Generational Confusion

I genuinely dislike the practice of labeling subsets of our population with what I often find are disparaging (or downright unintelligible) monikers. I mean, I certainly understand why it happens, but I think the practice is simplistic in nature and adds to prejudicial divides between age groups. It is also counterproductive – especially in the workplace. I so often encounter people who comment with cynicism about the youth of today after some younger person dared to want to do something different. It is also quite common for younger people to lump older people together as cranky, resistant to change and as part of generation that “just doesn’t get it” because someone got an answer that they didn’t like. I usually try to resist the urge to roll my eyes, and then try to ignore our human tendency to make such sweeping generalizations. I politely try and look beyond the generational clap-trap to figure out what the real issue is – and if there is a way to solve it. There are always going to be generational differences – as there will be differences because of gender, of race, of economic status, etc. This stuff is not new – and we have to get beyond these stereotypes if we want to effect positive change.

Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of actually focusing on how we are different, we focused on our commonalities? As such, we could work on ways in which our differences might complement each other – ways in which we could learn from each other. I hate that generational issues get in our way. Ultimately, people are people – regardless of age. Reading things like this post from Jane over at A Wandering Eyre, makes me cringe. Jane’s description about management training at her library is painful. I’m a pretty patient person, but I would even have trouble with some of the sentiments expressed by her coworkers. There seems to a definite lack of acceptance at her library for new ideas from younger colleagues (By the way, I’ve often felt that when someone tells someone else that they must “pay their dues” to be taken seriously, they simply don’t have a cogent argument to make – and feel the need to fill the space with trite comments).

On the other hand, Jane writes: “The question most administrators should be asking themselves is how can they provide a flexible working environment for staff, especially younger or driven staff, that can and will choose to move in a different direction to attain the flexibility they want and need?” I think this is spot on. Yet, I wonder why this should be targeted especially to younger or driven staff. Managements styles and strategies need to tailored to all sorts of people who work differently – and work more effectively in a variety of ways. To make the most of employees, manager need to create an atmosphere that allows driven people some freedom to explore, but also has checks in place to reign them in when necessary. Additionally, managers also need some way to encourage less driven staff to step outside of their comfort zone once in a while – and to voice opinions in a constructive manner. Isn’t the type of employee more important than the employee’s age?

I will note that I have no idea to which generational category I belong. But for reference: I’m 36 years old; I’ve worked in my current library for 13 years – only 7 of which in a librarian position; I’m currently in library school; I am one of the younger employees in the library where I work; I have a management position; I’m incredibly liberal in my beliefs, but quite conservative in my actions; I play video games; I always have the tv on; I have an iPod. I don’t know what any of it means, but thought you just might want to know.

Update (5/3): There are some interesting responses to this issue – T. Scott’s Lookin’ For A Ladder, and K.G. Schneider’s What is your work product? Both are well worth a read.

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4 Responses to Generational Confusion

  1. Technically, you are a Gen Xer, should you care to be labeled as such.

    You are right when you say that managers should be flexible for ALL their staff. I was focused on the issues that caused the post when I asked for flexibility for the young and driven. Flexibility may also mean a certain structure for some employees that need it.

    As to your dislike of labeling, they are huge generalizations, but they have, in my experience, held true in many ways. Of course, I know tons of exceptions.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Michelle, I definitely agree that it is important to understand the differences between generations – and that this can help us readjust our thinking and ways of dealing with patrons and coworkers (hopefully in a positive way). I’ve just seen so many instances where these generalizations about people whether based on age, gender, race or other attributes become divisive points that can cause schisms – particularly in the workplace.

    I hope your are able to overcome some of these issues at your workplace. It all sounds incredibly frustrating!!! Reading your post made me incredibly thankful about my own workplace which is filled with a very supportive staff.

  3. Kirsten says:

    That “pay your dues” thing bugs me as well, though for different reasons. IME, what is usually meant is something along the lines of “well, I had to go through it so you can just shut your mouth and go through it too.” I’ve seen “pay your dues” applied to everything from hazing (not just in the Greek system, either) to faculty treatment of graduate students.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Yeah, it proliferates an attitude that “an older coworker hassled me at some point, so I’m just returning the favor.” I’ve been fortunate that no one has ever said such a thing to me. This phrase ranks right up with “But we’ve always done it this way.” Neither phrase has any real value in terms of making a salient point or developing a cogent argument.

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