Why the HVAC industry misses the mark on “generational” differences

When I was 18 I told my dad I was a communist.  It was intentionally inflammatory.  But I’d been travelling abroad and was pretty full of myself.  I’d never stood in a bread line.  I’d never looked over my shoulder for the “Stasi.”  I’d only read a library copy of Das Kapital and hung around Leftist book stores.  I put a bumper sticker on my car that said “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.”  That really pissed him off.

25 years ago I didn’t know that my uncle came back from Vietnam addicted to drugs.  Or that my dad’s best friend, a special forces sniper, came home a broken man.  I know lots of things now that I didn’t know back then–but that’s the youth’s beauty.  It’s idealism is untested an untempered.  25 years later my values are not those of an arrogant high school student.  They changed.  I’ve become more conservative, more pragmatic.  It just happens.  Life gives you a few knocks on the chin.  Things break.  Values evolve over time.  I’ve become, as the poet writes, “A sadder and a wiser man.”

This morning I read a back issue of an industry magazine.  The author, with an explosive hairdo, wrote three columns about “generational” issues in the HVAC industry.  Each article hinged on stereotypical categories.  “Boomers.”  “Generation X.”  “Generation Y.”  Clean, compartmentalized.  Myopically predictable.  I’m sure the author has done quite well convincing clients that managing each of these generational categories requires numerous consulting contracts.  But she’s wrong.

The problem with simple categories is that they’re simple.  The author in question writes as if “Generation Y” has somehow replaced common English with HTML5.  Does she imagine a 25 year old texting a friend: <greeting>What’s up?</greeting>.  She flounders with the obvious: technology is integrated in to “their” life–overlooking the fact that her technology was a phone with a cord and color television–and it was equally revolutionary.  She insultingly argues that Generation Y has never known hardship.  She writes, Generation Y “has never lived through a recession.”  They may beg to differ.  

She associates my generation with disaffected disdain.  Has she forgotten that her generation had their own hopped-up anti-Everything attempt at an Arab Spring?  She pigeonholes my parents’ generation with post-Eisenhower attitudes regarding loyalty and doing business with a handshake while start-ups across America head back to Main Street.  She’s forgotten Faulkner: “History is not was, it is.”  

None of her assertions or observations acknowledge the facts about behavioral flux between generations.  According to The Kaufman Foundation, 23% of new entrepreneurs in 2012 were between the ages of 55-64.  Two times as many tech start-ups are founded by men and women in their 50’s and that these people have at least 16 years of professional experience behind them.  She fails to recognize that, “the Wunderkind is the exception.”  Does this mean that a 55 year old start-up founder wasn’t born in to an “Boomer” era?  Of course not.  Does it mean that the same individual will invariably adopt “Gen Y” aptitudes in order to succeed?  That technology isn’t a resource?  That they won’t collaborate?  That they won’t ask new strategy questions?  They will.  They’re doing it every day because it makes sense.  It turns out that business has a consistent set of values that defy generational variance or superimposed expectations.

Generational differences really aren’t that different at all.  People who lived through Watergate complained about crumbling privacy.  Sounds familiar lately.  My generation complained that the government duped American into an illegal war.  As did my parents’.  My grandmother lived through The Great Depression.  We’ve all been living our own version of that.  The similarities are staggering.  

The better generational observation is this: Most people become less risk averse over time.  It’s easy to take lots of risks when you’re young because you’ve got years to bounce back, learn, and try again.  But the stakes get higher as you grow older.  It gets harder to pull yourself up off the mat after a gut punch.  The stakes are even higher as you start thinking about the end game.  These aren’t generational differences.  These are human constants.  

The wrong questions to ask are “How does a Gen Y person function?” “What are his values and how can I figure him or her out to exploit a little more productivity from that person?”  The better question is” “how comfortable are generations taking risk, taking chances, getting things done?”  

Once we strip away the labels it’s easy to see that people grow from risk-friendly towards risk-averse.  And that has nothing to do with when you were born.   


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