Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization

“What is a generation?” asks Ira Wolfe in his new book Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization. “A generation is a group of people who are programmed by events they share in history while growing up… a common set of memories, expectations, and values based on headlines and heroes, music and mood, parenting style, and education systems.”

I would agree with this definition, and would add that it ties in with the concept of generation gap. Parents (and sometimes even older siblings) often do not “get” their kids. They don’t understand their vocabulary. They don’t understand what motivates them. And they absolutely, for the life of them, cannot understand why a pieced eyebrow is cool. (Who am I to criticize…in my childhood, coolness was defined by acid-washed jeans that were tightly rolled around the ankles and permed hair and makeup on male rock stars. Go figure.)

Mr. Wolfe’s book is an interesting study on the relationships between the generations in the workplace. It’s very similar in substance to the generational work done by William Strauss and Neil Howe (Generations, The 4th Turning, Millennials Rising), but it’s much less academic and, frankly, quite a bit easier to digest. Corporate executives who find themselves managing a multigenerational workforce should find the book quite valuable, as should anyone struggling to understand the generation gap in their own home, for that matter.

Wolfe speaks of the generations as if they were single members of a large family. At this stage in their careers, the Baby Boomer managers are “parents,” while the Echo Boomer employees are “kids.” Generation X, stuck in the middle as always, is analogous to an unloved older stepchild, cut off from the nurturing love fest between the Boomers and Echo Boomers.

Of Generation X, Wolfe writes “Coming of age in the shadow of the Baby Boomers virtually ensured that this generation would be overlooked and ignored; like Great Britain’s Prince Charles, they are the workplace ‘heirs apparent,’ waiting endlessly and impatiently to assume leadership.”

And like the unfortunate Prince Charles, their waiting has no end in sight. Gen X is hitting a “gray ceiling,” as the incumbent Boomers refuse to retire and make room at the top. But while Gen X waits for its chance to take the reins, Gen Y is slowly coming up behind them. Given the symbiotic relationship between the Boomers and their “Mini Me,” the Echo Boomers, Gen X is right to worry about being leapfrogged.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Gen X is a very entrepreneurial generation; with the Baby Boomer generation acting as an 80-million-person roadblock to their career advancement, it is understandable that Gen Xers believe that their best chance to excel is through starting their own businesses. Of course, Gen X also watched their parents and older brothers suffer through the layoffs and restructurings of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Seeing quality professionals lose their jobs through no fault of their own made Generation X grow up a little cynical and mistrusting of large companies.

Wolfe also has a secondary theory for Generation X’s independence and somewhat prickly demeanor. While the Echo Boomers were the “trophy kids” who were coddled from birth by their well-intentioned soccer moms who slathered them in antibacterial hand wash every time they left the house, Gen X was the “latch-key kid” generation. They had to fend for themselves at a young age. They also weren’t required by law to wear a helmet and knee pads every time they rode their bike to school, nor were they required to sit in a car kiddy seat until puberty. In short, they weren’t smothered by their mothers (or by the “nanny state”), and they were allowed to be kids — little Huck Finns and Tom Sawyers who got into a lot of trouble but ended up stronger for it.

Don’t underestimate this personality characteristic; you don’t realize how valuable it is until you see the alternative: the neediness of the Echo Boomers (also called the “Millennials” and “Gen Y”). In smothering their children with things like “My kid is an honors student” bumper stickers, the Baby Boomers have created a codependent monster in the Echo Boomers they raised. Echo Boomers require constant attention and affirmation in the workforce. They’re emotional and oversensitive. And they don’t understand why it’s not ok to wear an eyebrow piercing into a place of business if you want to be taken seriously or that it’s rude to have your face buried in a text message when someone is talking to you. (This is my personal pet peeve. Though she is now a married professional in her mid-20s and generally has good manners, my Echo Boomer kid sister has the annoying habit of doing the “Blackberry prayer” when I’m trying to talk to her. Her husband does it too. It’s maddening.)

Wolfe does an excellent job of describing the frustrations felt by managers today:

At school, teachers accentuate the positive. Kids no longer fear the bad report card — teachers do. This generation was treated so delicately that many schoolteachers stopped grading papers and tests in harsh-looking red ink to avoid bruising the child’s precious self-esteem. Managers in turn must now tread lightly when making even the most benign critique…

How did these kids get this way? For many Millennials, few “accomplishments” didn’t rate some type of acknowledgement. In games, it was common for everyone to receive a trophy — win or lose — thus the name “trophy kids…” The lesson shifted from “second place is the first place for losers” to “everyone who plays is a winner.”

This generational tension is a bit ironic. While many managers and most of the media targets the kids, the blame might fall squarely on the very people doing the loudest complaining — doting parents, teachers and coaches. After all, the grumbling Baby Boomer managers are the same indulgent parents who raised the millennial generation after starting families late in life or vowing not to make the same mistake twice with children from second and third marriages.

Wolfe, a graying Baby Boomer, is certainly no crotchety old man wagging his finger at “kids these days.” Quite to the contrary. (If anything, it is me, your younger Gen X writer who fits that description.) Wolfe sees a lot of untapped potential in this young generation. What I might consider a short attention span, an inability to focus, and insufficient attention to detail, Wolfe calls “hyperalertness,” defined here as an “advanced form of mental flexibility.” I would consider instant messaging three friends while simultaneously uploading photos to Facebook, blogging about rock bands, playing Second Life, and listening to an iPod to be a colossal waste of time of absolutely no economic value. I certainly wouldn’t call it “multitasking.” But I guess that makes me old school.

At any rate, Mr. Wolfe’s objective is not to pass judgment. His objective is to help managers better understand those under their control. And on this front, Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization is a useful too. I’d recommend this book to anyone in a position of authority over a multigenerational workforce.

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