Generational divide: Changed but how different?

How great are the changes?
Much has been written about incorporating Gen Y into the workplace and although there are some forward thinking companies who have tapped into these generational norms and harnessed them commercially, most do not. If there is a generational divide,  many older ones think it will go away as it did for them. These 20 somethings will become reasonable surely? Just like we did. Who would have thought that the boss in the corner office might have looked quite different in a previous life.


I actually had a “what was it like back in the day?” conversation with some Gen Y contacts recently, discussing different generational experiences. Apart from feeling really old – it was pretty interesting. One would have thought that Boomers would be perfectly placed to bridge any gap , but it would seem that we can’t or don’t. So although many of Gen Y’s early work experiences are common to ours (disappointments about routineness of work, under utilisation, frustrations about disorganisation in the workplace, struggles with being constantly judged and erratic training) the environment they are working in has changed completely.

So what is different?

Business models – were consistent over longer periods and working practices to meet those needs probably stayed in place longer. Now organisations are expected to respond to market conditions faster than ever before and with greater creativity and effectiveness. The pace of change seems much faster.

Numbers. As university enrolment has increased in most Western European countries (in the UK, 24% of the age demographic) that makes a lot of young people flailing in, or around, our job markets. In the ’70s in the UK less than 10% of the population were involved. Boomers accepted corporate culture because it was presented as a golden conveyor to opportunity and generally it was. Gen Y are contesting (even resenting) some of the basic tenets that the older generation have willingly embraced. Not only do they doubt the opportunities exist, they are angry with Boomers for depriving them of their futures, as we have seen in France with teenagers taking to the streets ( “Jeunes au boulot, vieux aux bistros” ) and violent student protests in London.

Technology means that remote working, mobile working, flexi-time are all viable options, when 35 years ago they were not. We had to pitch up at the office – there were no alternatives. A Telex machine was considered cutting edge! Gen Y are frustrated by our skill set deficits with technology and also our reluctance to trust their generation to guide us. Technology also means they struggle with the Boomer work centric notion of presenteeism. If they have nothing to do directly, that doesn’t mean that it’s OK to go out for a cigarette (Boomers could smoke in the office) take a personal call on their mobiles ( didn’t exist) or hit Facebook (ditto!). Computers were the size of an articulated lorry and social media might have meant friendly journalists. Back in the day there was always filing (paper!) to be done. We all looked super busy to avoid that. They now have to find and ask for something to do to fill every moment.

Economic they were different times. The impact of television and advertising campaigns was significantly reduced, as was an access to credit. It simply wasn’t possible to run up huge debts. Loan applications carried an actuarial function and were not linked to banker’s OTEs. We didn’t do things because we had no money!

Speed and style of communication Corporate relations seemed to be more clear-cut and formal. I called my boss Mister. No one swore around women and full courtesies were maintained, making the workplace less intense I think. Today, emails or texts can be fired off in a nano second, with a circulation list of dozens. Comments can be posted on walls and tweeted. Years ago a “memo” had to be given to the typing pool and if you were very lucky it would emerge days later, with carbon copies, placed in brown internal envelopes and delivered by hand, even within the organisation. That process could take days and by that time everyone had stopped being mad.

Lack of recognition No one likes this, but especially Gen Y. This is the ” everyone a winner ” generation made to feel special by us “child-focused’ Boomer Mums and Dads, over compensating for a lack of public endorsement from our own more reticent , father-centred, parents of the previous generation. Unfortunately there are winners and losers, first and second place and then the rest.

Self scheduling – struggling with work life balance. That was never really a problem back in the day that I recall. Shops are even open later now and 7 days a week to boot. If those are missed, there’s internet shopping and take – outs. We didn’t have the opportunity to be in constant contact with our peer group and our social lives seem to be lower key. Our need for external gratification and stimulation also seemed to be reduced which of course is always cheaper as well as being less time-consuming!

Each generation enters the workplace, shaped by the culture in which it lives, both immediate and wider. That is what changed perhaps more dramatically than the basic people involved. We all just responded to what’s going on around us. I once had a really impassioned inter-generational discussion with my dad about who would endure the longest – Frank Sinatra ( me..” omg.. boring.. old.”.) or the Beatles (Dad.. “scraggy haired yobos”). We all know the answer to that one!

Irene Peters

4 thoughts on “Generational divide: Changed but how different?

  1. Wendy Mason

    As a generation, I think we ‘boomers’ have been complacent about the issues associated with emergent technologies in particular. It is almost as if the old arts/science divide so impacted on us that we didn’t think through what they would mean for our children and how they would live with them. Many of us didn’t work hard enough to understand the changes – they frightened us so we dismissed them! Now our children and grand children have to cope with a new technologically driven world under economic stress without our experience and understanding to guide them! We need to wake up and smell the coffee quickly before it boils over.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Wendy – you’re right that many in the Boomer generation have been slow to hoist on board the significance of technological changes and under estimate their impact on many areas of working, even personal life, particularly in terms of speed and flexibility of communication. Interesting times ahead!

  2. Jay Kuhns

    As a Gen Xer, it seems to me we need to push ourselves more than ever to stay current. Wendy’s comment about not keeping up with technology is a great example. The Gen Y crowd does need our experience and guidance; however, we need to deliver it in language they can relate to. Good times ahead!


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