It seems that each week a new article tries to unravel the seemingly mysterious differences between baby boomers and their Gen X and Gen Y employees and clients. After interviewing some younger advisors for my newsletter, I'm beginning to think that the distinctions may be very different from what we've assumed.
Let's start with the broad-brush comments we hear from boomers: Gen X and Y employees are unwilling to pay their dues. They're allergic to working long hours and just aren't as loyal as members of their parents' generation. The younger generation has an inferior work ethic and a lot of commitment issues.
Is any - or all - of that true? When I hosted a recent panel on the topic, I pointed out that our parents' generation thought the baby boomers represented the end of civilization. To them, we were long-haired bums with no morals or sense of responsibility.
To get a better perspective, I recently asked my mother if her parents' cohorts ever expressed scorn or dissatisfaction about her generation. She told me the survivors of the Depression thought her peers - the so-called Greatest Generation - were much too soft to have survived the economic collapse that began in 1929.
REPEATING A CYCLE
Each generation complains that the newer one just doesn't measure up - until it does. Unlike the older folks of any preceding generation, younger people tend to be more comfortable with change, more attuned to new innovations and labor-saving devices.
Today's young workers, for instance, are more impatient with the idea that productivity should be measured by the hours spent at the desk versus actual work accomplished. Older people of any generation prize stability and commitment, and think that the way they did something is the only way it will get done.
A participant on the panel I was on mentioned that virtually all boomer advisors started by signing their (often non-wealthy) peers as clients; they grew their AUM as their clients' net worth grew, and eventually their minimums rose to $1 million or more. Now these same boomers are barring their 26-year-old advisors from marketing to their own peers - who, like their predecessors, are rarely wealthy at that age - and instead expecting them to bring in wealthier clients who meet the minimums.
I suspect every younger generation and its older counterpart has experienced much of this friction - which means that Gen X and Gen Y issues are not actually generational at all. These are timeless, older-versus-younger interpersonal dynamics, channeling older-generation vexation about the rebellious next one.
I can envision father and son squatting at the edge of a cave in 18,000 B.C., scanning the savannah for aurochs, having this conversation:
Father: Pull your hyena skins up higher on your waist. You look like a Neanderthal.
Son: I like them this way. How does the way I wear them hurt you?
Father: A hunter should look like a hunter, not like some kind of crude scavenger. As long as you're living in my cave ...
Son: And why do we have to live in a cave, anyway? I have an idea about building a shelter down there closer to the water so we wouldn't have to spend three hours every day hauling ...
Father: Building a shelter? What in the name of the Earth Mother are you talking about?
Son: Out of all these logs lying around. We could fill in the cracks with mud and stretch animal hides across the ...
Father: You know what's wrong with you? You spend way too much time thinking up all these crazy impractical ideas that would never work. Remember when you wouldn't stop talking about that "wheel" idea?
Son: I still think it has potential. If you were more open ...
Father: When you get to my age, you'll see the wisdom of keeping things the way they are.
Son: I'm almost 14, and you keep talking to me like I'm still a child. Just because you're 28 and near the end of your life span doesn't mean you have all the answers.
Father: Shut up and hunt already.
I'd guess that at least 85% of all these generation articles and analyses are really barking up this same age-old tree. What about the other 15%? What else should we consider as we talk to, hire and prospect for new clients across the generational divide?
At the TD Ameritrade Conference in San Diego earlier this year, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell - author of Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point - drew a convincing distinction between people whose thought processes are organized around hierarchy (think military chain of command), and those who think in a network (think Facebook). Computers, mobile devices, texting, Facebook and Skype represent influences that were simply not present in the baby boomers' formative years - just as the boomers grew up with TV, which didn't exist in their parents' youth.
To illustrate how these web-based resources might have influenced the younger generation, Gladwell drew a distinction between the civil rights movement (hierarchical, with clearly defined goals, a leader and roles for everybody to play) and the Occupy Wall Street movement (no leaders or clearly defined objectives). His point was that Generation X andY citizens have subtly different ways of perceiving the world's organizational structure; their social activism, he said, reflects those differences.
Is one way any better or worse? Wikipedia is a classic example of networking at its best. It's constantly updated, fantastically comprehensive - and free. Compare Wikipedia to a printed encyclopedia that is finite, expensive and revised every 10 years, and you can grasp the advantages of the network.
Here's another example from my own life. When I was in elementary school, I moved often because my father's company transferred him. With each move I lost friends from my life forever. I have no idea what happened to them.
My children, by contrast, have managed to stay in contact with the friends they've moved away from through social media, texting and Skype. This would seem to be a transformative change in the way they see the world compared with the way I do.
I suspect that these fairly subtle generational differences are elongating over time, as new technology evolves ever more quickly. There may be more differences between us boomers and our parents than there were between any previous generations, and there may be still more between us boomers and the people of Generations X and Y.
It's not hard to imagine that in 100 years the world might even face some actual communication problems between older generation Z-Prime and the flighty younger generations Gemini and Tau-Derivative. Imagine parents who grew up without network chips implanted in their heads, who still walk around in old-fashioned organic bodies, shaking their heads in dismay at their cyborg, genetically engineered children who take unscheduled vacations in virtual reality.
But back to today's workplace: Does any of this really matter? Maybe not. The differences may simply pit younger perspectives against older ones, which no age group has been able to bridge.
If I could boil all those articles down to a cogent sentence, it would go something like this: Generation X and Y employees will turn out just fine and eventually become the leaders of a better profession, so learn from them what you can about technology and the network, teach them what you can about the profession, don't expect their professional trajectory to resemble your own - and expect that in a decade or two you will hear them complain bitterly about the mysterious dysfunctional characteristics of Generation Z.
Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist, publishes the Inside Information newsletter and website at bobveres.com. Post comments at financial-planning.com/forums. Send feedback and inquire about the 2013 Insider's Forum to bob@bobverescom.