Cultural Generations – A Response to “I’m A Me”

Author’s Note: As the title suggests, this entire blog is written as a response to Paul Smith‘s  “Welcome To the Occupation” blog post entitled “I’m A Me”.  Paul argues that discussion about cultural generations in the workforce is “just a bunch of clatter . . .because it’s simply a battle over words and identity, and the strange need for us to place labels on ourselves in order to have a sense of belonging.”

The author, around 1978
Me, around 1978

I mentioned this before, but I will do so again: I started out my professional life as a police officer in suburban Detroit in the 1970’s.  When I began my police career, professional training and development for police officers was a fairly new concept, less than 20 years old.  Police officers of the time were treated to all manner of training programs, particularly programs which advocated a more thoughtful, knowledgeable approach to dealing with community citizens.

One program that I still remember was presented by a psychologist, and officers were shown a movie made about – you guessed it – cultural generations.  I’m pretty certain that the term “generations” was never used, but the message was clear: many of the citizens we (“we” being mostly baby boomers) were dealing with were members of what is now called the “Silent Generation” – those people born from approximately 1925-1945, whose formative years were hugely impacted by the Great Depression. The training psychologist argued that police officers could respond to our public – their family fights, abandoned cars, unlicensed pets, and all manner of things that police officers must deal with – in a more compassionate way if we actually understood them, as a group, a little better.

So when Paul argues in his blog that generations are “just a label” that we place on ourselves to foster a sense of belonging, and that individual identity is all that is relevant, I am going to respectfully disagree.

Sometimes circumstances don’t allow the employee or employer to know each individual and make a judgment.  Police officers, and anyone who performs public service, uses the tool of generational identity to help them be more understanding and responsive.  If I am an HR practitioner, I want my employees to be aware of and use those tools to be better performers. Isn’t helping identify and guide employee performance an important strategic HR function?

Sometimes, individual identity has to be ignored by the HR practitioner when they are making group decisions.  If I am charged with reducing benefit costs by eliminating some benefits, and my workforce is largely 60 and older, I might decide to reduce family medical coverage in order to maintain a 401(k) match.  I may have some individuals who will prefer a different approach, but I will choose what is best for the larger group of  boomers who likely are concerned far more with retirement funds than with dependent coverage. Sometimes the “me” has to be ignored or overlooked for the perceived good of a group. This isn’t “clatter’ – it’s concern and compromise, based on cultural generational differences.  Again, the knowledge and understanding of the culture of a generation is just one more tool that an HR practitioner might be able to use.

I’d love to hear what you think.

(PS – I know I used that picture of me the last time I wrote about police work and generations.  I only have 3 pictures of me when I was a cop, and I’m not showing you the other 2. :-))

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4 thoughts on “Cultural Generations – A Response to “I’m A Me””

  1. I’m kinda torn on the whole generational thing. Obviously, there are general differences. My son and his friends do not act, think, speak or behave like my parents, who are in their 70’s. Their needs and wants are different, and they are in different places in life.

    But I think your example in your last paragraph has more to do with demographics rather than distinct generational differences; after all, Gen Y will eventually get to the same place 30 years later.

    Also, I think we should not overstate the impact of other cultural and racial diversity on the workplace. My workforce is approximately 40% foreign-born (mostly African, followed by the West Indies), 35% African American, 25% misc. We’ve had some interesting dynamics over the years between the first two groups, not to mention between the first group and our customers because our staff are providing home care for disabled people but if they were raised elsewhere, they don’t always understand what is expected here in terms of meals, holiday celebrations, decor, etc. I realize that not all organizations mirror mine; I’m just using mine as an example of why you can look at generations but also look deeper.

  2. First of all Joan, let me say that I’m honored that you would devote an entire blog post as a response to one of mine. That said, I’ve read this a few times and I don’t think that we are too far apart on this subject. To be clear, I never said that individual identity is all that is relevant. What I expressed was that resigning oneself to only looking at groups as a means of discovering the individual is a mistake.

    I think you presented an excellent example of how one group (police) must use these types to deal better with their customers (the public). I don’t see a more viable solution for the police. I found this source http://www.project.org/info.php?recordID=33 that declared there are 2.3 policepersons for every 1000 citizens. The police cannot get to know everyone on an individual basis.

    In the rest of the working world, that ratio is not nearly that high when comparing HR professionals to the employees or managers to employees. In this case scenario, yes there are times that HR makes decisions based on demographics. But I would like it to be the anomaly and not the norm.

  3. Krista, thanks so much for reading and responding.

    I agree that you often have to look at different demographics than just generations – which is precisely my argument as to why generations at least CAN be important. Any demographic is a tool that can be used or ignored as the circumstances warrant.

    I love your example about ethnic and national demographics, because I have experienced a similar issue. My previous company was largely unskilled hourly. While most of them were in the same age group, my workers were almost evenly split between urban black, suburban white, and Hispanic Mexican. There was occasional tensions between groups and individuals because of this, and I stressed awareness and understanding to help diffuse those tensions. I think generational differences are similar – sometimes they are helpful to understand and sometimes they are irrelevant.

  4. Paul, I am not sure I would say that demographic-based decisions should be an anomaly, because I think that frequency of usage might totally depend on the size and type of business. As in Krista’s example, I think demographics of all types may be useful depending on the circumstances. This is why I tried to emphasize that cultural generations should be used as a tool. Use it when it makes sense and is helpful; ignore it when there is a better way.

    Almost all tools in the tool chest can be used as weapons in a war chest if HR isn’t thoughtful and careful. I’m pretty sure you would agree with that. :-)

    Thanks for responding and for igniting the conversation!

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