Thursday, April 01, 2004

What's in a generation?

Two articles in yesterday's Globe and Mail created a little stir. Why is it so difficult to see associates stay long enough to make partner and essentially stay forever with one firm? Could it be explained by generational differences? The articles in question are"The generational divide" and "New generation strives for a life, not a living", both from pages C1 and C6 in the Careers section.

I have long been keenly aware of differences between the generations. I was born right on the "cusp", the last year of the Baby Boomer generation, and the first year of Generation X. For those keeping score, that puts my birthdate in 1964. My parents were born before the Boomer generation, called the "Traditionalist" generation in the articles. My mother has long been skeptical about the Boomer generation, especially devotees of those yahoos known as "The Beatles". In her mind Lennon and McCartney corrupted a whole generation. Heh.

I generally consider myself Generation X and, when I look at some of the generalizations in these articles, am surprised how many of the characteristics listed for Gen X (and even Gen Y) describe me. When Doug Adam's book Generation X first came out in 1991, my friends and I read it with great amusement, recognizing ourselves in some respects but finding differences in other aspects. Since that time we stepped out into the working world right in the middle of a major recession. Workplaces were in the process of downsizing, and we were viewed suspiciously by potential employers because we had little in the way of work experience. Few of those from the generation before us reached out to give us a hand up, largely (and quite understandably) because they themselves were uncertain of their own positions. I note those who have followed after us have not fallen into this trap, striving continually to get the "right" education, rack up experience and generally make themselves marketable. To my generation, they really look like a bunch of keeners. But who can fault someone for that?

Between disappointment in our initial work experiences, and fallout from the Cold War and impending environmental disasters, it is little wonder we are cynical about the future. Few of us have married, few of us have children, many remain single. Our "Traditionalist" parents, who worked their whole lives for one organization, either died of heart attacks shortly after retirement or felt used by their organizations in the end. The lesson seems to be that life is too short to wait until retirement to live it, and that we have to look after our own happiness since no one else will. We're doubtful about receiving old age pensions from the government, so squirrel our money away for the future. There will be few coming up behind us to take care of us in our later years, so we make sure we are financially secure and physically able. In many ways we work to make ourselves as strong and self-reliant as possible.

But that is not to say we are arrogant, aloof, or negative in attitude. I believe in people working together as peers and equals. Although I am a manager, I see myself as a leader, and am quite willing to be a supportive follower when appropriate. I believe strongly in communication and feel someone informed has a better chance of making the best decision as well will have less fear of change and future developments. I love learning from others, seeing what their experience has been and learning from that. Most of the people I talk to on a day to day basis are older than I am. I value their experience, their wisdom, their enthusiasm about their own lives, and the wonderful example they show me of what is to come in my life. Although I may be cynical about the world, I am optimistic about my own life and tend to be a happy person.

I'm not sure what the solution is for hanging on to people in an organization. We live in such a fast-paced, disposable, ever-changing world, that possibly we may need to change our concept of what a law firm is and how it is organized. How can a firm expect an intelligent, ambitious, dynamic young person to commit forever to one job? There is so much in the world to experience and so many aspects to one's life, that work really becomes just one part of the whole picture. I'm not predicting the downfall of the Seven Sisters or anything, but I think those firms that will be successful in the long term will be those that are most dynamic, diverse and willing to let its lawyers and other employees have a life outside the office. What a concept.


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