Perhaps We Don’t Have a Generational Problem?

In the past year I have seen growing discontent with the focus on generations either in media, training or general discussions.  “Why do we talk so much about the generations, especially the Millennials,” many people have begun to ask.  Or I’ve heard, “This is a sham, another way to put complex people into simplified boxes.”  I can’t say I completely disagree with these arguments.  People are amazingly complex with many beliefs, different personalities and various values.

Take What You Like And Leave the Rest
I do believe some discussions about generations are destructive.  I think when we start to stereotype “all those _____ are ____,” we are on a very slippery slope.  In my mind, that’s not why I talk about generations.  Generations, like personality theory or gender theory in their purist forms, is not about alienating or talking about ‘those people over there,’ but it’s about providing many lenses on which we can constructively view why people behavior the way they do.  From those lenses of understanding we can than begin to change our beliefs, systems, processes, relationships – appropriately - to create a better ecosystem for all of us to live, work and play.  Often times I’ll say, “take what you like and leave the rest” – meaning if you like what you’re learning from your MBTI results, or communication style inventory or the understanding of generations, take those insights and grow and adapt based on what you’ve learned.  Of course, if you don’t find value in these types of studies, don’t use them.  Simple as that.  The caution of course is: do you not like the lenses or studies because you don’t find them helpful or because you’re afraid of what they might do to your current beliefs and how you might be required to change because of them?

Juvenoia and Shared-Sense Making
We do know that more than 60% of employers report that they are experiencing tensions between employees of different generations.  This comes from a Lee Hecht Harrison survey done a couple years ago.  We also know that juvenoia, or the exaggerated fear of the things that influence youth these days, is probably perpetuating the dislike of the generations discussion in our current media.  As George Orwell put it, “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” This is also the phenomenon of ‘shared sense-making’ which is when a group gets together and makes assumptions (right and wrong) about another group.  In application, this looks like a bunch of Millennials getting together and make assumptions about their Gen X manager not providing enough feedback or direction and their Baby Boomer CEO not being innovative enough.  To be clear, shared sense-making happens within all generational groups.  Juvenoia, shared-sense making and the discontent over talking about generations is not helpful and in many ways, is an argument based on being provocative and counter-culture, an argument which lacks depth, intelligence and maturity. 

Perhaps We Something Going on Much Deeper than Generational Issues
I was recently talking with a friend and mentor of mine.  We got on the discussion of “these dang kids these days and their lack of resolve, grit and persistence.”   I asked where he thought these less-than-adequate beliefs and values came from.  “Their parents!” retorted my older friend.  I then asked if I could share some of my true beliefs about generations and people.  Intrigued, my friend said yes.  Here is what I said:  I don’t believe we have a generational problem in our work or life.  I think we have a people problem.  I think our current discord with generations is a symptom of something much greater going on in the world.  Call it spiritual depression or emptiness, a lack of purpose, or a lack of “whole hearted living” as Brené Brown puts it.  We’re numbing our way through life.  We’re sitting in the passenger seat while life goes by.  We - the adults, parents, coaches, managers, citizens, guardians, leaders – are lacking the resolve, and sometimes courage, to deal with the realities of life.  So as a society, we’re drugging up, drinking up, back stabbing and cheating, becoming more cynical and sarcastic, more argumentative, more partisan, and we are challenging everything to prove our hard held point or position (and trying to be provocative and counter-culture too).  In addition to those, we have become a society that tolerates bare minimums and lowest common denominators – what’s the least I can do instead of what’s the most I can do.  “How do I get through the day doing just enough so as to not rock the boat and come out the other side?”

And then (and this is where generational problems come in), we raise our kids that way.  It’s an epidemic and cyclical in nature – one generation’s behaviors and beliefs begets the next one.  We don't have a drug, alcohol, or violence problem - those are symptoms - we have a deeply rooted problem of empty people that don't understand their purpose and value in life.  If we could ever get back to a “significance level of living,” as A Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren calls it, we could begin to change our beliefs around people, relationships and purpose.

Direct Application and Study
Now you may agree with that overall belief or not.  It doesn’t really matter to me, it’s my belief.  I do think there are some nuggets of truth in it however - mainly how do we start to tackle such a massive root problem as spiritual emptiness and lacking purpose?  If we could get people to a level of living where they had a mission and vision, where they felt value-added and purpose-driven, and where they whole heartedly liked to come to work and loved spending time with their families wouldn’t that be a better world to live and work in?  I don’t believe we can get there with only motivational speaking, places of worship on every street or, a big, large audacious vision.  I believe we also get there by direct application and study.  I believe we start to utilize tools, strategies, and belief-changing discussions that have direct effect.  These tools might be an MBTI personality assessment, a 360 developmental plan, and positivity journal, or in this case, the concept of talking about what key events happened during a generation’s formative years that then influence their outlook and behavior in life.  Discussions around generations help us ask, “Why do certain generations behavior differently (or the same) as other generations?  What can we learn about one another that help us move our companies, our organizations or our relationships forward?”

Easy or Hard
The easy answer is to say, “Well, let’s not talk about generations, or diversity, or conflict, or women’s issues or men’s issues or leadership, and so on and so forth.  Aren’t we just really drilling down and knit-picking – putting complex people into simplified boxes? Let’s not analyze and study.  Let’s not change our beliefs, behaviors and actions based on what we’ve learned.” 

The harder question is, “How do we utilize all the talents, ideas, tools, and innovations to work on some of our core challenges and learn from them?”  Perhaps in the process we can begin to provide meaning, purpose and awaken people to a significance-level of living.

So, perhaps we don’t have a generational problem.  Perhaps it’s even bigger than generations.  But, generations give us a jumping in point – a way to talk constructively about differences and similarities and how we begin to bridge the gap. 

Of course, if you disagree (with a quarter, half, or all) of with what I’m saying, you can simple take what you like and leave the rest.