Which generation do you belong to?

For the last 20 years or more, I’ve operated within what I thought were the more or less universal ‘rules of engagement’ of professional service provision. But increasingly, it seems as though other people don’t know these rules, or are actually operating by a completely different set!

And then I had a blinding flash of insight…

If you take into account the current theory that attempts to explain how different generations develop different value systems, it goes without saying that we will have different rules of engagement!

Which generation do you belong to?

‘Generation theory’ explains that when you were born affects your view of the world. Your value system, shaped by your family, friends, communities, significant events and the general era in which you were born, is a good predictor of your behaviour, attitude and expectations.

The generally used labels for the most recent generations are: Silent or Veteran (born 1929-1945), Boomers or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1960s), Generation X (born 1968-1989) and the Millennials or Generation Y (born mid 1980s-present).

At the risk of over simplifying, here is a brief summary of the living generations:

Silent Generation (born 1920s – 1945)

They were influenced in their youth by the Great Depression and World War II and grew up in serious times, when everyone had to do their duty, and when children “should be seen and not heard”. They are conservative, hard-working and structured, preferring rules, order and formal hierarchies. They have a “waste not, want not” mentality, and hate getting into debt. They continue to work hard, even in retirement, are frugal and save every penny they can even though they may have a considerable amount saved.

Defining values:

* Dedication * Duty before pleasure * Adherence to rules * Hard work * Law and order * Respect for position * Cautious * Self sufficient * Delayed reward * Sacrifice * Conformity * Modesty * Patience * Reticent to express emotion * Waste not want not

Baby Boomers (1946 – early 1960s)

Baby Boomers are the post-war generation, the drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll set who grew up during a time of grand visions, which served to energise them. They initiated protest rallies and the IT revolution.

Their activism against the establishment was not so much to topple the system but to remove perceived corruption and install themselves as its leaders. In the 1990s, Boomer politicians in most democratic countries around the world became the youngest ever Presidents and Prime Ministers, and brought sweeping changes.

They love conspicuous consumption and have created more wealth (and accumulated more debt) than any other generation. They are workaholic, driven, goal oriented and bottom line focused.

Boomers are passionately concerned about participation in the workplace, motivated by vision, mission and strategy, and care about creating a fair and level playing field. Their inner-directed approach lends itself well to their style of leadership which does not consult much with other generations. They want to become leaders who’ll lead their nations and industries to a better world beyond, as a result of their principled, optimistic outlook on life.

Defining values:

* Idealism * Image * Optimism * Team orientation * Personal growth * Personal gratification * Group together by similarity of belief * Self-expressive * Media savvy * Excellence * Big talkers * Youth * Work * Involvement * Health / wellness * Nostalgia

Generation X (late 1960s – 1989)

Generation Xers grew up as ‘latchkey kids’, experiencing an era of crises – from Vietnam to the energy crisis and the collapse of communism, it was clear adults didn’t know what was going on. Adults had also become busier, and Xers were the first children in history that mothers could take a Pill not to have. As young adults, they date and marry cautiously – and later than previous generations.

They’re sceptical of corporations – long-term commitment won’t pay the dividends it did to their parents. They look for quick, short-term rewards, are prepared to embrace risks and work hard for themselves. This entrepreneurial, selfish and individualistic attitude is often mistaken for rebelliousness. However, Xers are not rebelling against authority the way their parents did. They’re simply asserting their individuality, one of their defining characteristics.

They need options and flexibility; they dislike close supervision, preferring freedom and an outputs-driven workplace. They love change so much they actually need it. Xers strive for balance – they work to have a life; they don’t live to work. They want rules but from the right authorities only: they don’t want to know “is it true?” they want to know “does it work?”

Defining values:

* Change * Choice * Global awareness * Techno-literacy * Individualism * Lifelong learning * Immediate gratification * Diversity * Survivors * Informality * Whiners * Thrill seekers * “Experiencers” * Pragmatism * Not scared of failure * Self-reliance

Millennial Generation (1989 – 2000s)

Millennials are the generation growing up after the Cold War in the era of globalisation, communication technology and wireless connectivity – an age of unprecedented diversity and exposure to other cultures. As some of the most protected children in history, this generation is confident, almost arrogant. They demand reasons and rationale, so the traditional “because I said so” won’t cut it with them.

They are growing up in a world where they are daily made aware of the fragile environment. So it is no surprise that they are emerging as ethical consumers who want to change the world.

Defining values:

* Optimism * Confidence * High self-esteem * Media & entertainment overloaded * Street smart * Diversity * Conservative * Networkers * Civic duty * Ethical consumption * Achievement * Morality * Naivete * Change * Techno-savvy * Global citizens, with a multi-everything view

How this affects the ‘unwritten rules’

Like many older business people today, I am a baby boomer, and was also brought up and steeped in the values of the ‘silent generation’. The rules of engagement I have absorbed are those of my own generation. When I think about the communication breakdowns I’ve had to handle, in my own life and work and in mediating in clients’ disputes, they’ve often been a clash of different ‘unwritten rules’, unexamined and unacknowledged, between two different generations.

This raises an interesting question. What are the ‘unwritten rules’ of those other, newer generations? And are there some absolutes? For example, if we’re talking about the unwritten rules of business life and behaviour, wouldn’t it always work better if people kept their promises, honoured their commitments, and met their deadlines?

Or am I just old-fashioned?

What do you think? Do you agree that the generation into which you were born affects your world view?