Friday, 20 July 2012

Understanding and managing Gen Y, relatively speaking that is

In many years, I haven’t been as taken in by a book, as I have been by Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. It is an amazingly honest account, unedited by Steve Jobs or any other affected or interested party. Its content is immensely educating, with the story of the man and the story of the computer industry woven together. Predictably, even before I had finished reading the book, I had decided to read Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein. At the moment I’m halfway through it. Again, it’s the story of the man woven with the story of the Physics of the times.
There are several common threads in the lives of these two men. Both had biological origins in communities that were not mainstream. Both had fathers with technician-craftsmen abilities. Both had their first un-fleeting alliances with women who were intellectual-spiritual, and later married other pragmatic women. Both were callous with people closest to them. Both were comfortable appearing shabby. Both had disregard for authority and were ironically propelled into becoming authorities themselves. Both got immensely successful by their thirties. Both were agnostics not atheists. Both lived more austere lives than they need have. Etc.
If we set aside these trivia, there were other common threads. Einstein wasn’t convinced that fundamental scientific truths emerged from experimental data; Jobs wasn’t convinced that ideas for truly great products emerged from customer and market research data. Einstein was influenced by the intersection of science and philosophy; Jobs was, by that between science and humanities. Einstein believed that nature loves simplicity, balance and unity; Jobs did the same.  
What I also gather, is that both Einstein and Jobs, and Einstein more than Jobs, imagined of a fundamental immutable law, or laws, which govern all that goes on in the physical and in the not-physical universe. Many other people, in different eras, have imagined of the same or similar stuff. That’s how there’s a line of thinking that links the body with the soul, there’s another line of thinking that uses biological evolution to explain social evolution, etc.
Alternating between reading Einstein’s biography and educating myself with material pertaining to Gen Y, as I have been doing over the past few weeks, I have felt that some references or idioms from the theory of the expansion of the physical universe could be used to talk about the progression of our social world and its generations of people. A bit about the theory first.
The physical universe is increasingly expanding. Each of its dots is increasingly moving away from every other. This expansion happens, in order to, and only in so far as, to counter the pulls that the dots naturally exert on one another. The further they get from one another, the stronger they pull at each other, and the even further apart they move. And so on. To prevent the dots from collapsing into one another till one last dot remains which keeps collapsing into itself.
Increasingly, space expands, and simultaneously, for balance and unity, so does time. If one expands, and simultaneously so does the other, then it must follow that if one contracts, simultaneously so would the other.
Perhaps that’s what happens in the social world. That it contracts, as the physical universe expands. The increasing mobility, the increasing access to information, and the increasing avenues of communication (one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many), serve to increasingly contract the space and time that is experienced. The dots across space and across time come closer. So, Gen Y, and the people of other generations, like Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, who share the world with them, can see and hear more of what is seen, heard, said, thought and done anywhere around. They can also see and hear more of what has been seen, heard, said, thought and done anywhere around in the past. Since they see and hear more, all of them can say, think and do more today than anyone could have in the past.
So Gen Y can today see, hear, say, think and do as much as Gen X and the Baby Boomers can today. And all of them can today see, hear, say, think and do more than Gen X and the Baby Boomers could in the past.
With whatever they choose to.
This view is consistent with our picture of the contracting world and also avoids driving a wedge between generations. With this view we can avoid feeling half convinced and half unconvinced when people say things like, ‘Gen Y is smarter than Gen X’, ‘Gen Y is more distracted and superficial than Gen X’, etc. Rather, Gen Y is as smart, distracted, or superficial as Gen X is today. And both are more of them today than Gen X was back in time.

This view also embraces several things, even contradictory ones, that Gen Y, or any other generation, is described to be. And explains similarities and differences between individuals and between groups within and across generations. People see and hear what they see and hear; by similarities and differences in choice, chance, influence, capacity, and focus. Hence, I'm aware that we could typify Gen Y or Gen X or Baby Boomers. But I want to go one level down and dwell on the underlying continuum in the progression of the social world. To better understand and manage Gen Y, among other things.
That resolved, let’s examine what the dots moving closer do. Closer dots mean more information, experience and learning. More choices of what to see, hear, say, think and do. More security. More chances of finding and connecting with your tribe. More support and confidence. More tolerance and diversity. More adaptability and flexibility.
Closer dots also mean more distractions, more lack of conviction in beliefs and paths, and more inconsistencies in actions. More insecurity of having made the wrong choice or missed the best opportunity. More conflict between different tribes. More lack of moorings and anchors because of living different ideologies and identities. More and more, things that seem right also seem wrong. More and more the supremacy of one right is challenged by the supremacy of another right.

Moving on. A large part of the current world comprises of Gen Y. So this is all true for them. When we Gen Xers and Baby Boomers try, for example, to figure out how to manage the Gen Y workforce or to attract the Gen Y customers, we have the same advantages and handicaps that we seek to address. First, we must accept that, if we are to make an honest effort. Second, we must be happy, that if we do a better job of how to manage and attract today’s Gen X and Baby Boomer employee and customer, we would, in effect, have done a better job of it for Gen Y.
And third, the dots will keep moving closer; so we can’t just wish away the intensifying threats. Maybe, an age old suggestion might help. Capitalise on the opportunities and blunt the threats.

To say, think and do things that capitalise on the opportunities is good. Like doing away with policies that prevent multiple employment. To say, think and do things that blunt the threats is also good. Like establishing processes that encourage work-life integration around a few chosen or focussed areas of endeavour. But to say, think and do things that simultaneously do both is better. Suggestions, anyone ?