Can a “Slacker” Manage “Peter Pan?” – Why Generation Generalizations Aren’t Enough

At The Brooks Group, we’ve been hearing a lot of complaints from sales managers about how their younger employees seem to feel a “sense of entitlement” that really rubs them wrong.  There’s a lot of talk about the “privileged” Generation Y, and frustration about Gen Y’s high opinion of itself.  It makes sense that a management level composed largely of Generation Xers (born 1965-1976) would be skeptical about and annoyed by the Generation Y (or Millenials, born 1977-1990) they are increasingly being required to supervise.  While Generation X and Generation Y share technological ability and comfort with diversity, their essential character traits are vastly different.

Xers were the independent, defiant, self-reliant latchkey kids and the young adults who made Nirvana and Pearl Jam best-selling musical groups and first “got” rap music:  The Slackers.  They were college students who entered the work force in a terrible job market and quickly got involved and began contributing their creativity and practicality in equal measure.  They are a small generation – about 50 million people – and they expect people to work hard on their own volition in exchange for flexible schedules, independence and growth potential.

In contrast, Millennials are a much larger generation – about 77 million people – who grew up in one of the most child-centric environments the world has ever seen (hence the “Peter Pan Generation”).  Their parents were involved with the details of their lives and supportive and encouraging in everything they did.  Generation Y are far more team-oriented than their X counterparts, and they’re more respectful of positions and titles.  They’re used to being given direct guidance, so they want to be told how to do their jobs in a way that makes Generation Xers cringe.

It is true that “The pervasive influence of broad forces, such as parents, peers, media, and popular culture, create common value systems among people growing up at a particular time that distinguish them from people who grow up at different times. “(Smola and Sutton, p. 863).  But that’s certainly not all there is to this workplace story, for two reasons:

First, it’s not over.  Generation Y folks are still entering the workforce; the oldest are only 33.  The jury is still out on what contributions they’ll make as a group. Twenty years ago, Generation X was called the slacker generation, but as they’ve aged and revealed their adult character, the characteristics attributed to Xers have – by and large – gotten more positive.  Even by 1997, it had become clear that Xers were not what they had first appeared:  Look no further than the Time article about Generation X, which was titled, “Great Xpectations of So-Called Slackers.”

Second, generalizations about generational differences only are useful to a point.  A Millennial raised by a young Generation Xer might have a very different experience of childhood than a Millennial raised by an older Boomer (born 1946-1964).  An early Xer might have more in common with a late Boomer than an early Y.  What’s really important is the specific personal characteristics an individual brings to his or her work.

Many of the characteristics typically ascribed to generational groups refer to personality traits or behavioral styles.  These are the external things an outsider can directly observe about us:  how we react to events in the workplace, how we dress and speak, how we treat others, and so on.  These descriptors are helpful in describing people, but they are the tip of the iceberg.  It’s important when dealing with real people in real work situations not to get too carried away with generalizations based on external characteristics like these, which only describe HOW someone does the work they do.

The next-deeper level of information we can gather about people is detail about what motivates them… which is what they value the most.  Values are WHY someone does the work they do:  Are you primarily motivated by money and practicality, or are you motivated by helping others?  Are you most interested in getting ahead and being top dog, or do you really get a kick out of learning for learning’s sake?  Generational research does address the WHY of performance to an extent, but only to the level of making generalizations about groups of people based on cultural experiences.

The most critical, deepest data we can uncover about people is their attitude about their work:  how clearly they see the tasks and abilities their job requires and how naturally focused they are on them.  For example, most jobs require extremely high levels of an attribute we call “self management” for success.  If you are naturally and fundamentally focused on skills associated with self management, you will:

  • Independently pursue business objectives in an organized and efficient manner.
  • Prioritize activities as necessary to meet job responsibilities.
  • Maintain required level of activity toward achieving goals without direct supervision.
  • Minimize work flow disruptions and time wasters to complete high quality work within a specified timeframe.

It’s pretty clear that self-management is an individual personal attribute that has little or nothing to do with what year a person was born, right?  Instead, it’s a function of how the person was raised, what their life experiences were, and how they view themselves in the world.

If you’re experiencing frustration with someone who’s of a different generation from you, looking at the cultural differences between their generation and yours can be a useful starting point in resolving your issues. Talking openly and professionally about the assumptions we make about one another – whether we’re “Slackers” or “Peter Pan” – can be an excellent way to work around or through our differences and function better as a team.  However, assessments of personnel based on assumptions about generations or any other superficial traits do not address the specific personal attributes (like self-management) and world view; they just make generalizations based on group characteristics.

The best way to begin improving a professional intergenerational relationship is to learn about our own unique combinations of observable behavior traits, motivating influences, and personal skills…. and how they affect those around us.

The Brooks Group’s Brooks Talent Index® assessment system provides exactly the objective insight needed in each of those three areas.