Change Management
May 7, 2012

Generational differences?

CGE Vol.13 No.9 November 2007

Youth…still wasted on the young. It’s the buzz in coffee rooms and boardrooms. Many consultants make much money trying to answer the question: what’s up with today’s youth?

Are they going to work in the public service or will they be lured by the lucre of the private sector? Will they even want to work at all or just bugger off skiing every Friday? How are they ever going to learn all this important stuff that it took us decades to learn when we’re all retiring? Are they going to talk back to us when they are upset and then give us two weeks notice that they are heading off to the oil patch?

We’ve had the demographic pitch – in various remixes of demographic determinism. This is most often expressed as the appalling implications of Generation X’s rap-induced, immediate gratification issues, ambushed by the Generation Y’s technological street smarts, buffeted by the boomer workaholics and the echo’s screams of repressed recessional pain.

It started out quietly with the informed insights of renowned demographer David Foot and is now hitting the high-end keynotes with the equally notable, erudite and humorous Linda Duxbury. Executives, eager for news from the youth front, flock to these seminars to get pistol whipped with how they have screwed this up and will be paying dearly for their core values transgressions.

Across town, young professionals are being herded into their own age-specific committees and organizations where they hold meetings, attend youth conferences and are pistol whipped about how they will be paying a price for their core value transgressions.

Linda, you know I love you and you have made a huge, insightful contribution to this issue, but don’t you think it is perhaps time to move this conversation out of the keynotes and back into the workplace? Across the country, public service executives continue to talk to each other about this recruitment and retention matter – and all the while the youth carry on the same discussion in special support groups for young professionals.

What seems to be amiss here?

A few years ago I thought I might amuse myself by writing about the culture of public service as told from the perch of the old guy. Bureaucratically Incorrect: letters to a young public servant was the result, a book I would have appreciated decades ago when I was a young public servant wondering what was going on around here anyway.

After its publication, I was invited to speak to a group of young professionals in Moncton. I declined. It didn’t seem very interesting to airlift my aging body across the country to spend a day with a roomful of sameness. “What would it take to get you to come?” they asked. I thought for a minute and suggested that I would be really interested if they took the time to fill half the room with the rather fresh professionals and the other half with the more, shall we say, well done.

They took me on.

They re-designed the day. They adapted the speed-dating format, and dubbed it speed networking – young professionals would spend five minutes with an executive, see what connections they could make, learn from and about each other, then move to the next table and next person. There was a café, putting small mixed groups together in dialogue and creativity exercises. They finished with a fireside chat.

It was a hit. The young people were tired of talking to each other and the geezers were tired of talking to themselves, so we had a true conversation across generations. These “grasshopper days” have become one of the high points of my career.

I know it seems so simple but simple isn’t always simple and this work requires a clear vision of what we need to do, which is to get connected. We need to know how we can open up the conversation in a systems way and we need to learn the new tools and practices necessary to pull it off.

Surprisingly, the question of demographics, Gen X and Y core values, and those big generational differences never really come up in these sessions. Instead, there is storytelling, laughter, curiosity, challenge, history and imagination that seem to hold the space in the room all day. The only real differences seem to be in the amount of laugh lines in some and discretionary spending potential. Since beginning these sessions, I’ve been looking for those big generational differences but I am struggling to find them. I find youngsters who are so conservative and uptight that they should be sending out five page carbon copied memo sheets, and I find boomers with a fire in their belly, even though they have only six months left to go. And vice versa, of course.

They coined the phrase “generation gap” when I was a young man. And indeed we were perhaps somewhat different from our parents and grandparents. But hey, it did not take us long to become them either, did it? The real core values of telling the truth, hard work, making a difference, supporting your family and working collaboratively for a common goal ensured that I became my father soon enough. That was a pretty good thing, I suspect. I see this every day in the young people and in the fire-in-the-belly elders.

When we actually talk to one another, unfiltered by PowerPoint and Blackberry, we truly find that we have similar goals, work ethics, cares and many of the same overall values. We just need to get into the same room, shake hands and start talking to one another in respectful, reflective conversations.

Radical idea.

Bob Chartier works with Indian and Northern Affairs and consults widely on leadership (chartierb@inac.gc.ca).

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