Generation Blend by Rob Salkowitz

Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap, by Rob Salkowitz is a book that might have saved me a lot of trouble. I have been managing a social media evangelism effort at Xerox for the past year, and learned many of the lessons in this book the hard way. But then, a year ago, this book probably could not have been written; 2007 was, in many ways, the year these lessons became very clear. The book tries to do three things: describe generational differences in attitudes and approaches towards work and careers, explain them, and examine one aspect of how to manage them: social computing technology. The results, respectively, are very competent, exceeds expectations and competent. Or B+, A+ and B- if you prefer letter grades. But the one A+ is well worth the cost of the book, and it is relatively straightforward to manage around the weaknesses on the other two fronts. It would have been a brilliant book if it had just focused on the explain bit.

Generation Blend is part of the growing crowd of books examining generational aspects of present-day demographics. The genre includes books like The Coming Generational Storm and The Empty Cradle. It deals with two distinct issues (often conflated): the short-term problems caused by the historically unusual population distribution created by the Baby Boom, and the long-term problems that loom due to falling birthrates around the globe. The two demographic phenomena do interact in many ways (particularly important are the ways they exacerbate certain shocks and tipping points), but are, in general, separable. Generation Blend focuses on the short-term Boom-related problems.

The problem is this: for a transitional period in the next decade or so, you’ll have four generations in the workplace — the Silents (b. 1925-1945 — just following the WWII Veteran generation), the Boomers (1946-62), Generation X (1963-1980) and Millenials (1980-2000). The boundaries aren’t arbitrary, since they arise from important cultural bookends, except for 1980, which is rather arbitrary (1925 and 1945 obviously relate to WWII, and 1963 marks the advent of the pill in America). But cultural features aren’t the reason this mix of generations is worth special attention. The “special-attention” factor is of course the well-known fact that the Baby Boom is a statistical anomaly. In the US, there are about 78 million Boomers, about 51 million Gen X’ers and 80 million Millenials (or Gen Y’ers, Gen Next’ers, Baby Boomlet’ers). Here is the famous graphic, from the US Census Bureau, if you haven’t seen it before (in which case, what rock were you hiding under?):

Baby Boom

That slim-waisted distribution turns what might have been gentle evolutionary transformations into serious shocks. Zooming in on just the workplace, to understand and mitigate the potential shocks, you need to simultaneously factor in the qualitative attitudes and values the generations carry around with them and the quantitative population dynamics that makes them a problem. In society at large of course, you have all those problems of Social Security going bankrupt and the like, which we won’t worry about here.

Most books in the genre stick to just the anomalous-numbers aspect. Unfortunately, it does take some rather dull (and hard) staring at tables/graphs to understand the dynamics of the pure numbers (I first did it a few years ago, so I paid my dues). The raw numbers have been dissected ad nauseum, and there is really no way to write about them in an interesting way in yet another book, which is why that part of the book gets a ‘competent’ B+ grade.

Where this book shines is in the next step. While there are tons of mind-numbingly dull survey reports that report on the associated qualitative data (of the “Gen X distrusts authority,” “Millenials are collaborative” variety), there is surprisingly little out there that attempts to explain where these attitudes come from. Why is this important? Because self-reported qualitative data are notoriously unreliable. People tend to parrot cliches and stereotypes about themselves, adopt media-declared labels, and mould their self-perceptions in the images of their icons (consider a movie like the Boomer-nostalgia piece, Across the Universe: even the trailer made me retch, but I am told the Boomers lapped it up). So self-reported data is only trustworthy to the extent that it can be validated by independent a priori analysis of the causal cultural factors. Even behavioral data, where available, is not enough (`never believe experimental results until they’ve been validated by a good model,’ as the contrarian saying goes).

This a priori analysis is what the book does best. It presents, for the first time as far as I can tell, comprehensive and objective (though somewhat unsystematic) analyses of why each generation is the way it claims to be (to the extent that it is that way), and how those attitudes translate to work behaviors. From the skepticism of Gen X and the collaborative ethos of the Millenials, to the overblown rhetoric of the Boomers and the establishmentarianism of the Silents, all the characteristic traits (some less well-known than the others) get at least a first-pass explanation. Unlike say, Wikinomics, the book does not take each generation at its own cliched and tired estimation.

So what do you do with these four groups of ideological strangers in the same workplace? That’s probably the weakest part of the book. Starting with an early assertion that technology is the locus of the action (since `knowledge capture from retiring Boomers’ is by consensus a key aspect of the `shock’ problem), the book introduces a thread of social-media-as-solution that runs through the book. Salkowitz seems to believe that the IT infrastructure of the workplace is in some sense the main piece of the solution. Not very surprising, given that the book was endorsed by Microsoft (though it is published by Wiley, and Salkowitz is not a Microsoft employee, the series editor is Dan Rasmus, Microsoft’s Future Workplace czar). It is a somewhat believable thesis: IT is definitely among the top 4-5 actuators in managing Generation Blend in the workplace (and in retirement), but probably not the top actuator.

I’ll end with one interesting tidbit from Page 93 that should give us skeptical Gen X’ers, next in line for power, some hope for the future: “[The Millenials] generational personality is that of civic institution builders — a profile last seen among the Veterans of World War II.”

Endnote: The Generation Blend in India

Much of this genre applies to the developed world (which also happened to be the part of the world most directly involved in WW II). The characteristic demographic shape of the ‘Boom’ is not, as far as I know, a feature of the Indian population (though the longer-term declining-birthrates phenomenon does extend to India). Still, even without the statistical signature, it is fun to extrapolate the book’s cultural boundaries to India, primarily so I can place myself on this demographic map.

Certainly, the WW II Veterans generation maps pretty closely to the Freedom Fighter generation in India, since Indian independence roughly coincided with the end of WW II (1947). The `Silent Generation’ equivalent in India — my parents belong to that — would be people who were too young to participate in the freedom struggle, but grew up along with India and Fabian, central-planning, Soviet-leaning Nehru. I doubt they are anything like the Silent Generation of the US. The equivalent of the Baby Boomers though, probably had some similarities with their Western peers, since Bollywood in the 50s and 60s projects many of the same values (though the decades were not quite as anti-establishment in India).

The Indian Gen X is interesting, since the ugly years from Indira Gandhi through Rajiv Gandhi created the same sort of cynicism-fostering conditions as in the West. There is a reason the archetypal angry young man, Amitabh Bacchan, has been the cultural icon of my generation. The economic liberalization that started in the early 90s with Narasimha Rao is probably what defines the work-personality of the younger half of the Indian Gen X, to which I belong.

I suppose that is why I have no problem describing myself as Gen X without any Indian qualifications — the signature independent/cynical personality carries over to India.

Finally, the Indian Millenials — I have to admit I am not very familiar with them. Economic growth has been the defining feature of their coming-of-age, thanks to outsourcing (I left India in 1997, just before it started becoming a place worth staying around in). Any insights?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. One aspect of the generational split that doesn’t often get much attention is that “boomers” are not really one group. Those, like me, who were born in the last few years of the baby boom have almost nothing in common with the ones born at the beginning. We were too young to go to Woodstock or Vietnam, hated the hippies, and are far more comfortable with computers than the majority of the older ones will ever be.

    I’ve seen plenty of older boomers who still treat computer technology the way my 82 year old father does: As some kind of new-fangled toy that’s nice for the kids to play with but has nothing whatever to do with real life.

    Those people will see efforts to use technology to “capture” their knowledge as being annoying and pointless.

    The technology gap is bigger than some of us, who work with the newer technologies every day, realize. Trust me on this …

  2. Good point. Salkowitz addresses this in the book, by segmenting into younger/older members of each gen. He talks about 2nd half boomers as ‘arriving late to a party in its weird, 2nd half stage’ and points out a number of consequences, including the greater comfort with computers. In fact the 2nd half of the boomers invented personal computing. The first half of Gen X took personal computing from ‘baby’ to ‘mature’ technology….

  3. Speaking optimistically as a Gen X’er I’d like to think that our generation (which as probably been able to live through more change than any of the others) is best placed to support and realise initiatives of the Milenials.

    It remains to be seen whether the current era of accelerated innovation will sustain itself – the more involved, advanced and complicated it gets (despite the advent of solutions like cloud computing… explain that to anyone!) the more processes and systems will need to be bullt to support.

    The revolution of the crowd has to be superceded some time.