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The 4 Generational Divide – It’s Time for a Love-In!

August 31, 2009
Updated February 15, 2015

There’s a lot of tension in cubicle land, with the still lingering effects of the 2009 Great Recession and uncertainty where the economy is headed over the next several years. America’s economy has finally shown improvement. However, the US is still vulnerable to both internal pressures (eg, the Federal Reserve’s flooding the economy with new money-quantitative easing, the effects of a shrinking Middle Class on aggregate demand, and the country’s miserable international ranking in maths and sciences) and external ones (eg, getting sucked into foreign conflicts and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to drive down oil prices).

Your corespondent has been an economist for a long time and never bought into former Federal Reserve Allan Greenspan’s never-ending utopia of low interest rates, permanently rising housing prices, and an unlimited consumer spending orgy. It all came crashing down remarkably quickly. And the intransigence displayed by the U.S. Congress and Senate made matters much worse; the intransigence continues. Business leaders want some measure of certainty before they start to invest in capital equipment and hiring more people. On this last point, the US is not alone: Canada’s business leaders have shown an abject willingness to invest in these two areas.

In the land of management and demographic gurus, we heard for years how Generation Y had the labor market by the tail. Organizations would have to adjust to Gen Y’s different values and work patterns. Baby Boomers would have to shed their traditional management practices, embracing technology, shared leadership and more teamwork. Along the way Gen X has been struggling in the Boomers’ long shadow. Some have called Xers the Lost Generation.

Well, a funny thing happened – actually it’s rather sad – along the way through the recession. Gen Y, which was to have enormous opportunity and clout in organizations, suddenly got creamed by the massive layoffs in the US, and to a lesser extent in Canada. Last in, first out goes the old adage.

While we’re still not quite out of the woods, with some big-name economists warning of a double-tip recession (no, you won’t find this at Dairy Queen), it’s very unclear what’s in store for Gen X and Gen Y, the latter of which holds massive student loans.

672 Everyone assumed that we Boomers would be bailing from our organizations very soon. The expected rush for the door, while escalating, was expected to pick up speed around 2012. But the huge losses in the stock market caused many Boomers to reevaluate their retirement plans. The ‘experts’ were predicting that there will be huge labor shortages, that organizations will have to find ways to retain older workers, and that even the tax system will have to be modified. Well that’s changed now, especially in the US. Many Boomer workers have already concluded that because of their melting 401Ks that they will be working until age 70 or older.

This will create even more challenges in the workplace, as if it isn’t challenging enough now. If that scenario unfolds – and it will – we’ll see a generational spread from the new Gen Z to Y to X to Boomers (complete with their walkers). The Silent Generation (currently age 70 and up) will be out of the workforce by then. How Gen Y operates 10 years hence, in the context of Gen X, which will be between 40 and early 50s and holding senior management positions, and Gen Z which will be in their twenties, will be fascinating to observe. Your correspondent will be in his late sixties by then, providing armchair narration.

But for now, with so much turmoil in the economy and society, and with so much at stake for our two countries in regard to global competition and our standard of living, somehow we need to figure out how to work together more effectively. There’s way too much resentment among the current generations in the workplace. We Boomers are looking over our shoulders at the Gen Xers who just can’t wait till we leave. Gen Y is especially anxious now because of the recession and the huge impact it’s had on them. It’s hard to pay back student loans when you’re working for 10 bucks an hour. And the Silent Generation thinks that we’re all spoiled brats.

So let’s get with it, folks, and put down our swords and shields and try to figure out how to live and work together. If we don’t it will be a very uncomfortable ride, with we Boomers moving to the back seat. And Gens X and Y will hear the popular refrain: “Are we there yet?”

Beware of the man who laughs and his belly does not jiggle; that is a dangerous man.

– Confucius

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2009 1:56 pm

    Great post, Jim!
    I definitely agree that mentoring is an important way to foster inter-generational peace. I work at a small college library where most of my colleagues are Boomers, and I belong to a crop of Gen Y (well, there are 4 of us). Learning really does go both ways, and I think our informal system works pretty well for us. The last few years have seen some major changes to our facility and services (instant message reference, etc) that would not have happened if we didn’t have an inter-generational exchange of ideas. I’m very grateful to learn from people who have seen other major economic highs and lows, and who also know the history of our college and its cyclical reactions to political and economic changes.

    • August 31, 2009 4:56 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Lindy, and I’m glad to see that you’re open to the experiences and perspectives of others. On a related note, there’s a California-based anthropologist and leadership author, Angeles Arrien, who wrote a wonderful book back in the nineties. It’s main title is ‘The Fourfold Way.’ One of her lessons is BE OPEN TO OUTCOME, NOT ATTACHED TO IT. These words have guided me through organizational turmoil.

  2. August 31, 2009 12:37 pm

    I think it’s great to start talking to children about possibilities of careers, even when they’re young. Our school system hasn’t delivered in helping youth consider areas such as entrepreneurship.

  3. August 31, 2009 2:05 am

    At this point I am not sure who I am anymore…xyz….so how can I move on with my life. 🙂 All kidding aside.
    This is one of the major reasons women are heading into self employment in numbers unheard of before. We are the largest group in history to do this and with good reason. We are tired of being in the trenches fighting for what! A pension. Call me a dreamer but I am following passion, living the lifestyle of an entrepreneur and leaving the x,y and z’s to battle for the pensions.
    I am also looking at my kids who are years away from entering the workforce and have already started chatting with them about how they can create their own employment…


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