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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