Since the 1960s people have talked about “the generation gap," the difference in ideas, opinions and behaviors that separates older from younger people.
The divide narrows or widens from time to time, but it’s always there, and at the moment it seems to be cutting through the workplace in a particularly complex way: Very soon, four generations will be working together or living under the same roof.
With retirement disappearing as a concept for more and more mature professionals who are having to work longer than they intended to supplement their pension, there are fewer job opportunities for those who are younger. That’s led not just to higher levels of youth unemployment, but also of a sense of unfulfillment among greater numbers of professionals around the world who suffer from increasing levels of stress and lack of purpose in their work.
When the baby boomers (born from 1946 to the 60s) and generation X (those born in the 60s and 70s) do come together in the workplace with the much younger millennials (the connected generation of "digital natives” born in the 80s and 90s), there are often tensions.
It will be interesting to see the new and very real challenges and opportunities arising when all these groups are joined by those among generation Z (those born from the mid 1990s onwards), who have never known a life without super-fast communication and unlimited access to media technologies, smartphones and online shopping.
The baby boomers and some in gen X often perceive their younger counterparts as having an unjustified sense of entitlement, with no real work ethic, and unwilling to “pay their dues” by starting at the bottom and working their way up.
At the same time, younger employees see their seniors as intransigent, inflexible and no longer best equipped to make the right decisions. Generations Y and Z expect to have knowledge at their fingertips and the independence technology gives them to be able to work anywhere and for whom they choose. Highly transient and mobile, they expect immediate responses from others.
However, because they prefer to sit behind and communicate through the screens of their PCs, laptops and smartphones, their under-developed ability to communicate face to face could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to managing staff, making presentations and connecting with those in other generations.
Whatever the relative truth of the matter, this can make for a challenging mix.
For many in this generation war, the young seem to be winning so far, with the millennials squeezing out the baby boomers and even gen X'ers in a battle of salary cuts as companies, cash strapped after the recent downturn, seek to rein in spending.
However, while age and lifestyle preferences are often seen as the major dividing line between us, I believe there’s one that’s even more important – mindset, something that goes beyond age, gender, education, wealth and geography.
It is by focusing on mindsets and values that I believe we can transcend the traditional generational descriptions that so often seem to create division rather than harmony and unity.
I see mindset and attitude as the real differentiator of talent in our world. But while it is crucially important, it’s something that, as yet, very few companies consider when recruiting or selecting staff.
In my book Corporate Escape: the Rise of the New Entrepreneur, I coined the terms SUPER– (negative) Generation and SUPER+ (positive) Generation to separate the two opposing mindsets I see prevalent in organizations and society as a whole, with SUPER being an acronym for the characteristic way in which each sees and approaches the world.
So those in the SUPER– Generation tend to be superficial, focused primarily on their possessions and external appearance. They have an ongoing need to purchase the latest gadgets and want whatever others have.
They are also unfulfilled, feeling “empty” because of an excessive focus on their appearance and “external” things, which don’t really satisfy their inner needs.
Consequently, with few real “anchors" in their lives, they feel left out and often become negative about the future. Without any sense of purpose or direction, this makes them pessimistic, as well as rather self-centered and egocentric. They believe the world is all about "them,” so they’re rarely willing to take responsibility for their behavior and actions or take ownership for their own success.
And since all this makes their lives less than happy, they are restless, always searching for the next “new thing.” Their world revolves around others and what is fashionable, superficial and temporary.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of those in any kind of work and experience fall well and truly into this category.
Then there are those who are members of that other club: the SUPER+ Generation.
These are individuals who don’t wait for things to happen, but who make them happen, which tends to make them more successful.
They aren’t frightened to stand out and be different, which means they are independent thinkers, often with an unconventional outlook and approach.
Driven to succeed, they are energetic and passionate about making a difference, which frequently comes through in their innately entrepreneurial approach to life, taking responsibility for their own actions.
Finally, they believe in making things happen through a collaborative approach, which is why they are relational, global thinkers who are able to see beyond “me” and “you" to "us.”
As an entrepreneur, business owner or manager, who would you want more of on your side?
Those in then SUPER+ Generation I suspect, because it’s they who will drive companies and societal evolution forward. They are the leaders of tomorrow.
And since this fundamental division between generations goes largely unrecognized, businesses continue to employ based on other criteria – normally the traditional CVs and cost – a short-term approach that can leave mature professionals with plenty of knowledge and industry experience standing on the wrong side of the door. However, given increasingly volatile, uncertain and complex economies and global markets, if you really want to make things happen in the best way, experienced heads are often still needed alongside the energy and new perceptions of those who are younger. You are created to work with others, to collaborate and learn together, not to be in constant opposition.
The great thing is that at any moment you have the power to create the professional world you want to be part of. One in which where you come from, your age and gender, or and what you have done before is less important than your vision of what is possible.
When the future is created one step at the time, isn’t it time to see beyond the generations?