On April 1992, John Gray published “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. Met with incredible success and controversy, this book proposed that a variety of relationship problems are the result of fundamental differences between genders in behaviours and expectations, and the meaning assigned to each act by the other party. Through simply presenting the other party’s perspective and worldview, this book allowed a great number of marriages to rebuild communication pathways.
A very similar cultural movement is happening right now with the study of generations in the workplace. Psychologists, businessmen and sociologists all over the world are conducting studies and surveys to confirm the sociological assumption that cultural differences is not only determined by the milieu, but also by the important national or global events that have marked the formative years of a generation (from late childhood to early adulthood). Moreover, those studies propose that there are fundamental differences between generations in behaviours and expectations, and the meaning assigned to each act by the other party.
According to Belgium sociologist and business expert Bernard Petre and French sociologist François Dubet, a crucial difference between Boomers and Gen Y is in the origin to the meaning given to behaviour and identity.
Boomers grew up in a period where the meaning of one’s behaviour is determined by the group. Social identity was in many ways fixed and to each individual that invested, society would give back (“Pay your dues”). They’ve heard a speech of “stability leads to progress” and “work before pleasure” and the reality they’ve lived in was precisely this one, at least until the 80s.
With the oil crisis, consciously or not, Boomers started to change the speech towards their descendants. Some were victims of the first waves of massive lay-offs and downsizing, others have witnessed a whole generation getting axed (Gen X). Some others have worked themselves to exhaustion or out of connection with their family. Divorces and stress-related diseases skyrocketed.
As a result, Generation Y grew up in a reality of social chaos, in which long established institutions were showing signs of decline. Their child-centric parents passed on that the meaning of one’s behaviour is determined by the self. It was the rise of child psychology and soccer moms: the “quest for the true self” became not only a speech but a personal obligation.
In light of these different realities, there are 2 areas responsible for most sources of miscommunication between Boomers-Yers.
1) Due to the number of divorces, since an early age Yers learned to adapt to the different rules in each parent’s home and negotiate the expected actions behind each value.
“Yers don’t show any respect and they want to know the why of everything” claim many managers. Albeit nerve-wrecking for Boomers that grew up in a time when unspoken social conventions were clear to all, the reality of the world today is that of Yers: everything is indeed negotiable. Whether this is good or bad is beside the point; the fact remains that it’s very difficult to obtain from Gen Y an expected behaviour by just making reference to an abstract value.
This happens because each value is translated in a different way in each sub-culture they live in. Their request for the “why” and the “how” is in this case much more a need for understanding than a defiance to authority. Once this language barrier is crossed, Boomers will notice that Yers can demonstrate respect and loyalty like anyone else.
2) Social integration model: from an institutionalized belonging in Boomer’s days towards an elective approach in Yers days.
From their multi-activity childhood, jumping from piano to soccer or French lessons, Yers learned that it is up to the group to make the effort to integrate the individual. If the group did not welcome the individual’s identity, mom would enrol them on a different one the next day. Peers and elective relationships have therefore more value in Yers eyes than institutionalized relationships (extended family, religious groups and co-workers).
This can be frustrating for Boomers used to a “life in one company” worldview, but is indeed a great opportunity for smart managers. If on one hand engaging on an authority struggle with Yers will lead to almost certain loss to the manager (the Yer will just put himself on minimum service until he finds a more fulfilling job), on another hand crossing over the institutionalized towards an elective relationship will pay out handsomely. A manager that invests in connecting on a personal level with his Yer will not only gain a highly engaged employee but also access to his network of talented individuals and consumers. Given Gen Y’s heavy presence in social media, this can be a profitable deal.
The clash of these two diverse worldviews is not to be underestimated. A shift of the responsibility over the first step in group integration is not easy for businesses to accept and it’s perfectly understandable. However Yers immunity to group pressure will remain strong (as their presence grows in the workplace) and holding the current position will just amount to a zero-sum game for both parties.
Understanding and respecting each other’s perspectives can go long ways in building professional engagement and personal connection. Despite each generation’s concrete expectations from values, each human being craves pretty much the same things. The need to be understood for who they are is just one of them.
How do you encourage cross-generational communication in your team and organization?