Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Wev–are these really new issues?

Nirvana - NevermindThose smart gals over at Women in Higher Education are talking ’bout my generation.  (Sorry for the generationally inappropriate reference there–should I say, “Oh well, whatever, nevermind?”)  In an article called “A Perfect Storm:  Gen X and Today’s Academic Culture,” in which they warn that “[s]ea change is coming. Retirements and growing enrollments mean colleges and universities will need to hire new faculty in the next 8 to 10 years. Where will the talent come from? With all the choices available, will the best and brightest be attracted to an academic career?”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before!  A lot of us Gen X’ers fell for that line around 1989-90 and marched off to grad school confident that this time, the great wave of retirements would actually happen, and that universities would hire tenure-track faculty to replace the retirees, which would bring us to the promised land of bountiful employment opportunities!  (And this time, Lucy would let Charlie Brown kick that damn football.)  But, the article continues:

Demands on junior faculty have increased in recent decades. Young people’s expectations have shifted in the opposite direction; they fully expect a career and a life, with flexibility for both parents to spend time with the kids. Unless universities adapt, they may lose potential candidates to the private sector.

What???  The private sector?  Why didn’t I think of that before?  I’m sure there are loads of opportunities for physical anthropologists, medieval Chinese historians, continental philosophers, and experts in seventeenth-century French drama in the go-go, for-profit private sector! (I’m sure that you engineers, biomedical researchers, and business school people have those options–don’t rub it in.  My point is that these articles imagine that anyone with a Ph.D. can still work in their field in “the private sector,” but for most Liberal Arts faculty members that is not a realistic Plan B.) 

The rest of the article raises some interesting points about the clash of generational cultures in the academy–between the Traditionalists (born before 1943), the Baby Boomers (1943-1960), Gen X’ers (1961-81), and Gen Y (born since 1981).  (I thought the Baby Boomers were 1946-64, and that Gen X was 1965-80ish?  Wev.)  However, I wonder if the generational differences the researchers found has more to do with life stage than with generational expectations.  For example:

• Hierarchy. Traditionalists like a top-down organizational structure and boomers accept it. Gen X prefers a flat one.

• Job changing. For traditionalists, changing jobs carries a stigma. For boomers it’s a setback on the career ladder. Gen Xers expect to change jobs again and again; it’s the only way to be where they want.

• Motivation. Traditionalists are motivated by a job well done. Baby boomers work for money, title and promotion. For Gen X the motive is self-fulfillment, freedom and fun—leaving older folks aghast or scratching their heads.

• Performance review. If no one’s yelling, a traditionalist thinks all is well. Baby-boomers want a well-documented annual evaluation. Gen X wants constant feedback: “Sorry to interrupt again: How am I doing?”

• Work hours. Traditionalists think it’s prudent to put in the required hours and wonder who’ll do the work if flextime creeps in. Boomers hope long hours will pay off in money and promotions. Gen X says, get a life!

But–shouldn’t we expect older faculty who have stayed in the academy and have successfully progressed up the academic ladder to “like a top-down organizational structure” or at least to “accept it?”  Shouldn’t we expect that junior faculty, who happen mostly to be Gen X’ers at this point, to be more mobile, to need more feedback, and to prefer a flatter organizational hierarchy?  These preferences seem to reflect one’s self-interest given one’s relative age and status in the hierarchy, rather than any preexisting generational attitudes.

My guess is that those Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers who stay in academia and proceed to tenure and promotion will become Organization Women (and Men).  Historiann has been tenured for almost four years now, and I can feel it happening to me too, despite my Gen X orientation of being “skeptical and expect to be in charge of [myself.]  If [I] don’t like it, [I’ll] leave.”  Been there, done that–but as a tenured faculty member, I’m part of the decision-making power structure, and I’m expected to enforce standards and do it according to rules that were written by Traditionals and Baby Boomers ahead of me in the generational hierarchy.  Hint:  this is why the “medieval” institution of the university is so good at replicating itself, and why institutions change mostly for the benefit of institutions, not for the benefit of individuals.  This is also why I just laugh mordantly whenever I hear people talking about how “liberal” universities are, and that they’re full of Marxists and radical feminists bent on destroying Western Civilization.  If only!  But even then, we’d be stuck with a system and a set of rules that’s mostly about protecting and maintaining the organization, not about helping new faculty members unlock their creativity, realize their potential, and become more totally awesome and revolutionary.

My point here is that every generation born in the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries thought that they were a revolutionary generation that was going to really shake things up.  All of those New Women pouring into colleges in the late nineteenth century?  Wow, that will change everything!  The generation of progressive reformers and the “sad young men” after World War I?  Totally changed everything!  The “angry young men” outside of the traditional ruling class who poured into Universities on the G.I. Bill after World War II?  Totally changed everything!  The Baby Boomers who went to college in the awesome 60s and 70s and protested against the war and for free speech, Civil Rights, and women’s rights?  Totally changed everything!  We Gen X’ers were accused by Baby Boomers of being Reaganite conservatives in the 1980s, then slackers in the 90s, but now that we’re junior faculty moving into the senior ranks?  We’ll totally change everything, like everyone else before us, natch.

Don’t get me wrong–I certainly prefer living and working today to any other point in history.  In fact, it’s only because of Affirmative Action that I and most of the people in my department have faculty positions–not just us XX chromosome types or PoC types, but also the white men in my department from working-class backgrounds who attended community colleges and public universities instead of elite private colleges and universities.  Affirmative Action has meant that hiring committees must consider all qualified applicants–a rule that seems to be only common sense, but that was actually pretty revolutionary in opening up the field of potential candiates for faculty positions.  (In the old days, faculty searches were frequently phone calls to one’s grad school friends to ask if they had any likely grad students finishing up!)  Finally, I don’t mean to beat up on this article, or the people who conducted the study–they make very worthy (if not surprising) observations about the gendered expectations that weigh on women faculty both at home and at work–and some worthy (if unoriginal) prescriptions for how to level the playing field.  These are suggestions that have been made many times before over the past thirty or forty years, of course, and we’re still making them today.  (Gee–I wonder why, with all of the awesome revolutionary change that’s been happening?)  Things have changed for the better over the course of my lifetime, but we still have a very long, long, long way to go. 

0 thoughts on “Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Wev–are these really new issues?

  1. Is it by region, though? I’m a baby boomer from the west and was always accustomed to horizontal / flat organizational and power structures. East of the Rockies the younger crowd seems to prefer hierarchy and top-down structures … it makes me feel like an old hippie, even though I am not actually old enough to have been a hippie.

    Also to me it seems that the Gen X’ers are concerned with how to defend against accusations of racism / sexism, etc., whereas I am still more interested in ending these things.


  2. I’m sorry your Gen X’ers are defending racism and sexism–in my experience, they’re slightly more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators, but that’s probably because of their overall fairly junior status!

    Interesting question about how region might affect this. (I actually don’t really believe that there really are generational characteristics, across sex, race, class, sexuality, etc…)


  3. Hmm. Dean Dad just had a post about a week ago that said we have peaked in terms of undergraduate enrollment and he wanted us to start talking seriously about how to preserve colleges during a “baby bust,” as it were. If that’s true, I’d be extra, quintuple, cherry-on-top suspicious of the idea that there’s going to be any “wave of hiring to balance faculty retirements.”

    Funny, the last time I saw the generation breakdown my birth year (75) was listed as the cutoff for GenX. I’m suspicious of nations of people all matching across the “spirit of the decade” or the “spirit of their generation,” but on the other hand, there was an article about “Twixters” that said my generation has turned their 20s into an extended adolescence of career exploration and not settling down so early, and all the things listed were things me and my cousins are doing. But that could just mean upper-middle class, college-educated white kids are the only ones who get to count in these generational generalizations.


  4. I’m just impressed that you can keep the names and dates of the different generations straight, much less their characteristics and expectations.

    I’ve always been skeptical of these grand schema for explaining behavior: for example, I see younger faculty –women as well as men — having greater expectations that their own scholarly work, as well as their families, should be privileged over the work of the institution. But from a purely local perspective, what I also see is that people are no longer promotable on the basis of institutional work (rumor has it that someone with an outstanding scholarly record at Zenith just got tenure having done absolutely no institutional work), so this seems like rational choice rather than fulfilling a generational expectation. And the rational choice is responding to new expectations articulated by boomers.



  5. Good points, all–Sis, I think you’re right that the so-called coming “baby bust” will be an excuse deployed NOT to hire replacement faculty (to be hauled out as needed.) And, I’m only a few years older than you, definitely Gen X though, and people made the same arguments about us in the early 90s that we were slacker losers moving back in with our parents, extended adolescence, etc. I think it’s a recurring trope when bitching about people who are younger and less established.

    KC, I always took Coupland’s definition of Gen X as people too young to remember the Kennedy assassination, but old enough to remember life before MTV, so that would put the span at about 1961-1981 or so. (Maybe a few years shaved off the end, since MTV was born in 1981.)

    And TR: Yes, those research superstars will get their comeuppance when they become Associate Profs, won’t they? At least that’s the pattern where I work: we protect people pretty well until tenure, and then we measure them for the harness…


  6. Ah yes, “when the boomers retire…” I bought that line in 1989 as well and headed off to grad school!

    Oh, Historiann, you nearly made me spit out my coffee with that “measure them for the harness crack.” Sooooo true. Who knew that being an associate professor would suck the life out of you with service work? Why didn’t anyone tell us? Oh yeah, ‘cuz the ones who knew were desperate for fresh blood!


  7. Hey Zoe–thanks for stopping by to comment. Service is the dirty little secret of faculty life. Because it remains invisible to all but those doing it if we’re doing it well, and because we get so little credit for doing it at all (only 15% on my annual salary exercise), it’s something that grad students and new assistant profs take for granted. Perhaps that’s as it should be–and I believe that it’s up to those of us with the privilege of tenure to shoulder more of the burden than those who are not protected.

    But, once you’re over the finish line, saddle up and ride ’em out, is what I say. In my 4 short years as an Associate Prof., I’ve helped 7 Assistant Profs in my department get tenured and promoted–so Historiann’s going to put her feet up for a few years and enjoy the fruits of my labor!


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