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Paradoxically Speaking: Generations

Neil Usher tells us that, while we can’t be surrounded by our colleagues, we’re all missing out – and not just the young’uns.


4 min read

neil usher

Everything of its time. With time, in this instance, being the operative thing. The ‘generations at work’ debate really began around 20 years ago with the sudden realisation that things were no different to the way they had been – older and younger people under the same fluorescent firmament. Yet somehow it became a thing, defined by the idea of ‘millennials’ – who, having been the subject of unduly oppressive attention, are now all well into their comfort years, succeeded by the greenery of generations Y and Z. Who on earth starts a scale with X anyway?

The ‘generations’, born within determined dates, were allocated innate characteristics, ambitions and desires, dreamed up in a ‘thought shower’ and offered up as inviolable truth. A form of workplace astrology. There was no credible evidence in support, yet why let such an absence spoil a good consulting, PR and product placement opportunity? Where we thought, ‘hang on, I want that too’, we were somehow in denial of our true nature. We elicited sympathy rather than understanding.

Yet segmentation is nothing new, either. It’s the unequivocal basis of every societal and workplace inequality: conclusions drawn about people for the way they are or the way they choose to be. The desire to characterise and package is finding a renewed zeal, as we struggle to fathom how high levels of individual flexibility and variable attendance at the citadel will actually work when we’ve no guarantee we’ll be in the same place as the people we need to be working with. Ever. So we try to understand and categorise the way we work or would like to work. The outcome: we end up with monikers more akin to posh school nicknames like Camper, Buzzer or Zipper that describe supposed common behavioural traits.

We therefore find ourselves in a new form of matrix structure – generation and type – from which we’re supposed to understand our colleagues and ourselves in ways that actually talking to them – face-to-face – would otherwise more helpfully reveal. But then, having everything set out for us is quite handy, especially when we need to post-rationalise an awkward outcome. ‘They should never have given that project to a Slider. Was never going to work.’

Yes, the generation that enjoyed free higher education and now saddles its offspring with crippling debt as a form of inverse sign-on bonus is happy extolling the benefits of being impossibly ‘nowhere’.

Yet with generations, a new challenge has revealed itself that may at last actually prove helpful. It relates to how we have perceived working from home during the pandemic and how we might approach our whereabouts in future. In the last 14 months, younger people have faced two problems. First, unless they’re at their wealthy parents’ home, the logistics have been tricky. They need a space more suited to work than the end of the bed. Second, they are being denied the osmotic benefits of immersion in organisational culture and behaviour in their formative years. The long-term impact of their social and professional isolation won’t be known for some time. Given that the former problem merely requires a practical fix, we’ll focus on the latter. 

Our paradox is, therefore: young people need to be in the office to learn from their senior colleagues who aren’t there. The elders feel, in many respects, that they’ve done their time; the commute, the habitual slog, the ignominy of being turfed out of their private offices into open plan, the requisite diminished status, the struggle to avoid being disturbed. So they are comfortable and happy in their fifth-bedroom-to-office conversion. Yes, the generation that enjoyed free higher education and now saddles its offspring with crippling debt as a form of inverse sign-on bonus is happy extolling the benefits of being impossibly ‘nowhere’.

What we are facing therefore is a cohort of eager, energised Hoofers and Dockers, converging on the office for the benefits of learning from their seniors to find they’re just spending their time annoying one another. This, at the same time as the majority of learning and development is moving online due to the beneficial cost and logistics. More boxes ticked for less.

It boils down to another matter, where much-championed personal choice creates a potentially negative outcome. Left to their own devices, the generations are likely to choose differently for no-one’s benefit. Younger colleagues need the presence of their longer-toothed colleagues for their experience, manner, guidance and care. Elder colleagues need the energy, perspective, challenge and style sense offered by their juniors. The mix of generations in the workplace was always beneficial to all, and will be so again. The interactions that result are invariably spontaneous and unplanned. They are the result of neither of the competing holy grails of workplace strategy – collaboration and serendipity – but from the most barely-mentioned aspect of the contributions of the physical workplace biffed around in the post-pandemic mosh pit: proximity.

If it means scheduling attendance to ensure the benefits of inter-generational immediacy are realised, then so be it. For many, this will feel like heresy. Yet sometimes choices have to be made for us, particularly where we can’t agree or the hassle of trying to achieve a compromise is just too taxing. Far from diminishing us, we’ll be better for it. As individuals and communities. And, one day, we may even realise it.

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