Well Hello there and Welcome to My Almost Midlife Crisis, the show that dives into that tricky time in our lives when we are no longer young, but we aren’t old yet either. I’m your host, Jennifer Villamil. I think we can all agree that with each passing generation, we see an increase in social progressiveness. I’ve always considered myself more progressive than my boomer parents and my GenX brother, however as I spend more time with GenZ, I’m starting to question how progressive am I? In today’s society, I have moments when I experience the feeling of being uncomfortable and I wonder, are Millennials as progressive as we thought? Or is this just part of getting older? Let’s dive in.
The Theory of Generations
Karl Manneheim developed “The Theory of Generations” back in the 20’s. According to him, social perspective of youth reaching maturity in a particular time and place is significantly influenced by major historical events of that era. A major historical event has to happen and involve the individual in their young age which then shapes their experiences and give the event meaning. He believed social change can occur without a major historical event, but those events are more likely to occur in times of accelerated social or cultural change. And it’s important to note that not everyone in the generation is likely to be impacted the same way and therefore it’s unlikely the whole generation moves in the same direction at the same time.
So what are some of these impacts we’ve seen? The Great Depression and World War 2 on our boomer parents which impacted their perspective on work and politics. The AIDS epidemic and the Gulf War and their impact on GenX’s view on politics and the LGBTQ community. The impact on GenX and Millennials growing up during the second-wave feminist movement, the rise of same-sex marriage and experiencing 9/11. These larger political and societal events have an impact on the generations during their formative years – called this because they are forming their thoughts and beliefs about the world that will impact the rest of their lives.
With each generation, what they consider “normal” is different depending on what reality looked like to them during their formative years. Each generation sees the current progress that has been made and pushes for more. As I get older, the theory of generations comes to the forefront in some surprising ways and it makes me think – is this how my parents felt at this age? And maybe I’m not as progressive as I thought I was?
I’ve seen these differences come to life in two places most recently – in the classroom and in the workplace.
In the Classroom
This spring, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to be an adjunct professor at a well-known university here in Chicago. I was so excited. I had always been interested in teaching but never pursued that as my career due to the lack of respect we show teachers in this country not just financially but as a profession. I’m not going to dive into the politics around the education system as 1. This podcast isn’t about politics and 2. I could probably make an entire podcast season around my thoughts on the education system in the United States – and I don’t even have kids in the education system yet!
But I will say that considering how important teachers are to our children and their impact on our society through helping raise each generation – the fact that the average salary of a teacher in the US is only $67,000 in 2022 is a disgrace. That’s the equivalent of someone in my industry with less than 5 years experience and with little to no managerial experience. And don’t even get me started on the lack of respect we give them in general. The way we talk to teachers, the crap they have to deal with and the lack of support given is just sad.
Anyways…I remember growing up playing “classroom” where I would line up all my stuffed animals and I would be the teacher. I would even go as far as to create homework assignments and tests for them and grade them. And growing up, I loved going to school. I would get so excited at the start of every school year. I would color coordinate my folders to my spiral notebooks by class, spend a week planning my first-day of school outfit and would suffer from insomnia for days leading up to the first day as I was too excited to sleep. I’ve always thought about teaching in the back of my head as I thought it would be something I would truly enjoy. So when I was asked to be an adjunct professor for the spring class, I was so excited!
I had aspirations of connecting with my students the way I remember some of my favorite teachers had through the years. I still remember some of their names and the lessons they taught me. I could just picture it. I would be everyone’s favorite teacher, they would come to class early and leave class late to chat with me. My class would always have a waiting list because the word of mouth would be so positive students would be trying to get in. Wow – was I in for a rude awakening.
It’s your education, not mine.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a class of great kids. But my vision of what it would be like, and the reality of what it was were widely different. It didn’t help that the first two weeks were virtual due to COVID. Trying to engage a class of students in person is hard enough, let alone remotely. So when the school announced we’d be going back to the classroom in early Feb, I was ecstatic. This was my chance to start building those connections I had envisioned. First of all, there wasn’t a single class all semester. I had a full classroom of twenty-five students. Not a single one. Every week, I was getting emails about different reasons they couldn’t make it at all or would request to participate via zoom instead.
The most common was being sick – which in times of COVID is the easiest way to get out of pretty much anything. When I was their age, you better be in the hospital or on your deathbed to not show up to class or work. But nowadays, if you are having any symptoms, you stay home. And that’s not just physical, if you are not feeling rental mentally too – you get to stay home. Like the student I had that reached out saying they needed to take a mental health day. Can you imagine saying that to your professor in college? I think they may have just laughed in my face. I’m not sure, but I do know this wouldn’t have been considered an acceptable reason to miss class.
Missing class and taking a mental health day are areas I see a big difference between my generation and these younger folks. Now every generation has kids that don’t show up to class, that isn’t new. But the difference is the rationale behind it and the expectation that this won’t have a negative impact even though class participation is 20% of their final grade.
I can get behind taking a sick day because I am happy that we are finally out of the expectation that you need to be dying to take off. That was ridiculous and frustrating as there was always that person that would show up, sneezing and coughing all over the place and we would congratulate them for “pushing themselves” or “grinning and bearing it” all the while whatever sickness they had would then spread to the rest of us faster than a rumor between twelve year old girls. But it was difficult to tell who actually needed a sick day and who just didn’t want to travel to campus and would rather tune in via zoom in their pj’s. Trust me, I get it – especially on those snowy nights when I’d much rather be cozy under a blanket with my dog rather than tramping through a blizzard to get to class.
But not coming to class for a mental health day? Or because you had a conflict like Ash Wednesday service or another meeting? Those I had a hard time accepting. The thing with a mental health day, in today’s society you can’t say no to that. And I am a big proponent of mental health. However, I’m still not clear what needs to happen for a mental health day to be required. To me, that’s vacation. That is what vacation days or spring break or whatnot is for. You can take personal days, but my assumption is they don’t have class like we have work – eight plus hours a day, five days a week. So could you not work your schedule to clear a day where you don’t have class but you also don’t have homework and can do what you need that day to get your head in a good place? Or is that just my elder-Millennial talking? Is that thinking outdated? Honestly I still am not sure.
At first, the students not showing up really frustrated me. I had a full time job and a personal life. I had my own struggles and had to shift meetings around to make teaching work. Me teaching not only impacted my own schedule, it also impacted those of my team and my company as they had to work around my obligations. But here I was, showing up every week – and coming in early to ensure I was ready to go right at 4:15. This includes the weeks where I could barely stand up because it was early in my pregnancy and I felt like shit. I would be struggling to make it through class without throwing up and they would just zoom in?
It felt like a lack of respect for me and my time. Part of me believes this is because this is how I was raised. When you show up late or not at all, it’s disrespectful of someone else’s time. So I’m that person that’s always early or on time and who shows up when I say I will.
After a while though, I started to look at it differently. Why was I getting upset about it? I’m not the one looking to receive a grade to graduate. Them not showing up to class has no bearing on my ability to teach those that came. And it’s not my job to convince them to not take the fifty grand a year in tuition their parents are paying for granted. It’s their education, not mine. The difference is I forgot what it felt like to be that age. I’m looking at it from a lens of where I am now, not where they are. They are in the selfish stage, because they can be. Because they don’t have people and families to support. As complicated as their lives are, they don’t understand that it will only get more complicated and they’ll get torn in many more directions and have to figure out how to make it work. That’s the benefit of life I’ve received, but they’re still on that journey. And experience is the only way to get there.
Get to work.
Work has been the other place I seem to experience the theory of generations the most. I think partially it’s because I work in advertising and work is where I spend the most time with the younger Millennials and GenZ cohorts. Advertising is a young industry and for the most part, Elder Millennials, GenX and Boomers are in leadership and executive positions trying to lead a workforce we don’t always understand.
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but if I’m truly being honest with myself, I would say that while I’m getting better at relating and understanding my younger cohorts, there are some gaps there that haven’t been filled. I wonder if there are any folks my age or older that truly feel like they are completely aligned and relatable to the younger generations – and if you do – congratulations! Good for you! Also, let me know your secret. Because for me, the older I get, the more gaps I find.
For example, perspective on work. I already mentioned how the Great Depression helped shape the boomer mentality around work. As someone that grew up with boomer parents, it was instilled in me from a very young age that if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. For example, if I completed this entire yellow notepad page worth of chores, I would be rewarded with my five dollar allowance. I was taught that your boss knows best because they have more experience and your job was to make your boss’ job easier. I was taught you should be thankful you have a good paying, steady job, and don’t make waves to put that in jeopardy. Loyalty to a company was rewarded and there was a sense of pride to be at the same place for 10, 15 or twenty years.
Now, if you are my age or older, and you have ever managed a team of younger Millennials and GenZ, you can already start to see where this is going. They do expect to be rewarded for hard work, but they have a lot of say on what they believe is fair and are willing to ask for it. They don’t necessarily believe the boss always knows best and their boss’ job is to do what they can to make sure the work conditions are positive for the employees. They don’t believe in loyalty to companies and often believe it’s better to jump around to move up in your career. And they definitely have zero qualms about asking for what they believe they deserve and holding their managers accountable with challenging feedback.
There are so many memes or videos about the differences between Boomer, GenX, Millennials and GenZ at work and how they respond to work situations. And honestly, they’re funny because for the most part they’re true. However, these differences are also very challenging when all are trying to work in harmony to achieve the business goal. I remember very specific moments in which these challenges became apparent. While there are many, I’ll focus on two that I experienced in my most recent role that stuck out in my mind.
Work Life Balance
I believe Millennials were the first generation to push back a bit in hopes of achieving more work-life balance. We saw our parents constantly working and always wished we could spend more time with them. So as we entered the workforce, we yearned to get to a place in our career that we would have more control over our own calendars and create that balance between our professional and personal lives. Joke was on us though because we didn’t realize that it’s almost impossible to truly achieve control of your own calendar at work. Maybe if you’re Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, but even for the CEO’s at companies we work for – your calendar is not 100% in your control. We all get pulled into late nights or weekend meetings when we’d rather be doing anything else instead.
But in today’s workforce, especially coming out of the last two years of COVID and the Great Resignation, the push for more balance is real and more tangible than ever. And this push isn’t coming from those in charge. It’s coming from the workforce themselves. They’re pushing back for companies to pay more attention to the working conditions, both physically and mentally and are willing to walk away from companies that don’t show concern for their well being.
In my last role, you know, the one I was laid off from in Episode 1? Yeah, that one. This was one of the areas I was excited about when learning about the company. I loved that they had a culture of putting the team first and making a real effort to feel supported from all fronts. Coming from a feeling of burnout, I was very supportive of this and believed it was not only the right thing to do, but was usually under-prioritized within our industry. But as much as I was excited and inspired by their willingness to cater to the needs of the employees, I found myself a little doubtful these efforts would be successful.
For example, every day one hour of everyone’s calendar was blocked to give you time to take a break. Maybe meditate, do some yoga, go for a walk, you name it -but take a break. My first question during orientation was “do people actually do this? Do people follow it?” To my surprise people did for the most part. But then a couple weeks in, they implemented another idea – one meeting Fridays. The idea is that we all are in so many meetings all the time you have no time to actually concentrate and get work done. So every other Friday, you would have a clear calendar so you can get work done without interruption. I love this idea. However I also was concerned when I heard it. We already had five hours a week when we were supposed to avoid booking meetings, we now were adding a full day? So every other week we would shorten the time we could meet by 45%? For a company that prides itself in collaboration of team members – how was that going to work?
Here’s the thing though, I loved that they were at least trying it out. Most companies would say no way. They would get scared by the change and never implement it. So I give them all the props in the world for at least trying to make it happen. And for the most part, it seemed to be doing it’s job. However, while it was clearing time on people’s calendar, was all this focus on giving people time back successful? What I mean by successful is did that help employees be happier with their work life balance? Did they feel the benefits? Did it help us retain talent? Did it give us an edge vs. other agencies? What business impact did it have?
Considering the recent layoffs, the data doesn’t really exist to prove if it was successful or not, but anecdotally I had two people quit during that time. Their reasons for quitting had nothing to do with work life balance and everything to do with money or a different opportunity they wanted to try. I also gave two compensation increases during that time, both met with “that’s it?” and a reminder the marketplace was competitive. I 100% believe in work life balance, however to what extent does it make sense for the business? And what is the right way to think about it in terms of ensuring our employees have the room to think but also that the business and our clients are supported? And does any of it have any impact on retention? These are questions I don’t have an answer to but would love to discuss!
Embrace being uncomfortable.
The Theory of Generations makes sense to me. Each generation goes through certain political and societal changes that shape them. That generation then has children, raises them according to their beliefs, but that generation has their own events that will impact their thoughts and beliefs. All of us go through life sorting through what we were raised believing and what the world since then has taught us. For some of us, we choose to continue to see the world through the lens of comfortability – filtering what we experience through what our parents taught us. For the rest of us, and I consider myself in this group, we use the experiences we’ve had to challenge what we were taught and come up with our own perspectives.
I truly believe one of the benefits of getting older is allowing ourselves to evolve. To be open to changing our perspective as we have new experiences and as we interact with the up and coming generations. If it’s true that every generation is more progressive than the next, then it’s assumed we’ll all feel uncomfortable at times as we are pushed to think beyond where we’ve been. But we shouldn’t run away from that feeling, we need to embrace it. We don’t have to agree with everything, but living in that place of uncertainty will enable us to better relate to not just our own generation, but to our children and eventually their grandchildren.
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Until next time!