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May 7, 2013 / Mervyn Dinnen

Generationalisationism

As a regular attendee and blogger at CIPD events I like the way they have got involved in, and tried to shape, conversations around youth unemployment and opportunities for tomorrow’s workforce.

In their centenary year it seems fitting that an organisation that came in to being with an aim to get children out of the workplace should now be spearheading efforts to get them in to work. I wrote about the Our Young People project last year and have written elsewhere about their newly launched research ‘Employers are from Mars, Young people are from Venus’.

However, mixed in between the learning and networking at the recent CIPD HRD conference were presentations of a different type that I could have done without…the dreaded ‘How to get the best out of/understand/manage/up-skill Gen Y’ bilge.

Generalisations about generations are nothing new (cap doffed to Gareth Jones for the inspiration behind the blog title btw) and I’ve written about it several times.

One speaker, a senior HR/Learning person from a major UK plc, hid behind the Deloitte Gen Y research with the usual generalisations – sense of entitlement, used to being placed on pedestals, lack of proactivity, dreamers, unrealistic – and even gave us an interesting conundrum. They don’t get information from people but prefer to source it online. This was seen as a problem as decisions are usually made in meetings. Yet barely two minutes later the presenter told us how difficult it was to organise internal meetings, problems over aligning diaries etc, whilst her 19 year old son can arrange a get together within a couple of minutes online. Opportunity or threat?

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Further comments such as ‘They’ve grown up in times of an economic boom’ are clearly nonsense as anyone born ‘93 onwards has hit adolescence in a time of global recession, but that doesn’t stop them being presented as perceived wisdom. We were also told they are the most researched generation, with more data existing on them than any other…I quite liked Matt Charney’s observation…

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In all honesty, I’m getting more and more uneasy with this type of conversation, not just because there’s so much of it and its nonsense anyway, but because it’s really just stereotyping whole groups of people by certain perceived traits, somehow to imply that they are inferior, different or require special treatment. Yes, I do find it worryingly close to racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and the rest by a different name.

The casualness of the way stereotypes are bandied around makes me particularly uneasy. The ‘I know about this because I have a teenage child’ line is really just ‘some of my best friends are’ using other words. People who spout generationalisationisms don’t really mean it, they love them really, they’re important because they can use social networking etc…just like casual racism and sexism.

I don’t think this has any place at an HR conference, either here on in the US – check out Laurie Ruettimann’s blog on this subject, written after her experiences at a US HR conference the same week as the CIPD event.

Different people bring different skills to the workplace, and different ages bring different perspectives. An understanding of the different social, cultural, economic and academic influences that shape these perspective and values is one thing.

But discrimination is discrimination, and age discrimination works two ways. HR above all people should not have these crass, and untrue, generalisations anywhere near their mind-set…

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5 Comments

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  1. Sukh Pabial / May 7 2013 10:02 AM

    Hear, hear. Well said, Merv.

    I’ve often thought the same that it amounts to discrimination in a different guise and we’re deluding ourselves to think we’re being clever in the way we label this group. Pah.

  2. Paul Taylor / May 7 2013 5:47 PM

    Awesome post! I , personally , am interested in some of the research around GenY and the emerging GenZ – but only in terms of attitudes and behaviours that could help shape broad brush service and workplace design that would benefit everyone.

    They want to want to work for an inspiring manager – we all do.
    They want free wifi at work – we all do. etc etc

    I agree it is wholly irresponsible – dangerous ,even – to start lumping huge sections of people into easy to manage chunks.

    One thing I have picked up is the sheer lack of accuracy of some of the assumptions. I work with people at younger end of the Gen Y scale whose digital skills are more basic than many a Gen X’er or even Baby Boomer.

    Amazons assumptions about me are based up continual mining and understanding of my preferences – not my age.

    It’s mainly harmless fun to marvel at the differences between generations (e.g They don’t remember CD’s!!)

    It’s another thing altogether to start introducing such generalisationisms (love it) into your business or service offer.

  3. hrgem / May 7 2013 7:31 PM

    If the debate ever had anything interesting to contribute, the recent level of fluff pieces on generations I have seen lately have reduced it to a level of absurdity. Eg a quiz to see which generation you belong to with questions like ‘do you have tattoos’.
    Time to put this to bed. Or does this comment just reflect my age?

  4. Paul Hebert / May 8 2013 11:41 AM

    Right on! I’m glad to see that the snake oil is starting to get some real focus. I know my own Gen Y’s (or even Gen Z if you really want to get “cool”) are very different than the “stereotype.” I posted a year ago on some great research that basically said – Gen Y ain’t no different than any other generation.

    http://www.symbolist.com/blog/2012/03/talking-bout-my-generation-incentives-and-generational-issues-not/

  5. Excellent word!

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