Episode #142: In What Year Were You Born?: Generational Astrology

See if the following story is consistent with so much that has been written about Generation X, Y, and Z in the recent past by countless “generational consultants:"

  • "They get restless after a little while in one place,” said an employer. “For the last few years I haven’t counted on keeping the ordinary fellows more than six months. I just let them go and take the next one who is always dropping in."
  • "Madam, I assure you I could just cross the street tomorrow and be paid as much as you give me.” Selfish, satisfied, and capricious, these young people newly emancipated into economic freedom are seldom idle; they work, but they are marking time on the spot they have reached, for they do not perceive any options desirable enough to lead them beyond those they are now enjoying.

An enormous amount of ink has been spilled on this topic, usually along with the different characteristics of the Baby Boomers and Generation X, Y, and Z.

One reason for this increased attention is there are simply more generations interacting in the workforce today than in the past. One reason is life expectancy.

The average knowledge worker today will outlive their employer, with an average active work life of approximately fifty years compared to the average organizational life of thirty.

This translates into the average worker today having many more jobs—and even careers—than those of their ancestors a century ago.

Differences exist, but what is the cause and does it matter

It may be an interesting academic and historical exercise to create lists of the differences between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, Y, and Z, but knowing the nature and nurture traits between the generations does not necessarily assist a company in attracting or inspiring its knowledge workers.

All of this “generational astrology” has all the explanatory power of asking people their signs—it is an incredibly weak theory. And, it is nothing new. Plato complained that the young people of his day “disrespect their elders and ignore the law.”

A more robust explanation for today’s workers—no matter when they were born—is the fact that they are knowledge workers, who are far wealthier than their parents—they grew up in what economist Brink Lindsey calls “The Age of Abundance.”

Wealth provides more options, from extending education, traveling the world, living with parents longer, or simply delaying gainful employment.

John Adams, America’s second president wrote: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy and they in turn must study those subjects so that their children can study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

In an intellectual capital economy there is a far greater range of talents that can be rewarded. America’s best-paid chef, Wolfgang Puck, earned $16 million in 2005 while Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi earned more than $200,000 a year for holding the title of the world’s hot-dog eating champion.

It is not the year they were born in, it is their age (that's different)

Another crucial difference in today’s workers is they own more of the means of production in their heads than ever before, which gives them enormous market power in the economy. They understand this fundamental fact better than their predecessors.

When I entered the CPA profession, I believed I was a service worker; today’s students understand they are knowledge workers.

Organizations can lament the fact that Generation X, Y, and Z are not as loyal as their parents, but the fact of the matter is loyalty is a two-way street; it must be earned. No business deserves any loyalty, either from its customers or its associates, until it does something to earn it.

Loyalty is not dead in the business world, but a reason to be loyal may be. The real question is, does the organization deserve the loyalty of its workers? 

In tribute to Mark Twain’s quip that history may not repeat itself but it does rhyme, the story above is from 1907. I suppose one generation has always had issues with the next, but it is hardly any reason to treat human beings different. To believe otherwise is to take astrology seriously.

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Ed Kless

Ed Kless joined Sage in July of 2003 and is currently the senior director of partner development and strategy. He develops and delivers curriculum for Sage business partners on the art and practice of small business consulting. Courses include: Sage Consulting Academy, Business Strategy and Customer Experience Workshops. Ed is the author of The Soul of Enterprise: Dialogues on Business in the Knowledge Economy, a compendium of a few of the episodes of his VoiceAmerica talk-show The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy with Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute where Ed is also a senior fellow.