13 December 2013

Generational warfare: debating the symptoms of the problem, rather than the cause

The generational argument is a tenuous one. The formulaic, cyclical rhetoric seems unavoidable: older generations churn out, almost verbatim, the same critiques that were used against them in previous years by their elders and betters. People vehemently defend their emotionally charged stand-points; and as everyone has an inescapably personal stake in the discourse, everyone’s proverbial two-cents on the matter must be heard.

A similar bone of contention, albeit with a novel dash of fervour, seems to be taking form in populist media, public opinion, and even academic research in the latest generational stand-off. That between the so-dubbed Baby-Boomers, and Generation-Y. Inflammatory and controversial articles such as Joel Stein’s piece in Time Magazine, that attributed adjectives like “Lazy”, “Coddled”, and “Delusional” to younger generations sparked fierce debate. Unsurprisingly, particularly resourceful, and responsive members of the accused generation responded with equal disdain and exceeding irony, in a medium that speaks to their alleged flaws of being banal and vacuous: with internet memes.

Media theatrics and sensationalist journalism notwithstanding, there is some so-called tangible evidence to suggest that Generation Y does in fact adhere to their accused stereotypes. Huge consultancy firms produce expansive and empirically motivated reports charting the economic behaviour and emotional disposition of members of Generation Y, and generate statistics that claim to prove the professionally fickle, and self-entitled nature of the youth.

To borrow a proverb: Lies, damned lies, and statistics! The generational concept seems to be slippery, and at times dangerously misused; without thought or consideration to social or historical factors that may shape the traits of a generational cohort. The arguments are formed with little mention of gender, ethnicity, religion or race. Indeed, statistics that may oppose those aforementioned indicate that the new generation of workers has probably developed such dispositions and economic tendencies in response to increasing economic hardship and job insecurity. All of a sudden, the allegedly flighty nature of Generation Y seems somewhat more justified.

More importantly though, embedded deep within the current generational debate, and the under-handed snipes at younger generations, is a loaded message – and one that has knock-on effects that may not be widely appreciated. The message seems to be that; younger generations should gladly take any work that comes their way, no matter how insecure, given their flighty and non-committal attitudes.  The message is ubiquitous and pervasive, albeit carefully concealed – for the most part. This attitude is epitomised in a controversial article that was published in the Globe and Mail, by Gen-Y consultant Dan Schawbel, titled: “If Millennials want to lead, they need to stop jumping ship”. In such claims, the onus of responsibility is taken off systemic concerns, and placed on to the people facing them. In plain terms; nothing is “wrong with the system”, rather, it is the younger generations that are at fault.  I believe that this message, and the generational feud itself, could have implications of a somewhat dangerous nature.

Could it be that when bickering over the superficial differences between generations, with little social or historical consideration as to why these differences exist, our focus is distracted from the deeper, more structural issues at play?

Consider this: the empirical evidence of steadily increasing income inequality, wage stagnation and job polarisation in numerous countries, developed and developing. Within the context of the polarisation of the labour-market, and the increase in low-wage careers, a drive towards forced wage concessions and various other forms of wage cutting; including outsourcing, downsizing and subcontracting. This, along with the disempowerment of the worker in the progressive de-unionisation of workforces worldwide, increased job insecurity, and economic hardship makes for some worrying results. Indeed, the unemployment rate for Generation Y, on an aggregate scale, is double the general rate. Due to these factors, forces of globalisation and financial inter-connectedness, younger workers now face a fiercely competitive, hugely dynamic, highly de-regulated, and fast-paced work force.

One thing is sure. The generational war is like any other: it will claim casualties.

In engaging in the debate regarding the professional ‘shortcomings’ of younger generations, without possessing sensibilities as to the reasons for why such qualities may have formed, we are closing our eyes to the significant structural challenges that our current economies face. And in doing so, we are in turn closing our eyes to those who are most affected by the increasing income inequities, wage stagnation, and job insecurity. We are forgetting the most forgotten; those in the margins of these economies, those who are the most vulnerable, the most under-represented, and the most disenfranchised.  Granted, it is a lot easier to pass the figurative buck, and to debate the symptoms of a problem, rather than the cause. But perhaps instead of engaging in largely unconstructive and superficial rhetoric, along with games in generational one-upmanship, more attention should be focused on systemic issues that engender generational differences, and most importantly; on those most negatively affected by them. 

Sophie Ritchie: Current student at the University of Sydney Business School.

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