Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Generation wars

This was my column on the date indicated above.

My friend Alex was fuming mad last week and wanted to vent. Fortunately, I was free for dinner so we met up. But by the time we met up, he had already cooled down sufficiently and was more in the mood for “theorizing,” which is what we call the discussions that we have where we try to make sense of the nonsensical.

What got Alex’s goat this time around was that two young, promising members of his team took off for two days from work because they were sick. What made him really hopping mad was that they were working on major deals; the kind that made or broke careers. They were working on really tight deadlines and my friend needed everyone on board almost 24/7, he moaned.

I shifted to human-resource-management-professional mode and asked a barrage of questions: Were they really sick? Did you check? Was being absent due to sickness habitual on their part? Did they have sick leave credits left? Perhaps the workload was making them sick already? Were the expectations cleared with them? Alex looked at me like I needed to have my head examined. As far as he was concerned, whether they were sick or not was beside the point because “they knew this wasn’t a good time to be sick.”

Actually, what aggravated the matter for him was that the two guys simply sent in a text message informing another officemate that they were taking two days off from work due to sickness. This ran counter to how Alex - or I, for that matter- would have handled the matter. We would have gone on a major guilt trip, explained and justified at length the sickness as if was our fault that our bodies showed signs of weaknesses, and whipped ourselves hard for getting sick at such a bad time. Alex would have called everyone in the office to apologize and to blabber about how bad he felt skipping off work at such a crucial time, etc, etc. In short, we would have turned on the angst machine like typical members of Generation X. Only then would we have felt better about missing work.

Of course our grandparents would have handled the matter in a completely different way: They would have gone to work just the same despite being sick because their strong work ethics dictated required them to do so. And our parents? Perhaps they would have followed policy very strictly and planned for all contingencies ahead of time.

After some discussion, Alex and I more or less came to a conclusion: This wasn’t really just about the sick leaves. This was about different values, paradigms, attitudes, preferences, work habits, etc. This was about the different ways in which members of the various generations who are present in today’s workforce behave based on specific traits associated with their respective generations. Those belonging to each generation, after all, share common experiences shaped by common events, fads, even the general temperament and political fervor that characterized their growing-up years. For example, those of us who were born between 1965 and 1976 known as members of Generation X grew up under Martial Law and witnessed large-scale suppression of rights and freedoms while the generation that followed didn’t have any concept of oppression at all. Thus, it is understandable that members of cohorts also share common predispositions and behaviors. These are more predominant in the workplace where people are forced to interact and be productive together while at the same time cope with various forms of pressures.

This vignette I cited above about sick leaves is an example of the many ways in which the generation war is being waged in the workplace today. There are many, many other examples.

A glaring difference is the way members of the different generations look at wealth and status. Members of the older generation invested on real estate, jewelry, stocks and achieved status by accumulating these. Members of the current generation invest on themselves—they buy gadgets that are supposed to make them more accessible and make things more convenient for them and show these off as status symbols. Instead of diamond necklaces, they wear iPods on their necks.

There’s even divergence in the way members of the different generations look at this phenomenon called work-life balance. It’s a completely alien concept to members of the “older” generation—they who insist that “work” happens on weekdays and “life” happens in the evenings and on weekends. Members of the current generation disagree- and vehemently- of course. The younger set wants both at the same time. I’ve meet people in their first jobs who wouldn’t accept overtime work because they had better things to do with their lives other than just slave at work. It’s not a question of work ethics, really. It’s a question of internal wiring. The members of the younger generation are just wired to see work as fun as well—they want multi-sensory stimulation (they didn’t grow up with Ragnarok games for nothing) and they expect things to be customized to their particular needs and preferences.

Like many others, I too wondered how my kids graduated from college and passed licensure examinations with relatively flying colors. The few times that I caught them “studying” with books spread out in front of them, they were also texting friends, listening to their iPods, watching television, and monitoring status updates in their Facebook accounts online.

But let’s make no mistake about this: Members of today’s generation are infinitely smarter than we ever were at their age. I have probably read more than a thousand books when I reached twenty and had these theories swimming in my head—but I had absolutely no practical skills. When my son reached the same age, he probably had read less than 50 books, but he had been able to transform the personal computer in the living room into an entertainment center, complete with gadgets that did many things beyond my comprehension, learned how to assemble equipment, even figured out how to use mailmerge.

I suspect that we will continue to see more conflicts and problems in workplaces that could be traced to inability among the members of the various generations to work through their inherent differences. Most of us continue to be in denial that generational differences have profound impact on the workplace and on productivity. We also don’t have scientific data that we can use to make sense of the phenomenon and to help us formulate better prescriptions. We’re mostly relying on good old common sense and intuition in dealing with the effects of cross-generational conflicts. Unfortunately, common sense is not really common. And the use of intuition and gut feel are not always advisable when dealing with people other than your spouse.

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