Learning from Generation X’s mistakes – generational and gender transformations

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Elisabeth Kelan explains how HR professionals could tap into generational similarities instead of differences

More Generation Y articles

Age diversity is at the top of the agenda for many HR professionals, and responding to generational changes is a crucial issue for attracting and retaining the best talent. Much has been written about Generations X and Y but there is no universally accepted definition of who belongs to which generation.

Put simply, Gen Y refers to those under 30 while Gen X includes people over 30. While the generation game is a popular topic in the media, there is a lack of academic research exploring this area.

The Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business, London Business School has launched a consortium to explore the issues surrounding Gen Y in greater detail. As a first step the consortium looked at what has been written on Gen Y and young professionals both from an academic and a practitioner perspective and compared this with assumptions about Gen X. The research includes in-depth interviews with young professionals.

The great divide? Generation X versus Y

One of the greatest differences between Gen X and Y seems to be what they want from work. Gen X is said to be enticed by freedom and independence while Gen Y is more money and lifestyle-oriented. Gen Y’ers are also supposed to be more individualistic and focused on their own interests. Gen X’ers get on with their jobs while Gen Y’ers are said to ask questions about the way certain things are done.

One of the central differences between the two generations relates to the use of technology. Forrester Research recently published a study that highlighted the generational differences in technology use. Gen Y’ers see technology as embedded in and integral to their life. They are constantly “on” and embrace new technologies for socialising and work. Gen X’ers, in contrast, mainly use technology for convenience purposes, such as online banking and shopping but it’s not central to their social lives. The way technology is adopted relates a great deal to how people from these generations like to be managed. Generation X is generally happy with regular feedback whereas for Generation Y feedback has to be constant and immediate. This immediacy is linked to the use of technologies.

It’s sometimes difficult to gauge from all the literature written on both generations whether the differences between the two are real generational shifts or functions of age. Take flexible working, for example. Both generations are said to demand flexible working practices but often for different reasons. While Generation X often requires flexibility for childcare, Generation Y demands it for lifestyle reasons. With many people from Generation Y and X postponing having families and settling down, it would not be surprising if these differences were not due to generational shifts but down to lifecycle. The 1960s generation which used to challenge many accepted features of society may have settled down in suburbia.

Many of the other generational differences may boil down to the fact that people want to be appreciated, valued and empowered at work. This seems to be a fundamental human need which spans several generations but which is now being voiced more openly and confidently. It might be true that younger generations are less likely to accept, for instance, age discrimination but this is an expression of wanting to feel valued. Another problem with generational differences is that these stereotypes do not hold true for all or even most people in a generation and different circumstances and life expectations shape perceptions.

Knowledge creates value 

A central, defining shift which is characteristic in shaping both generations is the changing nature of work and the workplace. Muscle power has been replaced by brain power and management practices have moved from autocratic to collaborative forms. In the new economy, knowledge is fundamental and seen as creating value. Muscle power has, therefore, made way for brain power as the fuel for the economic engine. Employment security has been replaced by what professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls employability security – the ability to find a job with a specific skill set rather than expecting a job with one employer for life. With that the skills and abilities needed to succeed have changed.

Some argue that the gender of these skills has changed. Manuel Castells, a theorist of societal change, claims that flexible woman is replacing organisational man. Women are generally said to be particularly suited to the needs of the new type of economy. Gender discrimination remains a feature of organisational life but women are now better positioned to be successful.

The emergence of the flexible female is probably more evident in younger generations of women who have reaped the benefits of feminism. Feminism made the concept of gender more flexible and fluid and women started to adopt new roles, functions and positions. They did that through combining so-called feminine skills, such as listening and caring for others, with so-called masculine traits, such as being task oriented and getting things done. Younger women often combine different gender assumptions and move fluidly between them.

While the roles of Gen X and Y women have changed significantly, men’s roles in society have often remained static. Increasing numbers of young men might want to be involved, “hands on” fathers, but the transformation men have undergone is, overall, much less significant than that of their female cohorts. It could be that the real generational differences we are going to see unfold revolve mainly around gender.

Talent management

For HR professionals it is central to be tuned into what is happening in society and how the differences and similarities between and among generations manifest themselves. While it is important to notice differences and shifts in what people want to better attract and retain them, it might be equally important to explore how generations are similar. Differences might be due to lifecycle and individuals. A central feature of generational change is based around gender transformations, with skills defined as feminine becoming more important. Due to changes in the economy and feminism, women increasingly combine masculine and feminine traits and move between gender assumptions. Only time will tell how far generational changes will go, but gender is a pivotal area of change.

It is hoped that the research on career, life and work expectations of young professionals from Generation Y by the Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business will shed additional light on this topic, exploring and possibly contesting existing assumptions.

Generation X vs Y key differences

  • There are many assumptions about generational differences, for example: Generation X values freedom and independence, whereas Generation Y values money and lifestyle,
  • The use of technology and its consequences for workplace expectations is a central feature of debates about generational differences, with Gen Y’ers using technology to manage all aspects of their work and social life.
  • It is important to examine generational similarities as well as differences because many of the generational differences might be due to life cycles and stages.
  • People of all generations want to be valued at work and want to have their individual differences and needs met.
  • The nature of work has changed, moving away from muscle to brain power.
  • Feminism has made women’s roles more flexible, with many people combining so-called masculine with feminine skills in the workplace.
  • Generational differences might also unfold around gender, leading to the redefinition of gender roles.
  • There is much work to be done in exploring generational differences in depth and going beyond existing assumptions and stereotypes.

Elisabeth Kelan, research fellow, The Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business, London Business School

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