Generational differences

Grumbling over younger workers: A time-honored tradition

January 25, 2013: 9:24 AM ET

A look at a Fortune feature from 1971 shows that there's not much of a point in trying to classify generations.130124101742-1971-junior-management-gallery-horizontal

By Laura Vanderkam

FORTUNE -- A new generation has hit the workforce. They are "impatient at being kept in the wings. They want to get out there on center stage. They want to be heard."

They tell stuck-in-the-mud employers that they want "fulfillment from their work" and "they come with high hopes acquired at college for improvement of the environment and of society, and they insist that their companies work actively toward such goals."

They have "a high degree of self-confidence" and they want personal projects -- volunteer work, etc. -- to "count as a plus rather than a minus on their employment record."

Just another trend piece on Millennials in the workforce? Nope, an article by Judson Gooding from the March 1971 issue of Fortune.

Entitled "The Accelerated Generation Moves Into Management," Gooding's article looked at a class of people who used to be called "junior executives" -- those out of college, on the management track, but generally in their 20s. More or less today's oldest Baby Boomers, this generation was aggressive, idealistic, and other adjectives that modern writers now use to describe Generation Y (people in their 20s and early 30s).

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Fortune marveled at this cohort in ways that raise questions about whether Baby Boomers and Gen Y are exactly the same, or, more likely, that there's not much of a point in trying to classify generations. Older people have always thought young people are crazy, and vice versa.

Certainly, as Gen Y has entered the workforce, business publications have treated managers to a host of articles on these entitled young people and how to deal with them. An August 2012 Washington Post item on Millennials noted, "when they want something, they're not afraid to say so." What they desire is "engaging, meaningful, flexible work that doesn't take over their lives." They "expect to be listened to when they have an idea, even when they're the youngest person in the room."

So, apparently, did members of the "Accelerated Generation." Gooding's article recounted all sorts of quirks about the 1971 crop of junior executives that could have been ripped straight out of today's management literature.

They wanted to be promoted fast.

"A fundamental requirement set by the junior managers is early, if not immediate, responsibility," wrote Gooding. "The demand for early responsibility implicitly carries with it a desire for rapid promotion, not so much for the money promotion brings but for the chance to have authority and a real voice in company decisions." As a corollary, the Accelerated Generation didn't want to pay their dues. Gooding quoted a 24-year-old advertising man saying, "I don't mind coming early or staying late ... but I won't stay late just to write status reports no one reads. I don't like the unnecessary paper work they cause. And I'm not afraid to tell my supervisor I don't have time to do something."

Indeed, the young people of 1971 weren't going to respect their elders just because they were elders. Gooding wrote that junior executives "can be aggravating, even infuriating, to their supervisors, because they tend to be sanctimonious, with an air of knowing all the ultimate, unknowable truths denied to older generations."

Similarly, a 2009 Harvard Business Review case study from Tamara J. Erickson on "Gen Y in the Workforce" examined this tension: "Josh Lewis, a young staffer at Rising Entertainment, is frustrated because his boss, marketing chief Sarah Bennett, won't listen to his ideas about using new media to promote films.... Rushing through his assignment for a team presentation, he works up a plan and pitches it to the CEO in the hallway. The CEO loves it, but Sarah is upset with Josh for going over her head."

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One early trend piece on Gen Y in the workforce, written by Stephanie Armour in USA Today in 2005, profiled Matt Berkley, 24, a writer at St. Louis Small Business Monthly. Berkley told Armour that many members of his generation had traveled and had enriching experiences, so they clashed with older generations they saw as not as skilled. "We're surprised we have to work for our money. We want the corner office right away," Berkley told Armour.

They want to change the world on company time.

Members of the Accelerated Generation had grand plans to reform business. Gooding wrote of a Maxwell House management conference where a section in the resulting report "dealt with what the junior managers perceived as deficiencies in the company's effort to reduce pollution, improve urban conditions, and enrich the lives of its employees." Companies that employed 1971's young executives found that "almost everything has to be explained and defended, including that most basic of business principles, the profit motive."

If people weren't satisfied, they'd leave. Fortune quoted one corporate dropout who said that, "I don't want a job figuring out new ways of marketing paper plates. This society produces too much, and we ought to stop. This isn't where our priorities ought to be."

Decades later, young people are still at it. Armour's USA Today piece claimed that young people "believe in their own self worth and value enough that they're not shy about trying to change the companies they work for." Companies wanting to attract Gen Y are told to highlight their corporate social responsibility initiatives and perks like giving time off for volunteering.

They wanted to wear whatever they wanted.

Another 1971 corporate dropout told Fortune that at his new start-up "We have no hours, we don't care as long as they get it done. I shave once a week. I wear an undershirt to work. It doesn't matter."

In 2005, Armour quoted a similarly casual Angie Ping, 23, of Alvin, Texas, who "lives in flip-flops" but couldn't wear them to the office. "Some companies' policies relating to appropriate office attire seem completely outdated to me," Ping told Armour. "The new trend for work attire this season is menswear-inspired capri pants, which look as dressy as pants when paired with heels, but capri pants are not allowed at my organization." The implication for managers is to change your dress code, or young people like Ping will be out the door -- just as the undershirt-wearing young man was in 1971.

Given how similarly young Baby Boomers and Gen Y have been described, why are managers being instructed again on how to deal with young people?

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It's possible that Baby Boomers and Gen Y'ers are very similar and the generations that came before and between them are more buttoned down. But the more likely explanation is that young people often think they are different than their elders, and older people tend to think young people are entitled and naive. This was true in 1971, and it's true in 2013.

We approach life in one way when we are young, and then remember things differently when we are older. We remember the dues we paid that got us to someplace desirable and conveniently forget the dues paying that led nowhere.

At a certain point, workers realize that no one needs to see their legs in menswear-inspired capris, and don't want to risk older colleagues showing up in undershirts either. They no longer look at business and "naively expect more of it than it can possibly deliver," as Gooding wrote. They've been there and done that.

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