“The only thing that has ever made me feel old is those few times where I allow myself to be predictable.”
General Mark Milley:
“disobedience, when done, must be done with trust and integrity, and you must be morally and ethically correct.”(Disciplined Disobedience)
Well. There is no lack of articles on generational gaps in business and, yet, almost every one of them focuses on simplistic “generational characteristics”, “old versus young” and “what millennials want” and shit like that. Sure. Useful but I would argue all young people have always wanted a version of the same thing “do good meaningful shit without all the old people bullshit.”
What no one seems to talk about is the core frictional axis in today’s business generational issue: business philosophy<embodied in how ideas are created & implemented>.
That said. While I will certainly piss some people off by suggesting 50somethings are slowing us all down <impeding progress> 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 move on’>. That said. 50somethings are the biggest impediment AND catalyst for progress.
Let me explain.
Impediment. They cannot let go. They are holding on with a stranglehold sense of fear to what they ‘know.’ 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. Every generation of businesses has a bunch of people sitting in their corner offices looking askance as the young skip down the hallways tapping their proverbial fingers on their desks wondering how to corral all those young whippersnappers to do it the way they did it.
And it can get worse.
The old folk think they are living in the present <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.
Ok. 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/catalyst of progress. There is a relatively 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.
Please note … 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, 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.’ Topmodels suggested it was the happy few who could explain things. I have to tell you. I think the market place needs more of these “happy few” 50 year old+ employees than ever before (and I am gonna tell you why). Now. I am not suggesting all 50+ people are the same. And this generalization may be translatable to other age groups but let me suggest there are three groups:
- Over 50 and all they know and believe in is what they were taught when they were in their 20’s.
- Over 50 and they have all the knowledge they need to be on their own and like being on their own (I call these builders)
- Over 50 and have accumulated iterative learning over the years and have a unique combination of old and new (and like renovating)
(note: I wrote a post about Builders versus Renovators)
The first group is lost in the past. They will struggle because their thinking and ideas and even their vocabulary can be out of date. They will suck at transformation or renovation. Their hope is finding someone who needs to work on their internal construct of how to get shit done. But mostly these are the people when we were young we thought were ‘out-of-touch’ from the real world (or chuckled to ourselves because they would throw out up to date buzzwords acting like they knew what was going on).
The second group has accumulated enough knowledge and expertise and confidence where mentally they have flipped from ‘working for someone’ to ‘working for myself.’ They have recognized their ability to build. And they like building (which is different than transforming). They would suck at transforming because they want to run the place and not simply be an enabler for the organization to shift. (Ralph also talks about this within his newsletter as “fear of flying” and learning about yourself). They could possibly be out of touch or they could be leading edge entrepreneurs. But it doesn’t matter because they are now going forward as their own boss.
The third group? They are renovators. Companies should be fighting over these people. They are old but not old. They are experienced but still learning. They have a solid thinking construct but flexible in application. They may have their quirks (because I believe all of us older people start feeling more comfortable in our own skin and therefore are a little less worried about ‘fitting in’) but also tend to be more interested in the result than worrying about step by step how they get there. They can actually make the current buzzword understandable by using past functional learnings to explain them.
So. When I say “fighting for these people” I don’t mean to suggest that companies should be stockpiling these people at the expense of young energetic fresh thinkers and doers. I am simply suggesting that companies need a good tier of these boomer types to transform themselves when, frankly, a lot of companies need to be ‘transforming.’ (and my definition of transformation is leveraging from solid good older characteristics an injecting some new characteristics). I am also not going to suggest there should be a direct correlation between % of boomers in population and % of boomers in the makeup of business organizations. That would seem kind of silly to me.
But the numbers are pretty compelling that organizations should seek that third group of over 50ers (let’s be nice and call them boomers). In 2009 The PEW Center released a study outlining the current generation gap is the largest in the almost 50 year history of the study. Today, an astounding 79% of Americans believe that there is a generation gap in the ways young and old think and believe. Truly the only way to bridge that gap within an organization and eliminate generational divisiveness is to have boomers who can effectively communicate with and motivate all age groups.
There are not many of these 50somethings out there.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
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.
Generations are, in general, slow to change and adapt in a normal every day situation. 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>. Anyway. 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 an 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.
This thought partially explains that while 50somethings actually share the same desires as young people they are reluctant to let go of what they “know.” this gets compounded by two things:
- With the advent of data & technology, the working business model has transformed from a “idea construction” model to a “idea destruction/reconstruction model“.
- With the internet the gap between older experienced based knowledge and younger theoretical based knowledge has become sliver thin.
“Over the past ten years, businesses have used Lean, Six Sigma, business process engineering and other techniques to drive costs out of a business. They have also succeeded in driving people nuts. Something really important happened two years ago. The percentage of people who loathe their jobs has been rising and the number of people who love their jobs has been falling. Two years ago these lines crossed. If we don’t find a way to reverse that trend then we are truly stuffed.”
Sliver thin? This is the compensation and compensating thoughts I shared upfront.
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.>. 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. This was the generation who was also demanded to generate more profits and sales increases … with less.
If there is anything this generation understands better, it is the concept of the squeezed dollar.
Now. 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>.
The current generation of business leaders has had to thrive in a ‘squeezed dollar’ environment.
- The squeezed dollar is the unfortunate fact that because of 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. 50somethings 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.
Compounding this is the next challenge.
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 real knowledge? Well. With some professional proficiency 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.
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>.
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.
Heck. We got here this way … so any other way is a short cut <or not the right way>. Uh oh. Why is this an issue? Well. My good friends at topmodels.com helped me out again. They refer to it as “why faith is replacing knowledge.”
“… 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>
Well. 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 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>.
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. In order for a person to change themselves, it is necessary that they not only be convinced of the appropriateness of this change but they also have to have the right attitude. The attitude matters because … well … this shit doesn’t happen overnight <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.
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>.
In the end.
There is a lot of talk amongst older folk on “changing” and “adding purpose to businesses” but my prediction? Existing leadership <and middle management> will screw this up mainly because they will only see the short term as an opportunity to get an older, more mature, cheaper employee and not recognize the longer term issues that will arise. They will screw it up because they will focus on ROI & not ROY:
Lack of ROY <return on youth>: youth and young people are the cheapest innovation engine in any organization. While typically overlooked in an innovation model their innate ability to provide a fresh perspective through fresh eyes is invaluable. Organizations may not recognize their current loss with the ‘lack of youth’ within their organizations but it is having an impact. It has a domino effect within an organization. Without the ‘hidden youth engine’ more pressure will fall on older employees for innovative ideas … and these employees are more focused on ‘safe behavior to maintain employment’ and … well … you can see where this ends up.
Focusing on what we perceive as ‘generational differences and ‘youth attitudes’ <and not the organizational issues> I believe we older folk will not manage this issue well. Mainly I believe this because we will tend to focus on numbers & jobs and not some key psychological aspects <some Maslow stuff>.
There is truly no generation gap with desire to what we want <purpose, meaning, joy of task, being better, hope>, but the real gap exists in the minds of HOW things should be done.
As noted in my construction versus deconstruction posts, it is a new business world out there today and navigating the transition is where the best minds of the older generation should be focused. I could argue we are currently in the business world’s liminal space <uncomfortable, uneasy transition space> and if you agree, well, then we are simply on our way to someplace new & better. I could also argue we need a new business model for a new business world and fortunately for everyone the young are more capable of implementing this new model than any existing generation.