While I will certainly piss some people off by suggesting 50somethings are slowing us all down <impeding progress> in business … I will do so by hopefully using some rational arguments rather than simply ranting.
The foundation for my belief will center on 2 things:
Of course this is … in reality … about ‘letting go holding on’ <with a dose of ‘please, please move on’>.
Paradoxically … 50somethings are both the biggest impediment and most important catalyst for progress. They cannot let go. They are holding on … with a stranglehold sense of fear to what they ‘know.’ But if they could figure out how to let go <of the right things> business would progress exponentially.
I recognize that this is actually a topic on some elder generational life truths.
- No one can do it better than I can.
- It was always better when I was younger.
- It is always worse now than it was before.
Every generation as they get older believes this.
Therefore every generation of businesses has a bunch of people sitting in their corner offices looking askance <as the young skip down the office hallways> tapping their proverbial fingers on their desks wondering how to corral all those young whippersnappers to do it the way they did it <before their comfortable world crumbles before their eyes>.
And it can get worse.
The old folk think they are living in the present <this is their perception> by implementing what is comfortable <the past> … therefore their behavior is incredibly difficult to impact because their mind is telling them what they are doing is actually different than what they are actually doing.
So complicated it is next to impossible to change or impact.
I have been asked several times if I believe it is truly any worse now than it has been between past generations.
I say unequivocally yes <within our life time experiences … although I could probably go back in time and point out several occasions where a technological or medical innovation has created such an experiential differential that this has happened before>. It would be easy to make my case by pointing out that the PEW Center released a study around 2010 suggesting that the current generation gap is the largest in the almost 50-year history of the study. Even larger than during the Vietnam war era. Today, an astounding 79% of Americans believe that there is a generation gap in the ways young and old think and believe.
But I am not going to take the easy route … and I m going to outline why I believe the gap may actually be smaller … but a harder deep well defined barrier more difficult to cross instead.
I will focus on two reasons why I say this:
But before I get to those reasons … let me begin with what is the same just to be sure I set the foundation … the whole ‘holding on’ aspect.
That this is really all about change.
I have science on my side <with regard to my opinion>.
‘When giving consideration to any change, it is very important to think about time, the time which is necessary for the change, the time it takes before a person can really change, adapt, find new ways of resolving things.
Experts these days say that in terms of a change as fundamental as moving from a well-known domestic environment to a foreign one, a period of two to three generations is necessary. When we say of someone that they are inadaptable, have we ever thought about how long they have been living in the new environment?’
Generations are, in general, slow to change and adapt in a normal every day situation <and in business we cannot wait 2 or 3 generations in order to adapt>.
Today’s 50somethings are exponentially challenged with change … and are not dealing with it very well <i.e., not letting go very well>.
I believe it was a French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who developed a psychographic method to establish different socio-cultural groupings <I believe it is called the Sinus Milieu>.
Basically it is a model that challenges us to think about behavior, preferences and cultural practices. The main premise behind the model is called ‘the lock-in principle.’
The principle simply states that if we get used to something we do not want to change our habits <or attitudes and beliefs> even if we are presented with something new or different that might be better. Simplistically it consistently shows <to a point that it is almost an unequivocal behavioral truth> that habit is stronger than the desire for improvement.
I shared not as an excuse for 50something management behavior … simply an explanation for how difficult it is to change.
Generational dynamics have always affected the holding on and letting go challenges.
This means what pop culture calls ‘the generation gap’ has a basis from reality.
Sociologically studies have examined every aspect of generation behavior. So many aspects it would be silly <and too time consuming> to review them all so instead I will give a high level overview.
The gap is defined by a complex range of relationships between members of different generations, children and parents. In addition these intergenerational relations can be influenced by the different age and life experiences of parents and their children, their different roles in the family <and business> as well as by cultural stereotypes.
Compound all the personal aspects with the fact a generation is influenced by their life and historical experience. When this experience is so fundamental in the shaping of attitudes in a generation I believe it is called a ‘cohort’.
A cohort is a group of people who have the same experience in the same year.
The best example I have seen of this is:
- When a mother gave birth in 1960, regardless of her age (to which generation she belongs), her husband could not have remained at home with the child on parental leave; when a mother gives birth today, the father can become a house-husband. The father and mother from two different age cohorts can have completely different experiences linked with the same phenomenon (the birth of a child).
Each of these experiences is absorbed by people in a generation at various stages of perceptual development. Therefore they can process the input completely differently.
Each person in life is influenced by their experiences. However, each grows up in a more or less different environment based on their personal experiences.
Older and younger generations do not only have a different outlook on the world because of their different perceptions <psychological>, but also because of different historical experiences which they have <a variety of local cultural environment, overall political changes, larger country cultural dynamics – things out of their control but still affect them>. These more historical type circumstances create an impact upon fundamental life decisions and ultimately plays a large role in molding formative life experiences.
And then there is what is called ‘generational wisdom.’
This term is exactly what it suggests … through a certain level of life experience <not just the sheer accrual of information and knowledge and practical skills> a generation gathers wisdom in various stages of their development <albeit it seems like some never attain it at all>.
This ‘wisdom’ is typically attributed to the older generations who generally are considered <or are ‘hoped to be’> those with a wealth of experience with a stronger ability to resolve life and business problems and situations.
Oh. Not is it only attributed … it is often expected from older people.
<please note that I am including some of this because it will be relevant to what I consider the unique issue facing this generation gap>
In closing the background section I will say that relations between generations are naturally in conflict.
In fact the issue is not whether there is conflict, or chafing <there always is>, but rather how much in conflict the generations are and how well they manage that conflict.
As noted … it happens because each generation grows up under different conditions therefore there are naturally different life experiences between generations all of which gives rise to different opinions, attitudes, norms and values.
Interestingly <which I do not believe we discuss often enough> … this creates different perceptions of the same world.
Each generation can look at exactly the same thing, the same world, and see something completely different.
All of these dynamics <and conflicts> ultimately relate to the different level of power which one generation has over the other.
And possibly that is the biggest point I would like to make as I move on.
That is what a generation gap comes down to.
“In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” - Shunryu Suzuki
So while individuals do group in terms of attitudes & beliefs hence the term ‘generations’ because of common experiences, common life stages and common cultural stimuli generations inevitably chafe.
So why is this generation gap different?
Try this as some rationale … compensating & compensation.
There is always a fragile relationship between generations … old holding on to what they know and have while the young are trying to pry things from the old … trying to get them to let go <of ideas, responsibility, things, etc.>.
From a ‘wisdom’ perspective the current generation gap is different, and more challenged, at the moment <although it has been this way in the past … just not within our experienced past>.
While this wisdom gap between adults and the youth <in Life and in business> has always existed I will call this unique current gap challenge ‘the war on the adult advantage’ <or false knowledge versus real knowledge> for the sake of my discussion.
- False knowledge.
This is harsh <and an over generalization> but adults have always made shit up. We pass our opinions and beliefs along as facts … as real knowledge based on real life experience. Let’s call this the ‘years advantage.’ Most likely it is a ‘focus group of one’ knowledge but in the past adults could own this advantage the majority of the time. And at its worst … it is simply a defense mechanism to deflect youth energy away from something we would prefer them not to be focused on or thinking.
- Real knowledge.
Adults almost always had a real practical technical ‘how to do it’ advantage … mostly because in this case we had seen & done it. And done it many times so that it was almost with true expertise <or at minimum we had the process understood and efficient>. Nothing beats practical hands on experience <remember that old folk>.
The internet has squeezed both.
Today false knowledge can be challenged immediately.
And today and real knowledge? … whew … with some professional proficiencies an adult will always maintain an advantage but with the advent of the computer and technology … many adults have actually LOST the advantage.
Ultimately … the internet has squeezed this entire advantage perspective <actual wisdom as well as the learning process itself> to the head of a pin.
Even ‘experiential knowledge‘ is being threatened. In some industries and professions <not all> an industrious young person can compile an almost limitless varied number of simulated ‘experiences’ from which if they use some mental dexterity can recreate a pretty fabulous ‘experiential knowledge’ base. Older people will argue ‘you didn’t actually do it’ but if they shut up and listen … the thinking is solid enough that it almost appears that they actually DID do it.
What does that mean?
Only those adults truly agile and adept at thinking are maintaining this advantage.
But, in general, the 50something response?
We are threatened.
The two main pillars of advantage have become toothpicks. So we hunker down. We take an increasingly bunker mentality and batten down the hatches <ok … no more tired metaphors>.
This begs the question … what do the 50somethings inevitably have to hold on to <and put a death grip to never let go of>?
Whatever slim margin of advantage we can own … the unassailable portion … is ‘how we learned to do it.’
The process and the mentality and the ‘work’ on HOW we learned what we learned that got us to where we are.
We got here this way … so any other way is a short cut <or not the right way>.
Why is this an issue?
My good friends at topmodels.com helped me out again.
“… our world is getting more complicated all the time. Black and white, good and bad, right and wrong have been replaced with complicated constructs that leave most people in the dark.
As the world around us becomes increasingly fast paced and complex, the amount we REALLY know – what we can really grasp and understands – decreases all the time. Today it is more or less taken for granted that we do not understand many of the things that surround us, such as mobile phones and ipads. And even if somebody tried to explain the DNA code to us, we would probably be out of our depth.
We are increasingly surrounded by ‘black boxes’ … complex constructs that we do not understand even if they are explained to us. We cannot comprehend the inner processes of a black box but nonetheless we integrate their inputs and outputs into our decision making.
The amount that we simply HAVE to believe, without understanding it, is increasing all the time. As a result we are tending to assign more importance to those who can explain something than to their actual explanation.” <The Decision book: 50 models for strategic thinking – Krogerus & Tschappeler>
That thought scares the shit out of 50somethings.
It stands against everything we were taught.
Faith versus actual knowledge? How can you truly understand if you don’t understand <all the innards and stuff>?
The young are replacing <some> knowledge with faith … and the old are not letting go of ‘stop and learn the knowledge.’
There is certainly a balance … but 50somethings are not interested in balance … they are interested in having ‘no faith’ because they perceive it as having ‘too much risk’ or ‘not the way we did it.’
<insert ‘get over it’ here>
There is a massive opportunity for 50somethings if they can get their shit together and quit ‘compensating.’
If they simply quit cocooning simply to maintain their adult dignity <their wisdom factor> and seeking to simply maintain whatever slim perceived advantage they can have over the youth <not actually increasing the gap but simply strengthening the fine thin line between the two>.
Today? It is a more hardened thinner gap than in past generations.
The future is always ‘now’ to the young because the future exists in their ideas.
Whenever the future ‘happens’ it becomes the present and then immediately the past <kind of my explanation for the excessive restlessness the youth in business seem to always have>.
50somethings need to learn to let go and hold on for the ride <as a conductor>.
Ultimately … the old have lost their traditional grip over the young and are holding on harder than ever before. They are over-compensating to maintain control <or their advantage>.
While this is about management style as well as purpose ultimately this is about money … not only how we personally get paid <earnings & wealth> but also how the company gets paid <profits, revenue, growth, etc.>. Basically I believe that the demands of managing business has evolved generation to generation … bloated dollar management to squeezed dollar management to … well … I sense it will be something like the ‘added value’ dollar management in the near future <if the 50somethings help with some progress>. The following chart diagrams my entire thought process:
Here is the explanation behind the diagram.
The current 50something management generation is literally and figuratively the generation that got squeezed.
This was the generation who had to learn how to do more with less and get more with less. This was the generation who was also demanded to generate more profits and sales increases … with less.
They squeezed dollars and organizations.
If there is anything this management generation understands better … I don’t know what it is … they understand the concept of the squeezed dollar and squeezed organizations.
Let me explain.
As business evolves and the economic environment surrounding industry evolves the needs of the business leader changes.
It is natural to adapt to what the economic environment demands <or be killed if you don’t>.
The burden of this business generation? The squeezed dollar <versus the bloated dollar of the previous generation>.
This generation of emerging 50something business leaders has already made a lot of money.
The one before, let’s call it the boomer business leader, made even more.
And each made it differently.
- The bloated dollar was when companies could charge whatever they wanted and got it.
Project estimates contained ‘fat’ <or ‘fluff’ or ‘padding’> to absorb unforeseen changes or challenges and buyers assumed the price was what the price was.
The current generation of business leaders has had to thrive in a ‘squeezed dollar’ environment.
- The squeezed dollar is the unfortunate byproduct from the boomer generation leaders’ wonderful success … the financial community demanded the same results … but the consumer demanded transparency.
Therefore in order to maintain continuous sales growth <which is actually a relatively ludicrous concept> and continuous profitability the current business leader had to find ways to squeeze the same profit/growth out of less dollars <cutting staff while cutting prices while cutting … and cutting … and … well … cutting>.
I say all this because this economic pressure creates a certain type of management style in order to be successful. 5osomethings learned on the job and actually were quite successful maintaining the boomer ‘earn as much as I can’ attitude <a version of extravagant desire for more> as well as working leaner <on the edge of what an organization is actually capable of>.
The next generation? <the current ‘youth’>
They really don’t like either the financial aspect as well as the organizational aspect.
Therefore, in my opinion, the young <who are obviously chafing under the existing management style> will most likely swing to the ‘added value’ dollar. It suggests accommodating sustainability <and purpose driven value> as well as simple ‘de-commoditizing’ industries <rebuilding value beyond lowest price>.
Regardless whether my prediction is correct or not … what is correct is that the 50something business management objectives are not aligned with the younger generation objective desires. And that lack of alignment pertains to both management style as well as corporate objectives.
If you combine this point <compensation> with compensating you can clearly see how the gap is the proverbial River Styx which reaches deep into the fires of hell so that not even Charon can carry you across from the gates of this hellish divide.
That’s it for my rationale.
Compensating and compensation are kind of the two most important issues/factors in my eyes.
Now that I have blasted 50somethings as being stubborn bitter curmudgeons and the biggest impediment to change … I will take a minute and also note … given the right attitude … 50somethngs can be the biggest enhancer of progress.
There is a relative small percentage of 50somethings who have the ability to straddle generations <attitudinally> and have the ability to insert themselves into the younger generation’s minds and desires to strengthen the engine of progress rather than stall the engine.
<note: I described these 50somethings first in 2010 here – http://brucemctague.com/older-experienced-people-and-transformational-hires … and further mentioned them in a discussion on the lagged hiring effect on the current young unemployed – http://brucemctague.com/looking-down-the-road-and-young-people-unemployment>
To be clear … I am not suggesting these 50somethings have to be as good as the young at technology or whatever new innovative techniques out there yet to be discovered <they do not> … in fact … it may benefit them to not be or even try. Their value is in their heads and experience and the nudging of ‘what can be’ using selected knowledge from ‘what was.’
Let’s call it ‘selective best practice learnings.’ In fact … Topmodels, when addressing the ‘knowledge being replaced by faith’ theory, suggested the future will belong to the happy few who could explain things <not actually know all the confusing pieces in the black boxes>.
There are not many of these 50somethings out there <especially in business>.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”- L.P. Hartley
I equate it to the fabulous few who can travel to a different country and seamlessly blend into the attitudes & behaviors of the new country.
Bottom line on this topic.
It really comes down to two things … attitude and respect.
The right attitude <combined with some respect> is the requirement for adapting to change and generations.
With the passing of time each of us changes … experientially and psychologically. In certain situations, younger people do not like accommodating themselves to traditional experiences and in others older people are reluctant to accept the new.
The attitude matters because … well … this shit doesn’t happen over night <despite the fact everyone seems to think if you don’t make changes immediately you will get crushed>. In order for everyone to adapt organizationally everyone, both generations, need time. Time to assimilate the new and the old and create the necessary experience as well as process it to make … well … progress.
And oddly … I will suggest it isn’t that the young should respect the old … but rather the opposite. I believe the 50somethings need to get their proverbial heads out of their asses and develop some respect for the young and what they can do <that we cannot>.
Show them respect and I imagine they will show us respect <if we have the ability to deserve it along with the right attitude>.
If two generations are to have respect for one another … the younger generation will have to believe the older generation has some value <in what they offer> and listen to it.
I fear we 50somethings are losing their respect.
We have always been old and less adaptable … but now we are truly becoming an impediment to progress <or getting better>.