“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
The above complaint was from Socrates. St. Thomas Aquinas lamented that the world would be left to an ill-prepared and careless youth. A year after I was graduated from college, I read Steve Allen’s Dumbth which “humorously” recounted tales of how Generation X didn’t know how to think.
Thirty years later it’s the Millennial Generation’s turn with The Dumbest Generation label (and Generation Z not far behind). “According to recent reports from government agencies, foundations, survey firms, and scholarly institutions, most young people in the United States neither read literature (or fully know-how), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), nor vote (most can’t even understand a simple ballot). They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount foundations of American history, or name any of their local political representatives. What do they happen to excel at is – each other. They spend unbelievable amounts of time electronically passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, savoring the thrill of peer attention and dwelling in a world of puerile banter and coarse images.”
The crux of the “dumb generation” argument is that their generation doesn’t have the knowledge that our generation has with the implication that our knowledge is inherently superior. It reminds me of summers that I spent at my grandparent’s farm where I was pitied because I didn’t know how to milk a cow, can vegetables, or could identify all the trees on the farm. “Didn’t I know anything?” they asked.
Then, I bought my grandparents a microwave oven, a VCR, and hooked their TV up to cable. Now I got to mutter under my breath, “didn’t my grandparents know anything?” As our workplaces become multi-generational, I am sure there is a lot of grumbling about the limitations of the different generations. And that is wrong.
The real issue is how to transform our organizations into learning organizations, so we capture the knowledge we already have and determine the knowledge we need. We produce new data and information at an astounding rate, and it is growing faster every year. The challenge is to determine what knowledge we need to keep, what knowledge we need to discard, and how to find the new knowledge we need. Like the way I cling to 1980s rock, knowledge we already have feels comforting and empowering, but we need to have the courage to let some of that go and embrace the new knowledge being produced. We also need to recognize that not all old knowledge is useless and should be discarded.
Others have written that the best learning is in our workplaces and with conversations with our colleagues. We can learn a lot from each other, and our organizations desperately need our efforts to keep the organizational memory growing and thriving. That means younger workers should not just immediately dismiss current practices and processes because that is how they used to do things. And older workers should not be defensive and dismissive when younger workers suggest new ways of doing the organization’s business.
Back when I worked at a state agency, I had a colleague who insisted on using Lotus 123 for his spreadsheets, although we had Microsoft Excel. He would bitterly complain when they tried to install Excel on his machine, and we would have to support Lotus 123 even though it was getting harder to do so every year. I then hit upon a strategy of having him teach me his spreadsheets. I would go over to his cubicle and learn the macros he created. I would recreate the macros in Excel and then show him how much more powerful they were and how the reports looked better with charting available to Excel. He was reluctant at first, but what sold him on upgrading is that he would not lose the original knowledge he had in his spreadsheets and macros but that they would be faster and more effective in a newer environment. Two years later, he relished his role as the “Excel Guru” who was the go-to guy about the intricacies of Excel spreadsheets.
So, maybe what is needed are fewer books about how stupid the other generations are and more books on how much we can learn from each other.