When I began writing my new book (almost two years ago! how did that happen?) it all began because I noticed a tremendous opportunity for “someone” to help translate between generations in the workplace. After all, even a cursory look at the demographics shows that there’s not even close to enough Gen X’ers to step in for the Boomers when they retire (note the inverted bell curve around Gen X). Furthermore, there seems to be a world of difference between the perspectives of Boomers and the Gen Y’ers who have to replace them.
Like I said: HUGE opportunity.
Once I got into the research, however, it simply wasn’t adding up. The problems being experienced in the workplace weren’t just happening in business, and they weren’t just happening between these generations. The more I read, observed, and talked with smart people I quickly realized that whatever was happening in the world was much, MUCH larger than just a generational problem.
This surprise took my book (and life) in an entirely different direction than what I had anticipated, but it has been an eye-opening and invigorating journey. We’ll have plenty of time in the future to dissect and discuss and debate the direction I take in the book, but today I wanted to talk just a bit about this generational thing because it is a very popular angle in the business world.
The short truth is: generational studies don’t go deep enough.
Leaders (at all levels) like to glom on to a generational problem because it’s relatively familiar. Compared with the fundamental, tectonic shift that is actually happening, a generational conflict is almost passé. We can call in consultants and do training seminars to “fix” the problem. We don’t really have to change the way we think about the world that much. We learn a few new tricks and hope that business will just go back to the way it was.
This is dangerous approach because it’s like putting band-aids on cancer. It’s treating symptoms instead of the disease.
Is there any benefit, then, to studying generational differences? I think so — if it helps us learn how to communicate with each other better, I’m all for it. But we need to make sure we’re using those skills to talk about the right things.
And that’s what scares me about being too consumed with generational problems: it can (and often does) distract us from making the difficult, systemic changes that will actually build healthier organizations.