Talkin’ Bout My Generation?

Originally posted March 2013

I’m a great fan of literature (as this blog shows) but if I could burn a book it would probably be Generation X by Douglas Coupland. Not that there’s anything wrong with the novel itself, but Coupland’s rationale for writing it, and the subsequent nonsense that surrounds it,  has taken HR people into a cul-de-sac of stereotyping and pointless debate.

Essentially, Coupland’s novel was a classic “young generation isn’t understood by the older generation” story. The Baby Boomers – those born immediately post WW2 – ran the world in way shaped by the War and just didn’t get the next generation – Generation X.  This generation – roughly speaking those born from 1960-75 – were a mixture of selfish individualism (their heroes being Reagan and Thatcher) and anxiety at the ever-present possibility of nuclear war.  The succeeding generation – which Coupland dismissively called the “shampoo generation” (because their biggest concern was deciding which brand of shampoo to buy) – are now referred to as Generation Y (or sometimes as Millennials, which makes them sound like an End Time Cult).

Now that Generation X are in their late 30s to early 50s, they are generally speaking, the dominant ones – the Baby Boomers having taken advantage of the “Peak State” and gone off on early retirement.  As the cold war has ended, Generation X-ers need something else to worry about, and being very business focussed they obsess about the fact that Generation Y people apparently aren’t. Not only do Gen Y spend all their time on this modern “social media” technology (Generation X people come from a time when digital watches were considered a pretty neat idea) but they apparently want to work for organisations that have values and ethics and want jobs where they can grow and develop, not just make money. So HR people now have to spend all their time looking for new ways to attract and engage them (mostly by attending expensive conferences where experts will give the latest thinking on how to do this).

I’m not stupid – I know that people’s attitudes can be shaped by their age, as well as their class, gender, nationality and religion (and plenty of other things besides). But this labelling of people by their age alone and the ludicrous generation boundaries is not only contrary to all good HR practice, it might even break Equal Opportunities law (substitute White/Black/Asian for Boomer/Gen X/Gen Y to see how it is the worst type of crude stereotyping).

HR should stop acting like the embarrassing parent trying to be “down wiv der kids” and focus on getting the basics right – creating workplaces where people are valued and respected and where employers can recruit the most talented as a result. That’s something that will benefit businesses and individuals, whether they are 20, 40 or 60.

(The inspiration for this post comes from Twitter user @HRGem, who coined the term “Generation Blah” in this blog – worth a read)

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