In 1965, Pete Townshend of the British rock group, The Who, wrote the blockbuster hit My Generation. The song was later named the 11th greatest song by Rolling Stone of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Townshend reportedly wrote the song on a train and is said to have been inspired by the Queen Mother, who is alleged to have had Townshend’s 1935 Packard hearse towed off a street because she was offended by the sight of it during her daily drive through the neighborhood. Townshend told Rolling Stone decades later that My Generation was about trying to find a place in society as a young man.
Every generation wants to find its place, to be understood and to make a mark in the world. Today, we hear much about Generation Y/Millennials, and how they prize freedom, creativity, “warm and fuzzies” and technology. This particular grouping, spanning those born from roughly the early 80’s through the early 2000’s are also characterized as the “Peter Pan” generation for their slower transition into independent adulthood. They live at home longer and are often characterized by higher levels of narcissism and by their aversion to organized religion.
Older leaders from the Baby Boomer and Generation X’ ers (those born from 1946 to 1980 or so) are wisely advised to learn about and understand Gen Y/Millennial associates on their team so they know what motivates them, can learn how to engage them, draw the best out of them, and fully utilize their unique talents. There are dozens of books, articles and seminars to help Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers understand and relate to the Gen Y/Millennials. Unfortunately, there is far less information to school the younger folks on how to understand and relate to their elder peers; who in most cases own or lead the business in which they work.
While it’s unwise to generalize or categorize generations of people and label them across the board with a list of traits, and while there are always exceptions to such groupings, common traits and philosophies dominate each generation listed: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y/Millennials. While I don’t purport to speak for all in my generation—I was born on the dividing line between the Baby Boomers and Generation X—I’m listing here characteristics that many in my generation have in common. I offer these to enlighten the Gen Y/Millennial tribes on how we think, what we value and what makes us tick; just in case they are as interested in trying to understand others, as they are in being understood.
1. We value team play more than individualism. We believe in troubling ourselves on another’s behalf and work hard to avoid catching “The Disease of Me”—where we expect others to subordinate their welfare to what’s good for our agenda, ego, or comfort zone. We look out for one another and help someone not because we want something in return, but because it’s the decent thing to do. Narcissism with all its selfish, prideful attributes offends us. We realize that we’re not the Center of the Universe; in fact, we believe that God is.
2. We believe in hard work. We don’t mind coming in early or staying late, and are used to doing so without being asked. We consider clock-watching an affront and expect to pay a price for the success and for the life we want. We believe that when things get tough financially, you get your butt to work; you can’t demand your way out, wait your way out, wish your way out, or whine your way out—and you sure as heck don’t go “occupy” something.
3. We expect to earn respect. We don’t believe others should be awed by how special, unique or brilliant we think we are. We accept that meaningful respect must be earned through the consistent demonstration of character and competence. In these aspects we expect to have to prove ourselves.
4. We expect what we earn and deserve. We expect every bit of what we have earned and deserve; nothing more and nothing less. On the other hand, a sense of entitlement and entitlements in general offend us as they evince a selfish and arrogant mindset we find repulsive.
5. We believe actions have consequences. We accept that when we choose a behavior we also choose the consequences for that behavior; we’re not victims. We have faith in sowing and reaping and fully expect that what we sow—good or bad—we will eventually experience. Thus, when things don’t work out we’re far more likely to blame bad decisions than adverse conditions. On the other hand, when we do gain victories, and take home the spoils, we never apologize for our success; nor do we feel inclined to indefinitely subsidize those who can’t figure it out.
6. We believe in absolutes. We believe there is winning and losing; success and failure; right and wrong. We don’t buy into the Pollyanna palaver that life is one big, happy, gray area where you should be appreciated, coddled and rewarded just for showing up versus stepping up. We don’t believe that education, credentials, experience, or one’s alleged uniqueness substitutes for good old fashioned results.
7. We are somewhat intolerant. In a world where sin has become sanitized through and on television, and where what’s immoral has become largely accepted as normal, we have a slightly different take: we believe that one’s character is defined by what he doesn’t tolerate, what he won’t accept, marginalize, trivialize, compromise or defend.
One errs if he claims one generation is “right” or superior, and that another is “wrong” and substandard. There is ample cultural good, bad, credit and fault to be spread amongst all. At the same time there is no greater indictment of one’s self-centeredness than to expect others to understand and adapt to their values and beliefs, without the sincere application of reciprocal effort, and to that end Baby Boomers and Gen/Xers must speak up and offer insight. For you to lead effectively, you must not only seek to understand others, but must also make certain that what you stand for, value, and what you expect, is made perfectly clear.