Considerations on Generations

When I first started my job at SFU Career Services, I believe I was the only “gen Y” member of the team (excluding our rotating cast of co-op students and AISEC interns). It’s not something I noticed right away. After all, I knew the team and my boss already, I admired them as people and we worked together well—all of which were big factors in my applying to the job in the first place. I wasn’t really hoping for coworkers my age because, in theory, that would stem from a desire to like the people I work with, which was already satisfied.

I suppose another reason I didn’t pay much attention to my status as the lone “millennial” staffer is that I’ve been the youngest person in many situations in my life; entering a professional career path (especially one that many people move into mid-career, such as counselling) right out of university makes that a safe bet. Pretty quickly, I got used to people being surprised when I would reveal my age, as they’d expect someone in my position to be older.

I had a conversation with someone the other day who had just started a new job after leaving one that wasn’t working out so well. It was a really positive change for him in many ways. Interestingly, he moved from a position where he was among the eldest of his coworkers to a new environment in which he seems to be the youngest (in the same field). He told me that it was refreshing to work with members of an older generation who may have different perspectives than the ones he’s used to hearing, and that although he’s not likely to start hanging out with them socially as he may have with his previous coworkers, he’s enjoying the higher level of maturity and professionalism in the new work environment.

As university students or recent graduates, it’s inevitable that we’ll work alongside members of older generations, and eventually younger ones as well. Much has been made of the generational differences that are notable about generation Y, but of course these are generalizations aimed at describing large groups of people—not necessarily you and the situation you happen to be in. There are lots of unique things about you, lots of strengths, that may or may not have something to do with your age.

For instance, my familiarity with things like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn led to my being given informal “resident social media expert” status in my office. As a result, I’ve been given the responsibility of handling some of the social media for the centre and facilitating our social networking workshops. It’s probably fair to say that my age is a pretty big contributing factor to my comfort level with social media. That said, I know lots of people my age who want nothing to do with sites like those, so the generalization that millennials are social media and technology savvy doesn’t always apply.

Perhaps you can bring a different perspective to a team comprised mainly of older workers. During an internship, I was told that because I was younger, I was able to provide feedback that was different from other team members. Regardless of whether that perspective actually leads to anything constructive, most employers like to be able to look at situations from lots of different angles. Certainly, you’re going to be in situations where perspectives that are different from your own are offered or even required to be taken in order to get something done, so adaptability on everyone’s part is a big help.

Ask yourself what you’re looking for in a work environment. Getting along with coworkers is a given, but is it important that you regularly hang out with your colleagues outside the workplace? Is it important for you to have a role model, a mentor? How much value do you place on a sense of belonging at work, and what does that mean to you? Maybe you don’t know what you’re looking for—after all, isn’t that the point in trying out different things? Regardless, it’s important to reflect on these things from time to time, in order to get a sense of when a position is a good fit for you. The age of your colleagues is only one small part of what makes up the work environment, but it can be a very important part.

But first, a note of caution. There are a lot of labels being applied to generation Y: entitled, disloyal, lazy, selfish, idealistic, the list goes on. They’re not necessarily fair, and they mostly stem from misunderstandings. We don’t like presuppositions when they apply to us, so let’s not apply them to older generations either.

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