Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - What does it all mean?

Photo: Belshaw family, Rome January 2005

I must admit I have let all the debate about Gen X, GenY and the baby boomers sweep over me. I found the debate difficult to understand at more than a superficial level and also found it to be of little relevance to much of my work or my thinking.

If you look at my own family, Grandfather Belshaw was I think born around 1866, Dad was born in 1908, I was born in 1945, my wife was born in 1959, my daughters were born in 1987 and 1989. It is now 2006, so when I am thinking about my own family the four generations of most direct concern to me span 150 years.

My own thinking was in part formed by the experiences of my Belshaw grandparents in the pits and mills of Lancashire from the late 1870's (both started work at 12) and 1880s. Wigan, the town they came from, was later featured by George Orwell in the Road to Wigan Pier (1937), although by then the Belshaws had long left for New Zealand.

At the other end of the spectrum, my thinking is also being formed, perhaps reformed, by the experiences and attitudes of my daughters attending school and university 150 years after my grandfather's birth. There is a vast difference between the 19th century industrial world of England, the world of the Platt Bridge Methodist church (photo) where my grandparents worshipped, and the modern teenager in Sydney.

At personal level I have not found the debate about baby boomers, Gen X or Gen Y especially helpful in aiding my understanding this 150 year sweep, nor have I found it of much use in professional terms.

When I look at changing attitudes to work seeking to understand those changes and their implications for people management, I come up with explanations that have little to do with intergenerational differences, much to do with the changing structure of work itself and responses to that. At best, terms like Gen X and Gen Y are short hand labels attached to bundles of attributes.

I have been forced to re-assess this position, not because my overall thinking has changed, but because people are now using these terms in ways that have behavioural impacts. Two examples to illustrate:
  • My eldest is now using the term Generation Y to describe herself and has just eagerly purchased the first edition of a magazine targeting her age group that bills itself as the magazine for generation y (all lower case). If Helen believes that Generation Y has meaning, then that belief gives it meaning.
  • HR people in bigger organisations are now frequently using the terms Gen X and Gen Y to explain the type of staffing challenges they face. I may feel that they are talking about symptoms, that in fact the use of the terms disguises the real causes of the problems they are dealing with, but again their belief gives the terms meaning because it has practical effects on behaviour. Further, I have to be able to use or at least understand their jargon if I am to help them.

So bravely venturing where thousands have gone before me, I have finally entered the world of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y, seeking to understand just what it all means or, perhaps more importantly, what people think it means.

Boy am I confused. It's almost as bad as reading some of the European derived marxist dialectic that for a period dominated so many articles in the historical journals. I used to sit in the library thinking that all this must make some sense until finally driven out into the fresh air to try to clear my head.

To help clarify my own thinking, I will attempt a few short posts on the debate, linking them back to the themes that I have been addressing in recent posts.


Travel Italy said...

If I did not know you were talking about Australia I would think you are here in the US.

I find it intriguing that established countries seem to be moving step by step together in business and culture changes.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting comment, David. I think that there has been a growing degree of convergence.

One of my colleagues who is very interested in cross-cultural issues and works across countries and cultures has been delvering training in Singapore for many years.

One of the measures he uses to analyse cultural differences is the location of the culture on a spectrum from individualist to collectivist. Thus the US culture is traditionally individualist, Chinese culture collectivist. Australia sits on the individualist side but with a strong dash of collectivist.

A year or so back my colleague was doing some management training for a Singaporean bank with mainly Chinese staff. He had worked with this bank before but there had been a gap. He found that a major cultural divide had emerged in the bank between the senior staff who still had collectivist attitudes and the junior staff who had developed strongly individualist views.

Its also the case, though, that quite strong if sometimes subtle differences do continue to exist between apparently similar cultures. Will be interested to see your continuing reactions as the current discussion thread evolves.