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Generational Values & the Work Ethic

by Peter Mark Adams


petermarkadams@gmail.com

People sometimes say that they can sense a significant difference between the older generation of business owners and managers and the younger generation of employees. Is there any basis to this? If we let go of our personal perspective and look at the larger social dimension, can we discern any significant trends that might answer the question? The older generation consists largely of those born between 1950 - 1980, the so-called generation x or Gen-X. The younger generation consists of those born between 1975 - 1990, the socalled generation y or Gen-Y. Are there significant differences between these two groups, especially in regard to their attitude towards career and work life? On the one hand, Gen-X typically espouses hard work, the competitive pursuit of power and position and sees personal financial success as the fulfilment of a worthwhile life. On the other hand, Gen-Y typically seeks to find a balance between material success and the quality time necessary to enjoy it. Quality time consists in developing and enjoying ones social network or engaging in meaningful social activity. From the perspective of the Gen-X, Gen-Y look as though they lack the commitment and single minded drive necessary for success. They also seem to be far too distracted by global social issues: the environment, sustainability and world poverty. From the perspective of the Gen-Y, Gen-X looks so lost in its work ethic that it has lost contact with many of the things that really matter and which make life worth living such as social networks and the exercise of social responsibility. These two viewpoints are obviously irreconcilable, nevertheless: they characterize an underlying conflict that is often felt in the modern workplace they are both founded on deeply held, but fundamentally different, value systems they have to live with each other!

Can we place this issue in some larger context, one that allows us to make sense of it and find a path towards mutual understanding and respect? In the 1950s Clare Graves, a developmental psychologist, undertook fundamental research into the evolution of human values. He found that our value systems appear to develop as an evolutionary response to major changes in our environment, society and culture. He also found that this process was still ongoing we continue to evolve as conditions change. From his research he identified two poles between which our value systems seem to oscillate: The Ethics of Community: values based on building and maintaining group harmony The Ethics of Autonomy or Individuality: values based on personal achievement Graves identified different levels of refinement within these ethical systems. He also realized that each system eventually creates the conditions that require it to be superseded by an alternative system of values that solves those problems. It is this process of the replacement of one value system by another that creates the feeling of a generational

difference that many people experience. The recent development of Graves ideas, called Spiral Dynamics, uses color coding to differentiate between the different values (see diagram). The Ethics of Individuality are represented by the hot colors red, orange, & yellow; and the Ethics of Community by the cooler colors purple, blue, & green. We can trace an evolutionary movement from the ruthless Exploitive Red values of the industrial revolution throughout the 19th century. The excesses of this period, its monopolistic practices, and the lack of labor and consumer protection, led people to recognize a need for more order and regulation. This gave rise to the more conservative Conformist Blue values of the first half of the 20th century. By the 1960s Conformist Blue was stifling the potential of the technologically driven globalized society. The need for more social dynamism required a return to more individualist values. This shift incorporated the evolutionary lessons of the earlier periods and so it occurred on a higher level giving rise to the Achievist Orange values (1960 2000) that are so characteristic of Gen-Y. These were the peak years of greed is good epitomised in the film Wall Street and in the continuing reality of Wall Streets bonus culture. Today, the implications of a culture of unchecked personal achievism and consumption are beginning to be seen as both environmentally unsustainable and unjust, since much of the worlds population lives in poverty. As a result we are seeing a shift back towards community values. Once again, this is taking place on a higher level of sophistication giving rise to the Egalitarian Green value system that is so characteristic of Gen-Y. These generational shifts in values appear to be at the root of the generational differences that people are seeing in the work place today. Understanding how these values have evolved in response to the unique challenges of changing times, how they each contribute something important to the continuing story of humankind, is to take the first steps towards a more integral understanding of reality. We need to re-structure business practices in ways that fulfil the aspirations of as many stakeholders as possible.