Boiled Frogs and the Generation Gap

Folklore has it that you can boil a live frog in a pan of water whose temperature increases so gradually that the poor creature does not notice the change. It’s something I have referenced when talking about the passage of time in talks about generations in the workspace, the main point here being that we have actually been so obsessed with the idea of “Millennials” for so long that an entire generational shift has taken place without a lot of people even noticing.

When you point out to most people over the age of 40 that the 21st century is close to 20% done the immediate reaction is a shocked “Wow! Where did that time go?” but if you then get them to focus on 1999 and what the world was like and what they were doing (and what their cell phone looked like) it suddenly seems like a long, long time ago. In 1999 nobody “Googled” anything because Google was just another Internet search engine that most people had never heard of and, in fact, was reportedly up for sale for $1M – legend (and for that matter) has it that Google’s founders actually dropped the price to $750,000 but rival search engine Excite still decided to pass on the deal. Times really have changed.

There have always been multiple generations in the workplace of course but traditionally the younger cohorts have (for the most part) learned from the experience of their elders whilst building on/discarding a certain amount of received wisdom to forge new ideas and create progress. A sea-change was thought to be occurring around the turn of the Millennium because assuming we survived the much-hyped Y2K bug, future economic growth was believed to be intrinsically tied to digital technologies. The in situ year 2000 workforce was reckoned to be vastly inferior to those about to enter with regard to these key skills because the latter cohort had been immersed in them since childhood.

So began the millennial mythology with paper after paper devoted to these savant youngsters that were about to take over the workplace with their space-age skills and magazines bulged with articles about their attitudes to life, where they wanted to live, what they ate and how they approached relationships. Frankly, it felt for the most part like reading about another species or at worst something akin to the “Village of the Damned”. But the more your business plan depended on digital skills, the more millennials you needed and workspace designers fell over themselves to create what began to look alarmingly like child trapping devices along the lines of the cottage in the woods in Hansel and Gretel.

In the last couple of years, I have read a number of reports claiming to debunk some of the original “myths” about millennials claiming that actually, they are a lot more conservative than originally believed with more interest in things like career paths, job security, stability and privacy (Good heavens – they are like us after all!). This should come as no great surprise because, guess what? They are as much as 20 years older than the first time they were asked these questions and now a lot of them have families, mortgages and other responsibilities.

In other words, the generation that began to enter the workplace in 2000 has “grown up” and like the rest of us have probably caught themselves frustrated with those younger than themselves and uttered something like “bloody kids!” before recoiling in horror at how much they sound like their parents. If we want to know what the shape of workspace will look like in the next 20 years we need to be thinking about the generation after the millennials which demographers call “Generation Z” because they are already filling up our junior roles, graduate intakes, apprenticeships etc. Believe me, their attitudes and aspirations can be very different from those ascribed to Millennials at any point in their existence.

We have been slow to consider this partly because of the sheer power of the idea of “The Millennials” and the trap that some people fall into is to just consider everyone under about 35 as part of the same incomprehensible group that knows how to record TV programmes for us – even though they never actually watch a regular television themselves.

It’s worth noting though that up to now the focus on “Millennial” (or “Generation Y”) cohort has had its roots in devising ways to lure them into the workspace to do our bidding. Now of course they are the ones with their own companies that we may have to compete with or the ones in our own companies that are now moving in to the C-suite. It’s going to be interesting to see what they can do when they call the shots rather than having the older generation second guess their likes and dislikes.

Marc Prensky famously called the generation above the Millennials (Generation X) “Digital Immigrants” because they only became familiar with digital systems as adults unlike Generation Y who grew up with them and were “Digital Natives” We are beginning to see what digital natives can do with 20 years of experience behind them and there is a lot less tolerance of vague, long-running enterprise software projects that cost millions and a lot more of the “there should be an app for that” attitude.