Understanding the young generation

Photo by Helena Lopes
Photo by Helena Lopes

“Youth loves luxury these days. They have bad manners, despise authority, have no respect for the elder and chats instead of working.” Who hasn’t heard something like this or thought it? We work ourselves to the bone and the spoiled kids enjoy the cozy nest. We don’t understand them – but we need the next generation at work. As leaders, it is therefore essential to understand their drivers.

The desperate exclamation above comes from none other than Socrates. He had already been upset about the youth 400 before Christ. A similar lament was found in a Babylonian inscription dating back to 3,000 before Christ. It is a common pattern that runs through the entire history of mankind. And if we reflect about ourselves, then we also observe this pattern in our lives. As boys, we are annoyed by the lame old people who only administer what they have acquired and as older people, we complain about the lazy or rebellious youth.

So, these generation skirmishes follow a pattern. If we recognize it, we can break out of it and dive to the essence without prejudice. As we will see in chapter 4.9, characteristics such as ambition and intelligence are normally distributed in a sufficiently large population. These basic characteristics have not changed much over the centuries. Interesting, however, are the surrounding conditions that the generations found at their respective times.

After the World War II, Europe lay in ruins. People fought for bare survival and had to laboriously build a new existence. An intact house was the life goal and “the children should have a better life” the guiding theme during the hard times. The economic upswing then inspired the dreams. With diligence, you can achieve anything. News from the uncle, who had made it from dishwasher to millionaire in America, inspired the whole generation.

Our generation already grew up in relative prosperity. We no longer had to worry about our lives. The war was only part of our school lessons and we asked ourselves how things could get so wrong back in these days. America shaped us. Everything from there seemed full of life. New music provided the soundtrack of modernity. Movies and TV series taught us values like freedom and the fight for the good. We also learned that you can achieve everything with diligence and that growth is the motor for a better future. One of the guiding themes was “making the world a better place”.

However, this has become more difficult. It was no longer enough just to tackle it with hard work. The boom had already slowed down and further optimizations no longer resulted in the same gain as in the early years.

Now a generation is growing up for which this post-war picture crumbles bit by bit. America now serves neither economically nor morally as a role model anymore. Knowledge no longer has to be laboriously acquired through hard work, but is available any time at the push of a button. It is no longer a matter of obtaining information, but of filtering it out of the infinite abundance.

The freedom that our grandparents fought for risking their lives is now intimidating with all the possibilities available. Slowly the certainty arises that for the first time a generation grows up that will not take over the planet in a better condition than before.

All this should be borne in mind when thinking of today’s youth. It’s easy to make fun of it when university graduates ask for a work-life balance during a job interview. Reflexively we fall back into the Socratic lament. How can young people dare to ask about the values of our company or our contribution to sustainability? Why don’t they start to work hard first?

We would do well not to dismiss these questions, but to put them into context as leaders. In the end, it’s all about what our employees’ needs are and what purpose drives them. If we recognize this, we can learn a lot from our young colleagues and benefit from each other across generations.

What about you?

Have you ever scolded like Socrates?

Which question from a young colleague surprised you the most?

What did you learn from the young colleagues?

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