Friday, September 29, 2006

Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - Setting the Scene

Note to readers: Because there is an interesting (at least I find it so) discussion going on at present between David and myself on this and and the preceeding post (see comments in both cases) dealing in part with the differences between aspects of the US and Australian experience, I have decided to hold off making a new post until Wednesday. Please feel free to join the discussion.

In my first post on this topic, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - What does it all mean?, I noted that the debate associated with these classifications had largely passed me by because it just wasn't relevant to the issues I was interested in.

I also noted that I had been forced to re-assess this position, not because my overall thinking had changed, but because people including my eldest were using these terms in ways that had behavioural impacts. I went on:

"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. "

My own Background

As I have said many times before, we all interpret things through a prism set by our own experience. Just to set the scene here.

I began working full time in the Commonwealth (Australian) Public Service in 1967. I first really started managing staff in 1973. Between 1973 and the early part of 1981 I managed up to 19 people and also played an active role in graduate recruitment.

In 1981 and 1982 I was back at University as a full time postgraduate student, mixing with other students and staff at all levels. Back in the Public Service from the start of 1983 to mid 1987 I was again managing up to 33 people. I then set up and managed a new consulting business. with a special focus on recruiting and training new staff to be as effective as quickly as possible. We had to do this - we were running with an average 15-17 head count - because we were new, doing new things, and did not have an existing staff pool to draw (pinch) from.

I then moved into independent consulting for a period before becoming CEO of a specialist medical college in 1998 and 1999. Again I was directly involved in managing staff of various ages. Moving to Ndarala at the start of 1990, I did not have direct staff responsibility because we have been very lean. But I was helping, among other things, professional services firms recruit and manage staff. Today I know my daughters' attitudes to work.

The point in all this? Over this period I have seen significant changes in the structure of work and in people's responses to those changes. To the degree that those changes have affected different age groups in different ways, there is a correlation (not a causation) between age and attitude.

To my mind, the things that really motivate staff are just the same today as they were in 1967 when I started working. To the degree that there is a change, it lies in the changing attitude of people towards employers.

Changing Attitudes to Work

Having told employees that they must be responsible for themselves, that they cannot expect the organisation to look after them, employers (public and private) are now reaping the wind they have sown. This is not age specific, although the way it manifests itself may be.

When I first came down to Sydney I did some part time outplacement work. The case that really stands out in my mind was someone who had been an assistant company secretary for a major Australian bank. An older man, I think that he was about my current age, he had never worked for anyone else. Retrenched, he was destroyed.

There was a somewhat happy ending to this case. He had particular skills in fraud prevention that got him a job elsewhere. But the scars remained.

A small incident? Consider this.

His wife, his children, his friends all knew what the bank had done, say 30-40 people. This may not affect the bank directly, although I note that it shortly afterwards went into decline because of internal problems that still linger. But multiply him by a million or so Australians all in contact in some way with similar experiences and the effects on people's general attitudes towards work and employers are profound.

We can see this manifesting itself in a variety of ways.

In a post on his blog, David Maister reported on a US and Canadian survey of MBA students. Fifty six per cent of students admitted to cheating. Why should this surprise us? If we can no longer trust our employer or, for that matter, our Government, if everything is focused on short term performance measures, then why should we not seize the moment?

Why am I still Positive?

All this sounds very negative. Well, in a funny way I remain very positive.

A key point in the context of the debate on Australia work choices legislation is the powerlessness of individuals. I think that that is true. But a million, five million, individuals have power. I am not talking about a political movement here, but about the way in which social attitudes force change.

We can already see this at micro level. Professional services firms across Australia are being forced to change because they cannot get younger staff to accept the old ways of working. Up and out still works for some, but is increasingly hard when the out in fact includes those you most want to retain. Attracting people into partnerships is becoming harder and harder.

I know of people, still a small number, who maximise their income by targeting redundancy. To make this work, you need a saleable skill. Then you deliberately target firms that you think are likely to be restructured or taken over. Work there, accept the package, and move on. Again, employers have to adjust.

Perhaps the most dramatic change of all is the changing role of women in the workforce, especially the professional workforce. Much of the debate here is still expressed in terms of paradigms coming from the high days of feminism. The reality is that women have won the battle of work. All that remains is the mopping up.

Sounds dramatic? Well, consider this.

Start with last year's Higher School Certificate (HSC) and University Admission results (here). As has been the case for a number of years now, more girls than boys did the HSC. Females outperformed males in the majority of courses and had a higher average UAI than males- a difference of 5.8 points.

For the benefit of international readers, the UAI is a ranking system derived from HSC results and used by universities in NSW and the ACT to grade students for admission. Given a limited number of places, the greater the student demand for a course or a university the higher the UAI required to get into that course or that university. Thus if you want to get into, say, medicine you may need to achieve a UAI of 99 out of a 100, putting you in the top one per cent of all students.

So what we have and have had for a number of years is more females than males (53.2 per cent female 2005) getting a UAI in the first place, more getting a higher UAI (58.1 per cent, for example, of all students getting a UAI higher than 90). The impact on the gender composition of university students varies from course to course (there are still more boys than girls in engineering) but overall has been quite dramatic. In optometry, dentistry and vet science, for example, the female proportion of all students is now over 80 per cent.

This feminisation of key parts of the professional work force comes at a time when overall numbers in the traditional entry level age cohorts have been dropping because of the previous decline in the birth rate. The social effects are quite profound and are slowly working their way through every aspect of Australia society.

Women's needs are different from men simply because of the question of children and the biological clock. The birthrate dropped in part because whole groups of women deferred children. Last year there was a mini baby boom, the highest number of births since 1971, as the same groups decided that now was the time to have children. This obviously affects the availability of the female workforce.

A second example. Like many countries, Australia has a shortage of doctors that varies across the country and is most pronounced in particular areas. This shortage is due in part to a very silly Commonwealth Government decision back in the late 1990s to cut the number of medical places because of a then view that there were in fact too many GPs and that this was leading to competition for patients and overservicing. But the size and distribution of the shortage over Australia has also been affected by the feminisation of the medical profession.

The length of time taken to train a doctor has been increasing. By the time you complete you first degree, then do your professional years, then gain entry to a specialist training program (these are generally five years) you are going to be 33 plus before you can set up your shingle.

From a woman's viewpoint, and assuming that you have not already decided to take some time out to have a child, you are likely to have a partner (the difficulty some professional women are experiencing in finding partners is another social issue) and be at least thinking about children.

Now linking all this back to my argument. Governments and employers of all types are just starting to come to grips with the challenge posed by this changing gender balance. I think that it will probably bring about fundamental changes in the way work is organised, changes that will benefit individuals of both sexes.

Back to Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y

I seem to have come a long way from a discussion that was meant to be about baby boomers etc. But I wanted to set a broader context. In my next post I will try to be disciplined and focus on the Australian discussion in this area.


Travel Italy said...

Jim - In my professional life I have never considered gender. For some reason my mind does not register that way. Thinking about it I have had numerous businesses with primarily men and others that were primarily women, interestingly in very similar market segments so I am not able to grasp the importance of more or less women in the workforce.

What I do know is that corporations have burned any goodwill they have with employees. It has come to the point that the once importance mission statement no longer considers employees as "stakeholders". The concept I am hearing is that the company only interest is to its shareholders.

Perhaps my experience is old school or I am simply old but I see this as a primary problem.

I always saw the university degree as a testiment that an individual is capable of ingesting and regurgitating information in a generally accepted format. In fact few people ever worked in the field of their study.

But times have changed. Since corporations have eliminated experience as a qualifying factor, even eliminating experienced people for cheaper just out of college kids, the university knowledge is more important. Unfortunately, University knowledge is, by definition, outdated and often not appropriate to face ongoing problems.

I'll explain: by the time a concept can get into the university and be properly vetted it is outdated and the basic parameters have changed.

Universities are enjoying this new role, raising tuition 5,000% in 20 years.

So I do not see the difficulties of male/female instead I see a structural problem. I see managers today that no longer even know what their job is much less how to take on the problem. Walmart exiting the European market is an excellent example, they just can't compete. Their corporate mentallity is not capable of understanding what they need to do effectively penetrate the market, even with their billions of dollars.

People are the base of any successful business model. Procedures have their role but they can only work if the right type of people with the right mentallity are there.

Jim Belshaw said...

David, you raise a variety of issues. How to respond?

Gender first. As a manager, I have never found a real difference between men and women so far as individual management is concerned.You treat them the same way.

As a social commnetator,I am interested in the impact of gender differences. Let me take an example.

Traditionally, vet science in Australia has been male with a lot of country students. Now students are mainly female coming from metro areas. They favour metro small animal practice. So there is a consequent shortage of non-metro vets, especially those interested in larger animals.

Now this shortage has practical outcomes. So what do you do to overcome the problem? Will it fix itself through market outcomes? Do you bias student selection in some way? Do you change salary levels?

My key point about the changing gender balance at a time of demographic change is that it will force - is forcing - employers to change approaches.

Your experience re corporations is neither old school nor are you old. My core point is that corporations have, for the reasons that distress you and me, sown the wind and are now reaping the results. This forces them to change or die.

Let me use an extreme analogy. The black death destroyed the middle ages because the loss of half the population made the old system unworkable. Those who lived and their children gained enormously.

Now what organisations, private and public, have done is impose the equivalent of corporate black death on their work forces. How else would you describe actions that get rid of up to 70 per cent of their staff?

Two concepts from economics are important here.

The first is the free rider problem. I get a gain without doing anything because someone else does something. The second is externalities, the fact that individual actions have aggregate gains and losses beyond the individual or individual organisation.

Link this back to our discussion.

I am an organisation. Working in isolation I get rid of a large slab of staff because this saves money. I also cut out training for those staff members I retain. In both cases as a single organisation this does not matter because I can always pick up people elsewhere, free riding off other organisations.

Now my actions impose costs on individuals and, to the degree I then pinch people, on other organisations. I get all the benefits from the cuts, others bear the costs. This is the externalities problem.

So far so good. But if everybody follows my course, then I have a problem. All of a sudden, there are no people available that I want or, if there are, they have the wrong attitude and/or I have to pay them a lot of money. Suddenly I can no longer free ride, while my externality has become an internal problem.

This is the process I am trying too tease through. And this is where feminisation comes in.

I can only agree with your views on the importance of experience. But I suspect that we have different views re a university education. Now without telling you my views - this is a conversation and I want to test something - two questions for you.

First, what do you think the role of a university education is?

Second, what did you most enjoy about university?

Please tell Rafaella that I have still to try the gnocchi - - but will do so this week.

Travel Italy said...


The role of the University changes according to the interested group but I will express my thoughts from my viewpoint

1) Student: It teaches an individual "how to learn" more efficiently
Business: It validates that an individual has some basic understanding of principles (lets say the pillars of some material) tied to the subject chosen

ie. a writer learns estabilished writing techniques; a programmer basic language expressions; a physicist basic elemental relations and equations.

My favorite, again depends on the perspective,

most fun: Marketing 101 with a 90 year old retired marketing guru;
most intriquing: Social Sciences;
most financially rewarding: ForTran WAT4;
most financially important: Acounting and Financial reporting
most stimulating: Physics

The one I hated but then spent years trying to recover Humanities (you know history of art, human studies...)

Jim Belshaw said...

David, as you say, the role of the university does change depending on the interested group - and person. So we all have a personal perspective.

I grew up in an academic family and attended university first before the development of mass university education. My eldest has just started business studies, so I have been comparing her experiences with my own. I also did some writing earlier this year looking at my old university's current strategic planning exercise. So the question of what consitutes a university and a university education has been on my mind.

Comparing Helen's current experience with my own, I feel that there has been a loss of the depth and texture of the university experience. Here I make a clear distinction in my own mind between education and training.

As a trainer (I have done a fair bit of training) I focus on ensuring that students (I am old fashioned enough to still use this word) achieve the learning outcomes as defined for the course in question. When I think about education, I think that it's not just learning to learn efficiently, not just acquiring the knowledge associated with a subject, its actually learning how to think. And this comes from the totality of the university experience. The courses that have had the most enduring influence on me such as philosophy of history have all linked to ways of thinking.

As an Australian I find the US university scene incredibly complex. Its partially a scale question, but there are also major institutional and structural differences that I do not fully understand. For example, the idea of paying someone a large sum of money to coach my child on approaches so that he/she gets into the university of choice is alien.

Travel Italy said...

Jim - I understand your confusion. First I should admit that I taught at La Sappienza in Rome while I was working on a research project there and found it quite stimulating and very different than my University experience.

The reason for the coach is the new role of a University degree here. A degree means that a youngster gets a better, high-paying job, better the University, the more money. The scope of University is no longer on the things I received from University instead simply scoring well on tests!

Since our society values only thinking jobs (why does a financial analyst make more money than a plumber)and experience is no longer valued (outsourcing or replacement after 10-15 years of work) a tremendous amount of wealth (much of it pure debt or home equity financing) is going into insuring that the child can a get a high paying job while he is still employable. I have seen job postings requiring Master of Science for system administrators (that is like saying that a janitor needs a degree in physics to understand how to push the broom most efficiently).

That is why we have preschool coaching, tuitions at 40-100k$ year and other distorted situations.

I have seen recently numerous studies that are now indicating that the University is not only a bad investment but also turns out bad graduates.

With the current business environment a University degree is useless. It no longer teaches what it takes to make it in the real world instead it teaches students to play perceptions.

I see this in advertising, CEOs that complain about the complexity of SARBOX, CFOs that "were not aware that debts in off-shore wholly owned subsidiaries had to be included in Financial Statements."

This is why no one sees a problem that 1 company produces and supplies 60% of the spinach consumed in the US or that a 70B $ month trade deficit is devasting to future economies and is reducing the countries equity, or that spending more money than you make is a problem.

You see, they just do not know!

Is this the fault of the Universities trying to make a buck or society that believes that education is a right of the few?

For me, I know the pied piper always gets paid!

Jim Belshaw said...

David, I don't think that I am bright enough to deal with the US scene, at least as a student.

A friend told me the story of her sister who was offered a position at an Ivy league, Yale I think, and a midwest university. The sister did a mathematical analysis taking all costs and income into account discounted back to present value. She then told Yale what she had done and that they were not worth the extra money. They asked how much they needed to reduce fees by (increase student income by)to get to the same result. She told them, and they worked out a deal!

I couldn't manage this. While there are some differences between Australian universities and some of the bigger universities - the so called gang of eight - are trying to turn themselves into elites along the US lines, general salary variations between graduates are not as great nor as long lasting. Further, in a smaller country employers have a greater capacity to recognise variations in standards within and between specific university schools.

Another interesting difference is that Australian students are far more stay at home especially in the metro areas. If they are going to travel, they are more likely to talk about overseas universities like Oxford or the Sorbonne. There is no Australian equivalent to the cross-US comparisons Americans make.

Here, too, there are complaints about declining university standards. Leaving aside issues associated with changes in the universities themselves, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise when so many students have to spend so much more time working to support themselves, reducing time available for other things.

There may well be differences between the US and Australia on the trades side. Like the US, university education expanded in part at the expense of trade training. Australia now has major shortages of trades people, trades people can earn very substantial incomes pulled up in part by the mining boom (The Western Australian economy has been growing at 14 per cent per annum while Sydney has been stagnant). There is presently a major push on to encourage kids to take up trades as an alternative to university.

An interesting Australian development has been the inclusion of a widening variety of trade linked subjects as part of the normal school curriculum options.

This is facilitated by the fact that we have a national qualification structure from Certificate 1 (the lowest quailification level)through to university postgrad. So kids even in traditionally middle class academic schools have access to and can gain recognition for a variety of non-academic courses that then articulate into the national qualifications structure.

Travel Italy said...

Jim - I think your govt. is making a wise move encouraging trade vocations. There is still one primary problem, the perception that a manual labor job cannot bring financial security in the same way as a “thinking job”. Even though the trades are gaining in market value people cannot ignore recent history. As soon as corporations can get illegal immigration going or can outsource the work to some other part of the world, these jobs lose their value. I see this as cultural, why did we have a boom of art related genius during the renaissance and only occasional exceptional artists since that period? Why were they concentrated so heavily in Italy?

While I understand the economics, I do not understand why our govt. have not taken a serious look at the long term consequences of this trend. Unless we think that the future of the world is the story line of the Matrix we need to be able to grow and build things. The saying remains forefront in my mind, “Take all of the thinkers and send them on a 500 year trip around the sun, when they return the world will have changed little and the future will be bright with new ideas. Take all of the farmers and send them on the same trip and they will have nothing to come home to.”

Jim Belshaw said...

David, I have often wondered about the link between culture and creativity. What is it that leads to a flowering in a particular place at a particular time, Athens or renaissance Italy?

In Australia there has also been a traditional distinction between blue collar and white collar jobs as well as between skilled and unskilled. The biggest job losses have come in unskilled labouring, factory work and clerical/middle management. Our highest age related unemployment rates have been among unskilled young people especially men, people over 50, again especially men but this time with a white collar bias.

I would be surpised if anyone in Australia still believes that trades in general are less secure than white collar, again in general. An Australian joke runs which would you prefer in the family, a plumber or a doctor? Answer, a plumber. You can usually find a doctor.

The presence of so many illegal workers in the US, the porous southern border, must affect US life in ways we simply cannot understand here.

Travel Italy said...

Jim - you talk about just what I was saying in your comments: Skilled and Unskilled; Middle management white collar ...

I propose that many manual labor jobs are skilled. A good carpenter, a good plumber or in the case of my brother a good welder require training, at one time we had apprentices. We passed knowledge, today we believe that anyone can do it as long as they are willing to work with their hands.

My brother is dyslexic, and had a terrible time in school but when he became a welder his true capabilities were released. The works of art he has created in iron are beautiful, of little commercial value, but truly beautiful.

The reason the Italian Renaissance happened is that the De Medici family financed for several hundred years artists, good and bad. As other rich families added resources it became acceptable to be an artist and many heard the call, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raffaello et. al.

Again I propose it is cultural.

I know it seems that I am against immigrants. This is not the case, it is the illegal part that creates problems. Official estimates say that we have 12 million illegal immigrants which means that there are more than 25 million (based on the extrapolation of the amnesty for illegal immigrants granted under Reagan).

The US has grown, from official numbers, from 50 million people to 300 million people in less than 50 years. Unfortunately the US is growing GDP on the by attrition not because it is actually more productive or because it is creating more goods. This has resulted in reduced equity, or quality of life, for those families who had built this country, paid taxes, paid into Social Security, just to see this money wasted and hard working people the damaged party in a broken contract!

This scares me. I never want to back an honest, hardworking man into a corner. He will react, hard, fast and effective. I do not fear international terrorism, I fear joe worker who can no longer feed his family.

Jim Belshaw said...

David, just to clarify something quickly. I obviously believe that manual labour involves skills. But you also wrote:
"A good carpenter, a good plumber or in the case of my brother a good welder require training, at one time we had apprentices. We passed knowledge, today we believe that anyone can do it as long as they are willing to work with their hands."

What is the current US system of trade training? Plumbing, carpentry, welding, electrician are all skilled occupations. How do they get the skills? It sounds like a totally deregulated system.

Travel Italy said...

No regulation, no training, simple business license, as Larry Kudlow, of CNBC, would say with pride, "Cowboy Capitalism at its best!" A true example of the free market. It is the clients responsability to choose a valid artisan, "No one made him choose that plumber that didn't know how to install gas lines!"

Plus, you must understand, all Mexicans know how to install electrical wiring, c'mon what does it take!

Jim Belshaw said...

I was going to swear, David, then realised that this was likely to send the various control systems crazy. Well, you have convinced me that the US is different. Apart from the pleasure of our conversation, and that's my immediate personal interest, this single comment provides a total professional justification for the exchange.

I do a fair bit of writing in the training environment - see the latest post on Managing the Professional services firm as an example: - and had been getting a very strong feel that the US part of my audience had no idea what I was talking about, neither the analytical structures nor even the meaning of words. I can see why.

I have begun adding in explanations to try to make things clearer. I will need to do more of this. But I will also seek some advice from some of my US training colleagues. If you assessment is in any way correct, then there is a case for actually explaining the Australian experience since it would appear to have something to teach.

Travel Italy said...

Jim - The basic difference between the US and the rest of the industrial world is the regulation. In Europe there are exact structures, licenses, certifications. These same certifications exist in the US for MD, Eng., ESQ. and that is about the extent of it. Most other professions are simple degree holder certified or no certification whatsoever.

The US is "Cowboy Capitalism" that is only the strongest survive and the end does justify the means.

Can you understand the University coach now?

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, David. I do indeed understand the tutor bit!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating discussion. Jim, you really did touch on the key issue differentiating between education and training. It seems that universities today are churning out plumbers, no offence to plumbers, instead of thinkers (may I say like TI and yourself).

Jim Belshaw said...

Crikey, Lexcen. I thank you on behalf of David and myself. I was glad to see, by the way, that you discovered David's blog. It's a real favourite of mine.

Any decent course can teach people to think if approached in the right way. This is different from teaching people to do, the purpose of training.

Universities forget the difference at their own risk.