Adaptation or Acquiescence?


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal has given me pause. And has created a great deal of vacillation between feeling excited and indignant. The title of the article and some of the language in it seems ironic and in some ways myopic. You can read the full article, “More Firms Bow to Gen Y’s Demands” and judge for yourself how you feel about it. Or you can read on and see why I take issue, then read it and see if you agree or disagree.

Here is my problem with the title. “Bowing” to someone’s “demands” seems rather negative to me. Implying a great deal of unwillingness, forced concession, and win-lose mentality. What ever happened to “adaptation” or “change” or…heaven forbid we assume…”progress”? Isn’t progress, change, and adaptation a result of analyzing market conditions and responding accordingly? Maybe I am naive, but this just sounds like the market (in this case, the talent market) redefining what it is looking for in a product (a work environment.) If you are producing X and the market wants Y, are you “bowing” to “demands” or simply making a smart business adaptation as a result of changing market conditions? Other words within the article that I infer as having negative connotations are: “jumping through hoops”, “accommodate”, “please”, “cry foul”, and “gripe”  to define the actions of companies and older employees. Why does this change have to be cast in a negative light?

Now, full disclosure, I consider myself a Gen Xer (born between 1965 and 1980) not GenY (born between 1980 and 1995.) And while I am not in the cohort that seems to be under attack in this article, I struggle with the irony of how it describes Millenials. Words like: “spoiled”, “impatient”, and “entitled” show up multiple times. And the treatment seems to only go one way. When words to define Baby Boomers come up: “work ethic”, “respectfulness”, and “morals” show up. Where I see the irony is the general tone of this email makes Baby Boomers sound equally “spoiled” and “entitled” to me. Just because you have spent time doing something doesn’t automatically “entitle” you a better salary or flexibility if your performance is no better than anyone else. Age and tenure do not automatically equal expertise and in the light of this article it may in fact be creating a sense of entitlement and unwillingness to change.

A colleague of mine once said the focus on results and workplace flexibility is a generational thing. Well, sure. Every societal shift in history has been a result of generational shifts. So perhaps this whole focus on performance and results thing is a fad, but right now it seems to fit the values of the current workforce and the business environment. And really, paradigms aside, what is the business case for 8-5, sit at your desk, policies when article upon article and study upon study have shown that it is in fact, counterproductive?

I’m a strong believer that the external economic and business environment is different from what it was in 1940, but we are still using a 1940s model of management. Which is not really surprising considering the model of management that has existed for well over 50 years centers around managers increasing their levels of control and power as they ascend. Despite the research and evolution of Theory Y, the allure and seduction of control and power keep most management firmly planted in Theory X. Getting those who have attained power to give it up is a monumental task. What you end up with is management systems (LEAN, Six Sigma, etc.) which are lauded as “innovative” but are really just iterations of the control paradigm that serve to confirm the Theory X beliefs of leadership.

But in today’s environment where many have said business is moving at the speed of change, adaptability is paramount. Which is why this article on the WSJ is all the more troubling. It highlights how the traditional model of management creates a paradigm where experience is seen as the ONLY valued initiator of change. After all, how could these “impatient”, “entitled”, and “spoiled” youngsters ever be smart enough to create a meaningful change? I mean, really, that’s as likely as 20-somethings starting a movement and organize the overthrow of a government (see Tunisian Revolution, Egyptian Revolution, Libyan Revolution, and currently Syria – all lead by youth groups requesting societal change)

It is time for Theory Y to stop just being a theory. People want to do good work, they want to be productive, and they want guidance. Sure, Gen Y might have a different way they want to be productive or receive guidance; but isn’t that was change and adaptability is all about, doing something different?

So, to the stodgy  established, and cynical resistors of change – just because it was not your idea, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. And just because you’ve been there longer shouldn’t “entitle” you to anything.

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