Sure, not every institution has the U.S. military’s ability to court-martial people who violate decorum. Nonetheless, much of this activity could be halted, along with its negative consequences, if employers simply forbade employees to tweet; or to use their professional uniforms or titles on Twitter or other platforms; or to behave in uncollegial, unprofessional ways online or in internal networks. Yet despite the frequent scandals, mostly organizations haven’t even tried.
One reason is that they’re simply helpless in the face of a sizeable and idealistic youth movement. Certainly the demographic aspect is real: for technologically adept younger workers, social media functions as a coalition-building tool, enabling them to construct enormous lateral networks that effectively overwhelm the tighter, but smaller, organizational hierarchies their elders control.
But that’s arguably half of the story. The other half is the demographic structure of the older generations, which seem, conversations with people in various industries suggest, to be muting even the resistance we might expect.
In the battle of the Youngz vs. the Oldz, on one side we see the huge millennial cohort and Generation Z; on the other, a gigantic baby boom generation, followed by the significantly smaller Generation X. This means that the Oldz coalition consists more disproportionately of people who are going to retire within 10 years than it would if the demographic pattern were smoother.
Accordingly, the boomers are more likely to be thinking about the next few years as a gracious capstone to their careers than as a prelude to the next two decades of their work life. This dampens the appetite for bruising internal fights with Youngz proclaiming that theirs are the values of the future. The danger for Team Oldz is that its members aren’t just handing the keys over a little early but that they are also failing to transmit their knowledge and insights, allowing impatient youngsters to spend down what economists call “organizational capital.”
“The firm is a storehouse of information,” economists Ed Prescott and Michael Visscher wrote in 1980, “and within the firm incentives are created for the efficient accumulation and use of that information.” Organizational capital isn’t so much ephemeral information such as financial data or customer accounts as deep, hard-to-communicate knowledge such as which workers are good at which jobs, what teams work well together and answers to questions like “What sort of cultural values and practices make us more effective at our mission?”
A good illustration of this can be found in my own industry, where generational warfare has been notorious. A 2018 article in the Columbia Journalism Review noted an older journalist complaining: “We get these fresh-faced kids who know all about Pro Tools and Storify or whatever’s the flavor of the day, but can they interview someone? No.” Meanwhile, a younger journalist expostulated about older colleagues and teachers who talk about journalistic standards “like they came down from God”: “I think they do this not because they believe this is the right way to journalize, but because it gives them power.”
This is a problem in an industry in which so much of what we do depends on everyone embracing a similar set of norms — in journalism’s case, about objectivity, fairness, standards of diligence in getting facts right and so forth. The pandemic has intensified the problem, because those norms are often communicated informally, in the horror stories and jokes and general shoptalk about articles that others are working on. This conversation and tacit culture-building simply doesn’t happen the same way over Zoom.
But it is just as important that the Oldz confidently assert the enduring value of the organizational capital they’ve been entrusted with, the long-honed collective wisdom embedded in existing institutional norms and processes. They must also be willing to take organization-wide steps to protect those things. Generational contention is fundamentally healthy, for it is how organizations recognize and correct past mistakes, and adapt to changing times. But to ensure the best outcome, all the generations have to be on the field, prepared to fight for what they believe in.