The Generation Gap as an excuse #1: Finding Meaning
Sometimes the Generation Gap is an excuse.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Meaning event in Brighton, a conference focused on the future of work, and of meaning in what you do. (The clue, as they say, is in the title…) It was a provoking day, full of challenges to traditional perceptions of what it means to work, how you should work, and what the economic environment around work could look like.
The underlying themes were pretty clear:
- Scarcity of connection and information are over. All new work styles need to adapt to this basic fact.
- The economic changes we’ve seen in recent years are continuing – and an eternal growth economy is unsustainable in a closed ecosystem
- The hunger for personal connection – and personalised products – is greater than ever
The solutions were, to be frank, unclear. This was a set of provocations, not a set of answers. Some of the solutions presented were clearly only applicable to particular contexts. The image that did start emerging, though, was of a workforce that might seem familiar to many in Brighton, particularly in its digital industry:
- Flattened, non-hierarchical businesses
- Alternative business ownership models, around co-ownership
- Alternative decision-making structures, some of which resemble an internal anarchy
- Limited time-span organisations, and more freelance working
Many of these behavioural characteristics of organisations mirror those attributed to Generation Y pretty well. And it would be easy for many to dismiss them as businesses built for Gen Y.
Easy – but wrong.
Even a cursory look at the speaker list for the day shows that most of the people there were well outside Gen Y. The business model they were talking about are rife with the characteristics that many people have attributed to Generation Y, the ones that they are said to bee looking for in their search for a happy career – but does that bias only exist because it’s possible for them, in a way it wasn’t for earlier generations? There are those who hunger for – and are working towards – business models like these in earlier generations. I’m one of them.
Equally, in recent months I’ve heard people squarely in Gen Y arguing that these social businesses, with different, more emergent forms of authority internally, aren’t what they want in their working day. Many like being told what to do, knowing their place in the hierarchy, and the opportunity to walk away at the end of the day.
These are not generational issues. The whole of a generation cannot be tarred with the same brush. It’s lazy, pop-psychology and popular management theory, without rigour or insight. It’s an excuse, a lazy way of promoting what you want – or stopping what you don’t. New technology is not merely the preserve of the most recent generation – indeed, one could argue that their immersion in it prevents any form of distance in analysing it. Equally, the changes in business are not owned by them, because they liberate the older generations as much as they incentivise the younger.
If generations are horizontal bands, then interests are vertical, intersecting many generations. Interests can bridge the generational divide faster than anything else.