By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
While I was in academia, I always enjoyed walking around and talking with people including colleagues (faculty, staff, administrators) and students. One evening, as I was preparing to (finally) head home, I stopped by the writing center at the base of the stairs. There were several students in there discussing a presentation on which they were working on the differences between the generations.
It feels like there is a new generational definition about every third week these days, and the exact definition (that is to say, the years that define each generation) always has some variation depending on the source. According to my source on the generations, the “Baby Boomer” generation (of which I am on the tail end) were born between 1946 and 1964, while millennials were born between 1980 and 1994. This puts baby boomers far enough along in their careers to be in positions of authority, and millennials in college and looking to start their careers.
To begin this discussion, let me say that there is no real way to rank generations. For example, if we look at accomplishments, gen Y might claim to be the best because they developed all of the apps and programming to which so many of us are addicted today (myself included). But, those programs were written for computer technology developed by the baby boomers. Computer technology was developed based on the electronic knowledge and industrial infrastructure given to us by the Greatest Generation. This couldn’t have been accomplished without the infrastructure built by the lost generation and so forth.
Based on their conversation, it was clear that these students had made up their minds that millennials are clearly the better generation. It occurred to me that, if you really want to understand a generation, you should understand the generation that raised them. For example, my generation was raised by the “Greatest Generation”, who say the great depression, and the world war. They were a generation that understood what it means to have nothing, and the importance of hard work. This generation knew the importance of self-reliance and that complaining accomplishes nothing. These are the people that held their emotions inside, believed in traditional roles, and they taught my generation.
My generation, on the other hand, managed to establish themselves, had significant financial resources, and an attitude of wanting things to be better for their kids than they were for them. We saw a system where our parents killed themselves for companies that promised benefits like health insurance and retirement, only to have the companies simply cancel these benefits regardless of their promises. We began to question the importance of blind dedication, and raised our children to question the establishment and old ways of thinking.
So, baby boomers tend to be very hard workers, highly dedicated, and self-sacrificing. From an employer’s perspective, these are admirable qualities. It was about this time that these students began to think that maybe the baby boomer generation is better because of their hard work and dedication. This was when I explained to them that I am a baby boomer, and have worked myself (at the time) where I had a great position (Dean), excellent income. I was also heading home late in the night to an empty house with no wife or kids, maxed out on the amount of unused vacation that I was allowed to accrue before losing it, and having had a heart attack requiring a triple bypass at forty seven. Is this good?
The answer is that all generations can learn from each other. I’ve sat in meetings, more than once, listening to the Gen Xer’s that were in charge complain about millennials. It’s unfortunate that so many people are so stuck in their role that they fail to learn from each other, and cannot seem to be able to utilize the strengths of those outside. I heard the big boss in one of these meetings complain that the incoming hires lack dedication to their organization. I can verify that I have asked several of these newer people, who often would reply that their plan was to build up experience and move on in five or so years. The bosses were complaining about this, and rightfully so since it takes time and resources to train new people only to lose them. I was the only one to bring up the point that all it means is that we have five years to convince them that they want to stay. Unfortunately, to do so, we would need to build an environment in which they would want to stay, which can be simple things like having nursing rooms.
Your generation? It’s a great generation. Just remember, we can all learn from each other.