s – arrived at work as the economy started to slow down. They have been born into the world of the personal computer, and are frustrated by the slow pace of change that is being driven by technology. They seem to be caught on the treadmill waiting for change.
  • MILLENNIALS – Born 1980- 2000s. They are just entering the world of work and expect to be more in charge of their own destiny. They seek a portfolio life, and are less hooked on security than previous generations were.

These four generations have to learn to dance together in the 21st century workplace.

A baby boomer boss may have an attitude of all work and no play. But he may have a team of mainly X Generation employees, who may see their lives very differently. This can cause friction. The challenge is to understand one another, our mindsets and attitudes, and find solutions that work for everyone.

Social media like Facebook and Twitter are a normal part of the life of the millennial generation. Connecting and communication for this generation is done via mobile technology and they find it very difficult when there are no conversations in the workplace about how social media can be implemented in the business strategy.

These two examples help us understand the extent of the differences between apparently similar people, and how it is that the guy at the next desk could be both more familiar than your own family, and still be a stranger. When you add the impact of the global village, the picture gets even richer. The Land of the Rising Sun, for instance, has become the land of the setting sun with staggering speed. As recently as 1984, Japan had the youngest population in the developed world. By 2005, it had become the world’s most elderly country. Soon it will become the first country where most of the population is older than 50.

South Africa , like many developing countries, has a very young population. According to the Sunday Times generation X survey in May 2010, there are now more people in SA who are younger than 22, than the rest of the population put together. So we can connect across the Globe using social media but not understand the challenges and thinking of those in the cubicle next to us.

Take the time to learn more about the generations in your team and office. Spend time in conversation trying to understand their thinking, and find solutions that can ignite the flame of imagination and bring together a workplace where everyone wants to work.

If you would like to learn more about generational theory, read Mind the Gap by Graeme Codrington and Sue Grant Marshall. It’s a must.