Wendy Waters
by Wendy Waters
Mon Sep 1st 2008 at 8:08am UTC

Technology and generational change

The only thing [McCain] is going to let [Palin] do in the White House is teach him how to use the Internet.”

- A comment on McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate

A generational shift in corporate leadership positions is one reason why workplace change is accelerating. The wartime generation (McCain’s cohort) along with the older Baby Boomers have generally retired or stepped away from the day-to-day management of large numbers of employees.

Meanwhile, younger Baby Boomers and older members of Generation X have taken over. They understand the Internet, a range of business software applications, the power of mobile computing, and the need to both collaborate and, at times, separate oneself from the office in order to think through issues clearly. Many have developed a love affair with Blackberries and similar devices that allow more mobility.

Today, I believe that there is much less of a generation gap in the workforce than 10 years ago, especially when it comes to technology, and despite what some other workplace writers say.

Here’s an example (supplied on the condition that the company not be publicly named): In a specific division, almost all employees were offered the chance to become mobile, and trusted to work when and where they needed. Or, they could retain the status quo – a private office or workstation depending upon their job. The majority chose mobility.

But what’s interesting is that 1/3 were Generation Y; 1/3 Generation X; and 1/3 Baby Boomers, and this is roughly the age breakdown of that company.

Those who resisted losing an office tended to be workers of any generation who had only recently been promoted to a position with a private office. Those who had their own office for a long time seemed to prefer the idea of working from home occasionally, flexible hours, and being able to sit “where the action was” within the company.

And technology is just one area where the workplace has changed. Management hierarchies have also tended to flatten and company leadership at middle levels is often more fluid, with people switching roles from time to time. Higher productivity in knowledge-based work typically requires employees to feel inspired – a difference from more service-oriented work in which hiring more people or insisting on longer hours would increase output.

Each workplaces is, of course, different. All of this may (or may not) be irrelevant at the White House.

Do you perceive a distinct generation gap where you work? Or is the gap along different lines?

3 Responses to “Technology and generational change”

  1. Elizabeth M Says:

    The gap I once experienced was along different lines…

    One of my former jobs was for a U.S. company with European roots. I must admit, I was naive enough to think that working for such a place would garner me some perks – after all, some of those Europeans take several-week vacations every year. Their quality of life of is considered quite important to their employers. Without question, some relaxation time and mental health days are of utmost importance. Surely this mentality would translate, right?

    Not in the States. The company I worked for would rather you come to work with the plague than actually miss a meeting (otherwise you would be doubted for faking an ailment). Is that what the American dream is? To work until your fingers bleed from typing? To be doubted so much that you feel guilty if you take a day off?

  2. Wendy Says:

    Thanks for the comment Elizabeth. I would expect that a European-owned company would only bring over European values if most of the management and human resource direction also came from Europe. Chances are in your case it was Americans who had gained their management philosophy from other American companies.

    Because of the labor surplus of the past 30+ years, American employers (and those in many countries) have often had the luxury of substituting a higher number of people for more productive people or a more productive environment. Working sick is presumably less productive. Being burned out is also less productive. So, you can either offer a healthier workplace, or hire more people.

    In Europe lower fertility rates have meant that the labor shortage in many industries hit sooner than in America, hence the need to ensure each employee can work more productively. Also, companies have to compete for the best and brightest.

  3. Little Shiva Says:

    I’m part of the nomadic workforce. Freelance image and design from a home-office or wherever I happen to be with an internet connection or a post office is something I’ve been doing for the majority of my working life, and I like it like that. I graduated from Parsons NYC in 1986, worked in Manhattan until 1999, then moved to Charlotte, NC. Had a job for a while in an office, but when they laid people off they gave me a computer and told me to freelance from home until they could find a way to bring me back, if I wanted to come back. Well, I really prefer working from home, so that’s how that evolved. I’m good at managing my own time, I have no commute or co-worker distractions, and can shut myself off and get in the zone at any time of the day or night that suits me. Now that I’ve moved to Belgium, my only challenge is networking and finding new clients over here, and navigating their employment laws. For example, I don’t think you can just hang out your shingle here like you can in the States, you have to declare yourself independent and pay into the system. Still researching the possibilities.