“Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” — George Orwell
With the recent mid-term election, the generations and their differences are back in the headlines. The 'make America great again' sentiment is an invitation to those who long for simpler times of days past. Rhetoric calls for a return to an old set of values, as if those values have somehow disappeared. An underlying claim that the American Dream, as defined by the Traditionalist generation, no longer exists drives a need to place blame on anyone but ourselves.
In the context of generational differences, I find this fascinating.
I lead workshops on generational differences. The focus is solving "the problem" of the Millennial generation. The first activity is to list all the complaints the participants have about Millennials. I listen as managers complain about commitment, work-ethic, and attachment to mobile phones. And when they are finished, I remind them of the truth: we created this generation. We made them who they are. If the Millennials are something we didn't want, it's our fault. We are all to blame.
Millennials in the room often look confused by the list of complaints forming in front of them. Yes, they can all agree they are attached to their phones. That's a given. But lack of work ethic and commitment? They don't see it. That, to them, is unfair. I get it. As an X-er, I'm grouped in with a generation that has been called "slackers" by prior generations, yet that certainly does not describe the X-ers I know.
Study the generations and you'll find that the values of the Traditionalist generation are hard-wired into our system. They permeate in everything from how organizations work to what patriotism looks like. When we call for a return to family values, complain about young employees lack of work ethic, or suggest parents aren't teaching values in the home anymore, we are referring to Traditionalist values. As Haydn Shaw states in his book, Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart, "It's a perspective on the world so pervasive that a large percentage of all generations continue to embrace it today."
I can empathize with the people who wish we could go back. Returning to what we know seems easier than accepting change (better the devil you know than the devil you don't). But that's like putting toothpaste back into the tube.
Whatever generation you happen to fall into or identify with, it turns out that you are still a human being and still subject to the same human condition as the rest of us. Times are changing. And when it comes to change, you naturally resist, deny, or refuse. It's how you are designed.
My step daughter started college this past September. She is one of those "Millennials" people talk about -- without the commitment or work ethic. Except she works really hard. She's organized (far more organized than I was at her age), driven and committed to her studies. She has clear goals and success habits. Like every other new college student I've known, about 10 days in she questioned whether she'd made the right decision to go to college because she didn't feel like she fit in. She didn't feel like doing anything or joining in. She missed her old life -- her mom, her house, her old high school routine. Her entire world had changed, and she was grieving the loss of her old life. A few days later, with new experiences under her belt, she felt better. Within a week or two, she was engaged in her classes, making new friends, and working a new job. Ask her now, she wouldn't think of turning back time.
Sorry, but there is no going back. Just the present moment and an imagined future await you. And the only control you have is how you choose to engage -- or not.
As I've written in past blogs, life is an opportunity to develop ourselves, to re-invent ourselves over and over again. Life is a process of emergence sparked by the challenges, experiences and people that come into our lives. Over time, perspectives change as we emerge; what was once obvious becomes blurry.
I often think about the Viet Nam war and what it was like for those soldiers to return home. When soldiers returned home from World War II, they received a heroes' welcome. Those who returned from Korea, less so. The men and women who managed to survive the horrors of Viet Nam returned to a country that didn't seem to want them. The same generations that shunned those veterans are the same ones screaming today in memes on Facebook about veteran homelessness as a crisis. Where were those voices back then? I get it. Over time, perspectives change; what once seemed obvious becomes blurry.
I read an article this morning about Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and the single most important characteristic he looks for in a new employee. The technical term is "intellectual humility." It means you can admit to and learn from mistakes. Your mistakes don't define you, and you are not so smart about everything that you never make any. I was delighted to find Jeff and I have something in common. For years my favorite interview question has been, "tell me about a time you made a mistake" -- something you couldn't fix yourself or sweep under the rug. It has to be a mistake you had to own up to. The key to the answer is in the learning part, the change in perspective. For me, it's a make or break question.
During the Kavanaugh hearings (his job interview), this is the question I most wanted him to answer. When the assault allegations came forward, I hoped to hear that he had learned something from life. Empathy toward his accuser and some sign of intellectual humility would have sealed the deal. The absence of both meant the end of the interview for me. I would have looked elsewhere for more qualified talent. Interestingly, the concept of intellectual humility comes straight out of the Traditionalist handbook.
Keeping with the theme of change and perspectives, I wonder: What could be possible if we changed our collective perspective on the Millennial generation?
What if we focused on their positive characteristics (which, by the way, are all the good from each generation before them)? What if rather than worrying about our demise, we shifted our attention to ensuring a successful rise? What if we let them decide the definition of success, rather than holding them to ours (which is what every generation wants from their parents)? And where conflict arises in our success definitions, can we choose dialog rather than dictation? We've been having dialog with them their entire lives. Why stop now?
What if we let the Millennials teach us how to get in touch with our feelings? We've taught them that their feelings are important and valid, all while burying our own in the sand. We've told them it is okay to be vulnerable. What if we acted like that was true? What if we joined in with their optimism? What if thinking "each day could be your last so enjoy it" wasn't such a bad mantra to live by?
What if we celebrated the generation we created and plugged in to their energy -- partnering with them to re-imagine our future rather than clinging desperately to a distorted version of our past?
Now, that would be a change.
Post photo: used with permission. 123RF.com