Vintage whines

Managing Generation X
April 4, 1997

I regularly surf the net, I often carry a plastic bottle of mineral water when walking about and I talk a lot with people in their twenties and early thirties - Generation X. Despite this, I have never deceived myself that I understand the generation that succeeded my baby-boomer generation. So I approached Bruce Tulgan's book with great expectations. I read that "Tulgan, 28, is the self-appointed spokesman for millions of twentysomething professionals sweeping into corporations everywhere", and I told myself, this guy must have an insight.

I searched the net and found 86 documents about Tulgan. Then, cigar in one hand and bottle of Badoit at the ready, I sat down to enjoy myself and learn something deep.

An alarm bell sounded loudly early on when the author explained that "my instincts led me to an approach which most resembles journalistic sociology...". From then on I looked for traces of either journalism or of sociology - without finding any. Perhaps those professors who taught sociology on both sides of the Atlantic and who tried to teach it to me too were just pedantic bores, preoccupied with silly things such as methodology; and all those journalist friends whose writings I do so much enjoy may just have wasted their youth learning their craft the hard way.

Nevertheless I mined the book for insights and found a few. For instance: "Managing a new generation might require letting go of traditional methods in favour of a more flexible approach"; "Xers are not disloyal and uncommitted as so many people claim, but rather we are cautious investors in a world which has taught us to expect too little from institutional relationships"; "Xers spend a lot of time alone"; "personal responsibility is more than a slogan to Xers because the concept resonates powerfully with our childhood experience of solitude"; "Xers have developed a rapid-fire style of interacting with information because the information revolution has shaped the way we think."

But I soon got bored with repetition of the same concept. Of course, repetitita juvant and all that - but at my age one finds that time is precious.

So I concentrated on the summaries of interviews Tulgan conducted to put flesh on his intuitions and suppositions. Here were some nuggets of real-life stories that are very plausible and disconcerting about the mess many managers make of their own life and the life of those working around them, as well as condemning their companies to a vicious circle of bureaucracy, underperformance and bad morale.

There were also some surprises: "The chairman of the board was always going around the company patting everyone on the back and kissing everybody. It was a kissing company." How the devil did he get away with that in wonderful PC USA?

After a couple of hours, I closed the book and asked myself: how do these Xers come across to me? Whining and whingeing came to mind. But hold it: the young people I know do not whine and whinge. And the minority who do are no more representative of Xers than of baby-boomers.

Then I searched my memory. Were companies managed much better when I was young? Did we not have our fair share of incompetent managers who suffocated creativity, held on to information as power, blocked the career of more competent youngsters, were unable to cope with change, did not have a clue of how to manage their own time, and who spent their professional life worrying, consciously or unconsciously, about having reached their level of incompetence and waiting for the merciful blow? Certainly we did - even more than today. So, where do the Xers differ so much from us, the baby-boomers?

I combed the book again for a clue, down to the acknowledgments. The author goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Xers, unlike the baby-boomers, grew up having to fend for themselves, with a looser form of support from their less traditional types of families. How then to reconcile this view with a whole paragraph of acknowledgments to the author's family, "the greatest family in the world"? In dutifully thanking his beloved companion, Tulgan waxes poetic: "The very thought of you would make me smile in an earthquake." The last time I was caught in a 6.8 earthquake, all I could think of was how stupid I was to lose a sandal running down the stairs in the dark.

Tulgan left me tantalised about what Generation X is really like, all the way to page 228. Then, like a belly dancer dancing the night away in her overcoat, he smiled at me from the back cover and left me with my questions. But I still recommend reading his book. All those genuinely interested in working with young people or who are young themselves and want to find out more about their own generation need answers. If you cannot find them in the book, make the author work to find them. Publisher Capstone has promised to create "a unique partnership between authors and readers, delivering for the first time a genuine aftersales service for book buyers". Its home page is at http://www.bookshop.co.uk/capstone/ Rudi Bogni is the former chief executive, Swiss Bank Corporation in London, currently on a sabbatical at the Centre for Quantitative Finance, Imperial College, London.

Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent

Author - Bruce Tulgan
ISBN - 1 900961 09 1
Publisher - Capstone
Price - £15.99
Pages - 228

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