Ignore generational trends at your peril

I know the are a lot of people out there who are adverse to the idea of any generational comparisons. I get that, The Generation Y piece is the neglected Bank Holiday barbecue sausage of a topic, cooked to within an inch of its life, unpalatable to fairly much all and a shadow of its intended state. But as a profession, we need to be curious about the macro environment, we need to be interested in demographics and we need to look at the generational factors that may be impacting on our supply chain: the workforce.

Generalising from the specific is never a good idea, but trying to disprove trends by raising anomalies is also foolish. We should be better at analysis than that, we should be more questioning and we should be more thoughtful. Because there is something going on with the current generation of job seekers and we should be aware of this as employers.

I was sat last Thursday having dinner with five French people in their seventies, all now retired. Two had worked their own farm, one had worked in accountancy and two were (what we now call) serial entrepreneurs. Like any conversation in the euro zone at the moment, it wasn’t long before it turned to the economy and specifically employment. The views of the current generation of jobless were, at best, damning. Not about their skills, their abilities but their willingness to take opportunities. I heard time and time again, “the jobs are there, they just don’t want to do them”. Coincidentally this came on the same day that Jamie Oliver made his comments about UK employees and their attitudes to work.

But is this coincidence? Or something else?

I first wrote about this topic in 2010 and recounted a conversation that I’d had two years earlier when I was being lectured to about the needs of GenerationY. My response, over six years ago now, was that we’d witness a massive economic downturn, the labour market would toughen and that the winners would be from the less advantaged countries, who were willing to work harder and start at the bottom. It was a bit of a throwaway comment at the time, but true words spoken in jest and all that.

I know that there are hardworking young people out there, I see and meet with them all the time. I know that there are lazy work shy, feckless septuagenarians too. But I don’t think we should overlook a body of anecdotal and empirical evidence that suggests that we have are witnessing a mismatch in expectations (and I’m not just talking about these two occurrences) that is leading to an employment gap.

Do we need to prepare ourselves for a lost generation? Do we let market forces take their course and allow the next generation to right the wrong? Do we need to do more as employers? Or do we write this off as generational nonsense and bury our heads back in the sand?

The CIPD launched a brilliant piece of research earlier this year “Employers are from Mars, young people are from Venus”, which if you haven’t read, I’d implore you to do so. It explores a number of these issues.

As for the answer, well I’m not sure. But one thing I’ve learnt over the years, is that when you see a dripping tap, or a crack in the wall, you’re better off inspecting it and looking at the root cause, rather than turning a blind eye and pretending it doesn’t exist.

Just a middle class white guy

I have a confession to make. A thing that has been weighing on my mind for a while now, lying in the deep recesses of my consciousness, troubling me. There is something that I want to get off my chest, something that I want to share, that I feel I need to share.

I’m a white middle class male and I may not actually deserve what I have achieved.

“Achieved” to successfully bring about or reach (a desired objective or result) by effort, skill, or courage….so that’s a joke in itself. What if it wasn’t through my effort, skill or courage. What if it was though the lottery of demographics, socio economics and genetics?

I’m not suggesting that anyone ever said, “lets give him the job because he’s a white male” or thought, “I should listen to him because he is a middle class, middle aged dude and he is bound to say something sensible”.

But what if it just happens….because of the way we are, the way we are brought up, the norms we are expected to adhere to?

I was sat in Berlin a few weeks ago, working as an assessor on an international development centre. Because it was a development centre and because, in HR, we have no imagination, there was a group exercise. When we came to the wash up and validation session, there was a debate about the scoring. My sense was that some of the candidates had been scored less highly than others because they’d said less. But they hadn’t contributed less. And they were disproportionately female.

One of the people I was observing had nodded, reaffirmed, encouraged, listened and supported. She didn’t say that much, but she had played an important role. Others suggested that as she hadn’t said anything, she couldn’t be rated highly for her contribution. These were skilled and experienced HR professionals.

And that is just one simple example.

I’ve learnt how to behave from my experience, I know how to position myself in a room, to hold myself to…..encourage, consider, control, direct. I can get my views heard and considered, not necessarily because I make sense, but because they make sense because they are coming from someone behaving in a way that makes us think that they must.

Does this help at interview? Sure. Does it help when you go for promotions? Of course. Does it mean that others have anything less to offer. Not at all.

I’m not sure I have any answers, I’m not sure I have even formulated the questions. The great thing about having a blog is that I don’t have to. This isn’t a text book, you’re not paying, I’m not Ulrich.

But it seems to me that the world of work is still heavily prejudiced towards certain ways of being, certain behaviours, certain mannerisms that are predominantly associated with the middle class, white guy like me. Which means that I might not be here because of what I do, but because of who I am.

And maybe, so are you.