Generations don’t change. Life stages do

New generations, Y,Z and what will come after are still the source of passionate debates even is some of their members are not that “new” anymore and are making their way in their company. We can read anything and its contrary about that and even if a kind of single view will make one poorly audible he does not say what people want to hear, some studies are pointing at some inconvenient truths.

But rather than generation Y or Z I’d like to talk about the way our professional lives are evolving. To have a very simplistic approach of what we have known until then, I’d say that we’ve been moving through different stages.

1°) We learn

2°) We enter the labour force and the gap with what we’ve lived before is often wide. So we try to modernize all this stuff, bend bothering rules, shift the lines over. We come with a fresh view of our job so we’d like to update anything. It’s also a time when people are self-seeking  so they try new things, innovate, go in any direction, try to find their way or a confirmation that the current one is the right one.

3°) Then we get more responsibilities. We’re asked to move things forward, drive programs, projects. And as time passes the stake gets higher. So we focus on what matters, aware that any little thing can damage our career, so we focus on what matters and overlook what is seen as secondary to move things forward. Not necessarily in a very innovative way, not as we would have liked but in a pragmatic and realistic way. It causes frustrations, of course, but we get used to it.

We think we have more power while we only have more responsibilities

The more we progress the higher the stakes, the less room to think and act outside the box. Paradoxically we are supposed to have more power but in fact we only have more responsibilities, the so-called power being counterbalanced by the “system” around us.

4°) Then it’s time to level off. No or very little chance of hierarchical move (either because one is at the top or is not capable of going higer). So the goal is to stay alive at the same altitude. Moves are lateral, from positions on matters we master to some we know very little about.

5°) Then it’s time to land. A few years left before retirement. We pay attentions to those rushing behind to keep them and their progress under control, avoiding being overtaken. That’s a strange stage where some are very defensive, some in autopilot and some because disruptive again because they’ve absolutely nothing to lose.

Regarding to Gen Y, they’re currently moving from stage 2 to stage 3 and that’s easy to observe. Some “pirates” I met when they just graduated are now more quiet, quite in a routine, trying to rationalize their activities and manage their future. They’ve been replaced by Gen Z as troublemakers.

Xers played the same role years ago. Just remind that they fought for “email for all”, less casual dress codes etc.

And the boomers everyone is putting the blame on today brought a dramatic cultural change in the workplace when they joined the workforce.

We’re mistaking generations for life stages

What I want to say is that we’re often mistaking generations and life stages. Are Gen Z what they are because they’re Gen Z or because they are at a given stage of their fife ? Maybe 20/80 . If differences with their elders are real (we are all a byproduct of time we grew up), they’re going through the same stages.

The same stages but with differences we can’t deny. A terrible job market, no reason to trust companies or even governments : these are markers of this era and those who only knew this era will obviously be different from those who knew better times. The communication means at our disposal are breaking down the Coase theorem and the idea that companies are the only place for one to get a job. Today those who don’t like the way businesses operate can build their own job and success outside. Just to mention a couple of examples.

So these differences exist, explain some things, but the fact is that life stages are overlooked in any study about new generations while they explain so many things. I could also have used personal life stages  : when one raises a family, when the first child comes, the appetite for risk that declines over time.

Generations change a little, life stages change a lot

If generations change, but not as much as we’re told, what is obvious is that life stages are being widely disrupted.

• The time when learning for 20 years to be employable the lest 40 years is over. First came the need to learn and update on a regular basis, now one need to learn continuously if he does not want to become obsolete.

• Innovation is not anymore for those who are young and fresh enough. Getting old without being able to come up with new solutions is a very dangerous bet.

• People retire older. One can save they day for one or two years but not 10. This last stage won’t get longer, it will even get shorter. In return, others stage will get longer and even overlap, blend.

The future is neither Gen Y or Z but the intrapreneur whatever his age.

Bottom line, we will need to be willing and able to learn, question and disrupt things like the young and the maturity to conduct business like elders at any stage of our life. Is the the definition of the intrapreneur, which seems to be the archetype of the future employee, the one companies desire the most ?

That’s not a matter of generations but of professional survival, even if it’s sure that those who only knew this context don’t have to adapt.

Image Credit : life stages by Artisticco via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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