Monday, 23 August 2010

Generational Differences

Welcome to the "new" warfare, ladies and gentlemen: Generational.

Just for reference, when I talk about Gen X and Millennials, typically I mean that if you grew up thinking New Wave was cool you're Gen X, and if you got into rock after Soundgarden broke up, you're probably a Millennial. To put it another way, if you grew up thinking Divo were cool, you're Gen X; if your first introduction to Divo was via Weird Al Yancovic, you're a Millennial.

Historiann has a good post up called And your music... It's just noise! about the current wave of articles by Real Journalists (you remember them, right? the people polishing the brass on the Titanic?) about how OMGWTFBBQ the new generation is coming and it's going to Screw Up The Baby Boomers Something Fierce. You should go read her post, maybe read a couple of these articles.

Just to give you an idea of their tone, they're named "What Is It About 20-Somethings?", "Generation Y Bother?" and (the more flattering, I suppose) "A Generation Collision Is Coming". The basic theme is that people in their 20s right now, that's Millennials*, are super-different (my term) from Baby Boomers, don't like to put in the hours of hard work to move up the ladder, want more from their employers than just a paycheck, and won't stand for hierarchical bull$hit based on time served rather than ideas and innovation.

I have two things to say about this: One, they're a little bit right. Two, they have only themselves to blame -- hey there, Baby Boomers, we're your kids, and your culture taught us everything we know.

To the first thing, I say a little bit right, because I do empathize with some of the depictions of my generation. Tom Downey writes, "Advice to put in your time and work hard so you can move up the ladder means nothing to this generation. That approach is based on a monetary contract. If management only gives a Millennial a paycheck, the company's return will be limited to the task performed." Ruben Navarette, Jr. writes that "they [Millennials] tell reporters and survey-takers that they want to be assured they won't spin their wheels in a dead-end job."

Amidst all the generalizing of a generation and judging from the outside, one thing sticks out to me: the fact that not one of the writers got around to noticing the lessons they'd been teaching their own kids.

As I was growing up, one thing became stunningly obvious to me over the years: once upon a time there was a magical land where people could work for one company their whole lives, feel that even if their part was small they were still a part of something larger, and feel as though if they gave their company their loyalty that that loyalty would be repaid -- by the time I was born that land had turned to so much ash under the constant radiation of greed.

My father, a professional in IT, went through probably a dozen jobs as I was growing up, with the concomitant fear of poverty, or at the least of the whole family being uprooted and moved to new places. What I saw was a man who got up every morning, dressed as though he were going to church (though we stopped going ourselves when I was young) went off to work early and came home late, working the whole time. Now he doesn't wear his Sunday best every day, but the rest hasn't changed. He still works hard, he still "puts in his hours" -- getting to work at an ungodly hour just so that he can get some work done before someone comes in and wastes his time (my description, not his. My father is, if nothing else, extremely polite and respectful).

My father received awards for his hard work. He ran projects and received high commendations for their efficiency and the cost savings. We still have the certificates he was given at ceremonies (even a little plexi-glass trophy, too). Yet time and again, the company he worked for would be eaten by another, someone with seniority would be given his job, and he would be out looking for another one. One company he worked for decided it didn't need a Canadian branch to its IT department any more, and so they fired them, to a man. My father was a VP at that time, and it still counted for nothing.

No, what growing up in my household taught me about work was one thing, and one thing only: companies want nothing from you but the bottom line. They have no sense of loyalty, and you should pay them nothing but what gets you, personally, somewhere. Always be looking for a better opportunity elsewhere, because your current employers will, without compunction or guilt, fire you if someone cheaper comes along.

And this is my second point: a lot of us grew up in households like that. While Baby Boomers' parents may have worked for one company for their whole lives, Baby Boomers themselves largely tried and failed to do so themselves, mostly because loyalty to workers went the way of all things non-profitable.

I'd be lying if I said part of the reason why I'm interested in academia is not the idea of a field where there still (for the time being) exists such a thing as tenure -- a commitment on the part of the employer not to fire you, because you have proven you work hard and well and are an asset to the organization.

And this ties in, I suppose, to the ongoing "what about tenure?" discussion that is a perennial favourite on IHE and the like. For what it's worth, here's my two cents: not everyone deserves tenure, but to have it as a possibility for years of hard work and dedication -- not a right, but a possibility -- is something that ALL professions should adopt.

Because right now, there's no reason for any Millennial to do anything but think of hirself in the business world. We're nothing if not a product of (y)our generation.

*I prefer that term, which is derived from those who graduated from High School in the year 2000 or later, over Generation Y, which is derived rather dim-wittedly from the fact that Y comes after X.


dgm said...

If you never leave a job you never learn the 'contractor mentality', ie that when a job is done you go out the door and that's it - end of relationship.

And you learn to do a good job, because that's why they pay you, but also not to care (much), so you become highly professional competent etc but ever so slightly disengaged.

Work ceases to be about satisfaction but basically about money. And that's kind of sad.

Vaulting said...

My grandfather worked for one company for more than 50 years. My father worked there for 20 before switching to his current, where he has been for 15. I can only hope to be lucky enough to be somewhere for that long. Right now, I'd settle for a job where I'm not found unnecessary after 12 months. I suspect I'm not alone.

Janice said...

Are we not men? We are Devo!

Depending on how the demographers decree, I'm either Gen X or a Boomer, but I feel like a Gen X-er, especially when it comes to musical history and the employment culture of those around me, particularly my husband and sister. I may have secure, tenured employment, but I sure don't think this is the norm, sad to say.

Anonymous said...

I think Devo is a band that didn't cross the Atlantic, I actually got that album just the other day because of people in the US going on about in spaces of the Internet I read. But while I am ancient compared to V & V, you could do just the same generation gaps in the UK, and the same processes are at work. Here of course the left blames Margaret Thatcher. Anyway, I just wanted to say, yes, one of the big reasons (and it took me years and a pair of successive angry partners taking my personality to bits to realise this, too) I remain invested in academia is that at some point I might be able to say, "I have a job, I don't have to look for a job ever again if I do things right, I can now start assuming I have a home." It's a big thing not to have.