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Are the different generations really so different when it comes to life aspirations? Whilst technology has dramatically altered access to information and how we communicate, the desire to change the world is not a 21st Century innovation


There’s talk about the growing challenge in the workplace of having three different generations with a fourth on the way: The Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and the Digital Natives. How they have different needs and expectations not just of technology but of their employers. How the younger generations aren’t as interested in money as the older generations. How they desire meaning and purpose instead and want to change the world. And will need managing very differently to their predecessors.

What a load of rubbish!

If you believed the headlines, you’d think my generation (X) all grew up chanting ‘money, money, money’. Well, some may have but most were just reciting an old Abba song. Across all generations there has always been a mix of different priorities between financial wealth, spiritual wealth, survival, happiness, a sense of purpose, a sense of obligation, a desire for legacy… and yes, a burning desire to change the world. Human nature is varied. It can be beautiful and frightening. For most people, the priority you focused on through into early adulthood was strongly predicated by childhood circumstances. The workplace has been able to exploit that. For most people, there has been little choice but to trade time for money and tolerate an unfulfilling life of work in order to provide for the next generation. How many potential artists, musicians, sports champions, politicians and business leaders never made it past a constrained life laid out for them in advance?

And that is what has fundamentally changed. Choice. As highlighted by Peter Drucker:

In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.

– Peter Drucker, “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself”,
published in the Leader to Leader Journal no 16 (Spring 2000)

It’s not just the modern workplace that feels out of sync with human needs and desires. All systems are facing disruption. Statisticians will tell you that, if you have a vote between two options and the outcome is 50:50, it is not that half the voters were right. It’s that most were guessing. The result was random.

Look at the following chart, showing the spread of UK votes in the recent European Parliament elections:

Tweet-2014EUVote

Source: Twitter

Much has been said about the fringe party UKIP outperforming the established main parties. And it is true, nobody would have predicted that they would capture the most votes as a single party. But what that chart is really showing is randomness. When two-thirds of people choose not to vote, and of those who do, the large majority of votes are split evenly between two or more options, then people are making random choices. The message is that no one party stands out as worth voting for.

If one or more of the political parties doesn’t figure that out in the UK soon, instead of waffling on how they need to make the stupid electorate more aware (there was a similar reaction when most people chose not to vote for independent police commissioners a couple of years ago), the election next year is going to be guesswork.

Voter apathy spans generations. In reality, we’re not all that different. Some are more comfortable with the new world of choice and consequences we live in than others. And yes, those growing up in the new reality are more likely to have better coping strategies. But I wish people would stop describing each generation as having fundamentally different personalities with clear dividing lines. I just don’t see it in our real-world behaviours.


Flickr-grandcentralstationFeatured image: Grand Central Station Abstract kindly shared on Flickr by Diana Robinson

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