From the Greatest Generation To the Degraded Generation

We live in an age when everything and everyone must fit neatly into labeled buckets. There isn’t much room to wiggle out of the label planted on groups of people and if the term does not seem to fit we arbitrarily redefine the words. For example, what is a minority? Women are not a “minority” in terms of population, however there was a time that women were in the minority in the workforce and as a result still suffer the discrimination of a different time. In HR we continually struggle with identifying classes of people so that we can capture data for demographic and legally mandated reports by dumping those label-buckets on paper and then trying to sort them out. Generational differences in the workforce are much more difficult to identify than race or gender, but there has been an attempt to prevent discrimination by age through legislation. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. It applies to both employees and job applicants. ADEA makes it is unlawful to discriminate against workers because of age with regard to hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation or training. So every year, a new group of people moves from the under-40 group to the over-40 group giving us a legal definition of a two-generational model. Reality is much more complex than that.

In his book, “The Greatest Generation” (1998, Random House) Tom Brokaw defined the effect that the World War II generation had on the generations that followed. His stories of the heroes of this era marked a time that was defined by war more than economic or societal changes. Returning from the war, this generation parented the “baby boomers” who would be a spike in the population curve that would have an impact on everything from schools, utilities, governmental agencies and employment. The Boomer Generation is now reaching retirement age in a different world. Unlike their parents who created not only a generation but a booming economic environment, boomers are finding it difficult to find normalcy during a recession at a critical time in their lives. Some have had their life savings and investments depleted by the current economic situation and have lost employment due to cutbacks and downsizing. For them there is not a lot of runway left to start over or recover. In spite of laws written to prevent age discrimination it is difficult for an over-50 worker to find new employment in this economy. Their life decisions at this age sometimes must be a pragmatic postponement of retirement. There is rampant high anxiety over a degraded future due to increased longevity.

Even though there is worry about the impact of boomers on the workforce today and into the near future, the concern really should be on social and cultural issues rather than purely age. The family trees of people today have roots that precede the greatest generation and have branches that have sprouted since then. Unlike the legal two-bucket rule for age discrimination, a generation is usually defined as about a thirty year period when one generation has children who then grow into their parenting years. Because these generations overlap, there are never clean lines dividing them. Mathematically, each seasonal cycle lasts about 90 years, but the development of individuals within each season can vary according to events in their lives as well as their environment. In their book “Generations” by Neil Howe and William Strauss (1991) a theory is proposed that each season of life is divided into four “turnings” which correspond to Childhood, Young Adulthood, Midlife and Elderhood. These generally compare in ages to the three or four generations we see in the workforce today who are beyond childhood. A good deal of social study takes place to measure the cause and effect of the aspirations and outlooks of each group, but there are still so many differences between them that no stereotype can hold true.

Without analyzing the detail of each generation again or attempting to prove their differences, there is a significant awakening that needs to happen with regard to learning lessons from recent history. We saw a respected great generation give birth to a generation that is for the most part struggling and treated by some as if they are disposable. While this may be an overgeneralization of the facts, always a dangerous direction, when will we look to the fate of Gen X, Gen Y and beyond? We need to respect and take care of the current older generations, but we also need to protect the future generations in the workforce today and those to come. We cannot afford to be shortsighted and leave the future to chance. Those in their childhood now will soon be the next unlabeled generation in the workforce which will merge with those already working out their differences.