Generational Reductionism










Today is Mark’s birthday, he turned 52. He shares his birthday with his Uncle Peter who turns 70, a cause for much family celebration.

Peter has been retired for 5 years. He was a partner in an accountancy firm and is enjoying a relaxing retirement thanks to a generous pension – splitting his time between his London mews home and his beachfront villa in the Algarve. As a baby boomer he has benefitted from unprecedented property price inflation, and also from the fact that his children all went to university before tuition fees became payable. He was able to downsize his property a few years ago and give his two children a very handsome deposit for their first homes. He has little time for computers, having been lucky enough to have had someone to ‘do all that computer stuff’ for him when his accountancy practice felt the need to fully embrace technology.

Mark is also a baby boomer and also an accountant. He has worked for different companies, but has been restructured out of his last two roles. After each redundancy he’s had periods of unemployment followed by day rate contracts. His ‘pension pot’ is shrinking and this, along with the need to keep his skills up to date and worries about financing his children’s university education, help to keep him awake most nights. He happens to be pretty good with computers, something that helps keep him employable.

Mark’s wife Jane is luckier. She is a year younger than him so is a Generation X type. Not for her the riches of the baby boomers, but being born into the digital revolution age means she has a greater understanding of digital concepts. She was allegedly part of the ‘me generation’ of the 80s (although she was already in her 20s), something she shares with her 34 year old niece, Joanna. Although 17 years apart, their adolescent years clearly shared similar ‘slacker’ style influences. However without Mark’s computer skills she wouldn’t have any idea how to pay a bill or send an e-mail.

Their 14 year old son Paul is in Year 9 and has just had a ‘business’ day at school. A number of large organisations sent their graduate recruiters in to educate the boys and girls in employability. He was intrigued by the one of the presentations from a woman who said she was 31 but then also said ‘I can help you, after all I’m a Gen Y’er just like you so I know what it’s like’. He thought it was particularly funny when she said that Facebook wouldn’t be allowed in the workplace because it was just for silly pictures of babies, weddings, parties and pets, when all Paul’s classmates use it to keep in touch with each other, to find out what has been missed at school and to help each other out with homework and research.

Paul found it even funnier when he heard that the lady had spoken very differently to Year 8 (his sister Lucy’s year) by telling them that their lifelong use of digital communication, social networking and mobile sets them apart. When Lucy got home she teased Paul about how she was a digital native and he was just part of the ‘boomerang generation’. She found it odd because without Paul she wouldn’t have the first idea how to use her iPhone or iPad nor how to download or connect…


Barely an hour goes by without a link appearing in my Twitter timeline to an article that goes something like ‘6 things you need to do if you want to hire Gen Y’ or ’10 reasons Gen Y don’t want to work for you’ or a personal real favourite ‘Why Every Social Media Manager Should be Under 25’.

Of course it’s largely tosh. To draw uniformity of influences for people born in a 17 year timespan and then turn that in to some kind of HR or workplace wisdom is foolish. But people do it. People seem to make some kind of living out of packaging it up as consultancy.

The demographists, pollsters, and social and cultural historians know differently of course. They like to draw conclusions from the social, economic, cultural and parental influences that someone is exposed to in adolescence, particularly between 13 and 18, and I can understand this. Experiences within this 5 year age span tend to shape expectations, values, ambitions and aspirations that we carry forward in to adult life. My sons are bound to be different to mine, as will be those between someone who grew up in the 80s and the 90s.

They  have different generational classifications in recognition of the fact that influences change every few years – for example Generation Jones are the ones who grew up in the 70s…though I still think Generation Bowie is better 😉 They are currently the key demographic targeted by pollsters and marketers.

One of the best research presentations I’ve seen on this came from Decode. They didn’t see age as the signifier of attitudes but life stages. Within the ‘traditional’ Gen Y age demographic they found a variety of attitudes dictated by life stage.

Taking work/life balance as an example (something that older generations think is of great importance to Gen Y) they found that it was a number one priority for students just entering the workplace. For the young independents it was of very low priority, whilst for young families its importance had increased, but not to the level of students. All of these attitudes from a sample group in the age range 21-29.

As Pew Research Center recently concluded

“Generational analysis has a long and distinguished place in social science, and we cast our lot with those scholars who believe it is not only possible, but often highly illuminating, to search for the unique and distinctive characteristics of any given age group of Americans.

But we also know this is not an exact science. We are mindful that there are as many differences in attitudes, values, behaviours and lifestyles within a generation as there are between generations.”

Just ask Peter, Mark, Jane, Joanna, Paul and Lucy…

Generation Bowie – the original flexible workforce?

“Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it” (George Orwell)

“Talking ’bout my generation” (Pete Townsend, 1964)

‘Trying to forget your generation/I say your generation don’t mean a thing to me’ (Billy Idol, 1977)

I’m reading a lot of blogs lately concerning generational demographics, particularly looking at how the attitudes of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y differ. Now here’s my view…

I don’t believe Generations are a state of mind; they are a question of influences and experiences. Whilst we may often try and use these demographics to define workplace behaviours, their real raison d’être is to define age groups by their cultural, socio-economic and parental influences.

The cultural historians will look at the outside influences during adolescence, specifically the years 13-19, to define generational traits, and see how they impact on a whole range of behaviours, including attitudes to work. Hence the generational type they belong to is usually governed by the decade in which they were teens.

The Baby Boomers were born into post-war austerity, usually to parents who themselves had grown up in the Great Depression (the original one) and they matured during the 60s, whilst Generation X are usually seen as the ‘slacker’ generation, growing up with constant access to TV and with lives shaped by Thatcherism/Reaganomics and the rise of home computing in the 80s/early 90s. Their title, Generation X, was popularised in the novel by Douglas Coupland, written in 1991, which concerned American and Canadians who became young adults during the late 80s, yet the actual expression ‘Generation X’ was first used in 1952 and then again in 1964 to describe teenagers of loose morals and little respect in the mid 60s!

Standing back for one moment, and trying hard not to vainly squeeze oneself into the next generation down, it’s clear that these 3 ‘Generations’ cover 70 years…7 decades which have seen incredible changes and advances, with each one bearing little similarity with the last. Generation X, for example, allegedly contains everyone who will be between 30 and 50 next year.  In my opinion 3 generational classifications are not enough, and are misleading as they ignore age groups who have shown their own identities.

After all, in my quotes at the start Billy Idol clearly felt he was a different generation to Pete Townsend, yet both are considered to be Baby Boomers.

So let’s accept that the Baby Boomers grew up on the 60s, and Generation X in the 80s…yet in between there is a whole decade of very different influences that are usually ignored as being a crossover between the two. Yet meet anyone who grew up in that decade and you will find someone who is flexible and adaptable.

Anyone growing up in the UK in the 70s will tell you that this was a tough decade, underpinned by constant change, fluctuating fortunes, unrest, violence and cultural extremes…4 elections, 4 Prime Ministers, 3 day weeks, bombs on the streets, mob violence, industrial unrest and a whole spectrum of music and fashion trends..Glam, Punk, Disco, Electro…flares and drainpipes, big collars and big statements.

In a decade of such change it’s hardly surprising that people who grew up then have had careers underpinned by change…interview someone who was a teen in the 70s and it’s likely that they will have had many different careers, utilising a whole range of skills and competencies, and their development has been marked by change and a restless quest for new experiences.

This generation has no badge, no obvious name, neither Baby Boomers nor Gen X; yet in the workplace they have shown themselves to be the original flexible workforce. Adaptable, open to change and new ideas, hard working, constantly looking to improve and gain new experiences, not scared to take a step into the unknown…restless and always looking for something new.

Well, I’ve decided to give them a name… a tag that recognises their unique influences.

I’m going to use a cultural icon who defined the 70s…high work rate, constant change and re-invention, always ready to try something new and never standing still.


From now on I will call them Generation Bowie…or BowieGen if you like…the original flexible workforce!

What do you think?

Recruiters need to get smart to win the Generation Game

There’s been a lot of debate recently about the future recruitment landscape, and how current events and technological advances will transform the way companies recruit. I took part in at least 2 separate discussions about this at London Unconference.

Certainly we 3rd party recruiters have many challenges ahead, and one the biggest, I believe, will come from the generational shift in decision makers from Baby Boomers to Generation X.

Over the last 20 years or so agencies have mainly been briefed by Baby Boomers. They’re the generation that have been the key decision makers, and in the main they like external recruiters. We have been their friends; helped them to build careers, kept them in mind for the big jobs, also helped them to build their teams. They have trusted us with exclusives and retainers, and we have entertained them…lunches, networking drinks, sporting events. We have been their eyes and ears in the market and they have valued this, putting little pressure on the traditional recruitment sales model and fee structure.

Inevitably, the decision-making baton is being passed on and nowadays we are more likely to be briefed by Gen X. They are stepping in to key roles as hirers and decision makers. And there’s a difference…I’m not sure they see 3rd parties the same way.

Whilst I do subscribe to the view that Generational classifications can often be no more than a state of mind, I do think that with Gen X there are certain effects of cultural, social and economic changes that define their experiences. In career terms they certainly seem to have things a bit tougher…largely entering the job market in (or at the end of) a major recession they now find that at just the time they should be making the big career step up the ladder…there’s another recession.

They have also built their careers during the rise of a different recruitment ethos. Whereas the Baby Boomers were comfortable in the knowledge that they had a trusting business relationship with recruiters, Gen X have rarely had the same luxury. During the growth years they have found a lot of recruiters to be focusing on the deal not the detail, instead of building deep relationships they have been  more concerned with speed, CV, size of fee, and swiftly moving on to the next deal. There has been no continuity, no engagement, little post-placement care, and when Gen X have started briefing 3rd parties, they have too often received just a CV shifting service, with no proper matching, value add or consulting.

Any wonder they’ve gone for multiple briefings, with reduced fees and a winner takes all approach?

And any wonder that if you ask them about their resourcing plans for the future they talk about direct resourcing and reducing agency spend?

They usually ‘get’ social media, are big users of LinkedIn and Facebook (with a growing awareness of Twitter) and can see the business benefit of going down this route.

It will be a long haul to win them back, and I’m not sure that they will ever see us the way that Baby Boomers did…the challenge won’t be to turn the clock back, but to work with them collaboratively to map out the future.

On Talent Street the 3rd parties used to lay the paving stones, and often also  had a hand in filling the cracks too…moving forward, could we just be filling in the cracks?