Generations: Boomers XYZ

It is easy to over define something as fluid as a generation. Old guys think young folks just are not quite as hard-working or tough. Younger generations always think that they are unique in world history. Stereotypes are not w/o merit. My father’s Depression-WW II generation was tougher than mine since they grew up in harder times. As for today’s young people, until the recent economic downturn, nobody born after 1980 really remembered hard times and despite all the gnashing of teeth the general level of affluence remains high. They are unique.

But the most unprecedented generational changes have to do with connectedness. We thought we were connected because we grew up with television. My father’s generation thought radio was the cat’s pajamas.   And a generation before that they had the amazing possibility of getting new transmitted by cable printed in morning newspapers.  When you get farther back than that, not really very long ago in the great scheme of history, speed of communication had not really changed too much for thousands of years.  News traveled as fast as a horse could walk or the wind would push a ship.

The speed of communication really has not changed much since they laid trans-Atlantic cables during the reign of Queen Victoria.  The fastest messages have essentially traveled at the speed of light for more than a century, but the reach, breadth and the interactivity has grown with each technological advance and the astonishing spread of Internet and cellular phones represents a quantum leap that changes the rules not only of communication but also of society.

I am a member of the “baby boom” generation, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. We were THE youth generation, even after we got older.  After us was what they called generation X, born from the middle of the 1960s until around 1980 and then generation Y, born beginning around thirty years ago, now entering the labor force.  Some people talk about a generation Z, which would be kids around ten years old.  The borders between generations are not very distinct and a generation means  than just being born during certain years.

Generations pass through events that shape their members.  Baby boomers, for example, experienced the post-war prosperity and then the upheavals of the 1960s.  We then went through the hard times of the 1970s, which made us more conscious of the need to get and keep jobs.  It was nothing as hard as our parents Depression experience, but it made an impression.  The generation X folks in many ways had a harder time.  They are a smaller generation (birthrates dropped after the baby boom)  that grew up in our shadows.  They felt the hard times as kids, but generally did okay in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their biggest challenge was baby boomers, who hogged a lot of the good jobs. This problem is not going away, but it may be made even worse by the arrival of generation Y.It is hard to arrive just a little behind. Others entrench themselves in the better jobs and you can be second place for most of your career. The boomers were supposed to retire, and the older ones have started to move off, but the recent downturn has kept more of them in the labor market. So generation X waits its turn.  Unfortunately for them, generation Y has arrived and is ready to go.

Generation Y has advantages.  They grew up with technology and so they are very good at computers and social networks. Their knowledge is up-to-date, which trumps the experience of many generation X folks.   Beyond that, the boomers, who are getting ready leave – finally, like generation Y. They are qualified, as I mentioned above. They are energetic and they are literally the children of the boomers. Imagine a boomer (age maybe 55) thinking about a successor.   He can choose as “steady” & “solid” person of around forty-five, who has served the firm well, but maybe never rising to the higher levels (blocked by boomers).  Or maybe he can look to the techno-savvy, innovative & energetic thirty-year-old, who reminds him of his own smart kids.  Notice the adjectives.  Do you think I am choosing the wrong words?

This is causing significant tension in many workplaces. The Generation Y folks don’t much respect hierarchy.  They feel perfectly entitled to take their new and innovative ideas to the big boss (still often a boomer), bypassing the middle-manager, who is likely to be generation X. Some generations get the breaks.  There was a similar dynamic with the World War II generation and the boomers. Like the boomers, the World War II generation dominated the scene, until they were replaced by boomers. We forget about the “silent generation,” those just too young to go to war, but too old to be boomers, the ones born from around 1930 to 1945. Take the symbolism of the Presidency. From 1960 to 1992 all the presidents were World War II era veterans (Although Carter was not active duty, he was at the Naval Academy during WWII).  The office then passed to baby boomer Bill Clinton, completely bypassing the silent generation. George W Bush was a boomer and so is Barack Obama.  His likely Republican challengers in 2012 are boomers, so we are virtually assured of boomers in office until 2016 and maybe 2020.  By that time, the younger boomers will still be in their late fifties, still prime time for the presidency, and generation Y will be knocking at the door by 2028.  We could skip a generation again.

Of course, everything for me now has a Brazilian angle. In fact, I was moved to think about this subject after watching a series about generational change in Brazil on TV Globo. They are in Portuguese, but if you want to watch, they are here, here, here & here.

The Brazilian generations do not correspond exactly to ours, but they are close. The difference is that the differences are sharper there between generation X & Y.  Generation X grew up during the time of the dictatorship.  They were concerned with establishing their positions in society and their status, maybe more than American generation Xers. Beyond that, Brazil was economically isolated in the 1970s and 1980s.  Protectionism and import substitution were the rules. That meant that lots of the products were substandard and relatively more expensive.  Computers, for example, were always behind the curve.  Making matters worse was the poor economy, high inflation and external debt. This tended to keep Brazilians down. The 1990s saw revolutionary changes, perhaps as stark and rapid as the more famous changes in Eastern Europe. Brazil opened and its economy improved remarkably. Technology poured in, essentially allowing Brazilian to skip a technology generation. Younger Brazilians, at least the educated ones we are thinking about in firms, suddenly had communications and travel options that were unheard of for most of their immediate elders.  

So in Brazil, the X-Y divide is even sharper and the Brazilian equivalent of baby boomers is acting similar to their American cohorts. In addition, the younger Brazilian generation is more open to risk taking and innovation.  They are starting firms and hopping jobs in ways the more cautious generation X folks find frightening. I expect this to be a factor when I am managing staff in Brazil and interacting with firms there. I do not believe that demographics is destiny. There will be many variations, but I think it is something to keep mind.