Lessons from PHL Eagles: Generation Gaps Occur At All Ages

Like many workers, one day earlier this year former Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Donovan McNabb and Gen Xer came to work only to discover he was old.

The 6 time Pro-bowler and 5 time conference title QB was dealt to the division rival Washington Redskins.  One reason given for the trade was a generation gap, although Coach Andy Reid denied age was a part of the criteria in the decision to part ways with McNabb. 

One might expect that defensive remark coming from an employer in this litigious job market.  Age discrimination is a major concern as businesses try their best to rebuild their workforces. Many businesses chose to force early retirement and layoffs to create openings for younger, cheaper workers who could keep pace in a faster paced, more dynamic, and more innovative marketplace.

The wrinkle in this generation gap story however is that McNabb is only 33 years old.

As I’ve said before, the gap between generations isn’t always about age, but attitude. The Eagles new twenty-something line-up plays fast and they connect in a nanosecond. It even forces 52-year-old baby boomer Eagles head coach Andy Reid to keep his Blackberry charged.  “I text,” Reid says. “I’ll text something like ‘have a great day at practice.’ Or if I go through practice at the end I might shoot a guy a text like ‘great job’ or whatever the correction might be.

Ira-Behind-The-Lines-Aug2010Communication wasn’t quite the same with McNabb and former Eagle running back Brian Westbrook. Both players dominated much of the offense for the past seven years but both also had other life demands and interests that started to separate them for the younger players.

But this year it was out with the old and in with the new generation of younger players. Kevin Kolb, McNabb’s replacement 26, is the oldest of the offensive nucleus. Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy are 22, while DeSean Jackson is 23. Tight end Brent Celek is 25. He and Kolb are the only guys in the group legally old enough to rent a car.

In addition to texting and tweeting, the new generation spends a lot of time together off the field. McNabb had a lot of different demands on his time. Jeremy Maclin felt that “being close in age you just kind of bond with guys a little more around your age. And I think it does translate to the field.”

Employers of all types of organizations could learn a lesson or two from the Eagles story.  First, generation gaps aren’t limited to Baby Boomers and Millennials. They occur between younger and older workers even when only a few years separate the workers.  Second, generations isn’t just influenced by age differences, but attitudes toward life and work.

Social networking: fad or innovation?

History seems to repeat itself when disruptive innovation threatens the established model. Today, you can't have a conversation without hearing about Facebook, Twitter, or texting. Is it another fad…or a disruptive innovation?  Consider how different these organizations might be today had they embraced change rather than resisted it.


 In 1939 during the waning hours of the Depression, The New York Times printed this comment after reviewing the television at the World's Fair: "the problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to a screen; the average American family doesn't have time for that…for that reason, if for no other, television will never be a serious competitor of radio broadcasting."


In 1950, only 12 percent of households had a TV. But by 1958, the number had soared to 83 percent.  Television took local civil rights issues national and brought the Vietnam War home to our living rooms.  Television recorded and broadcast the movements of a massive generation. Television turned youth into an event.


In 1983 only 7 percent of households owned computers.  In 1996 only 15 percent of all households in the U.S. had access to the Internet and World Wide Web.  By 2004, forty-four percent owned one and over 60 percent of those households had children.  And by 2008, 100 percent of American schools provide Internet access. Seventy-five percent of teenagers have mobile phones and a similar number use the Internet.


In 1977 Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Company, then the second largest in the world, told the audience at World Future Society that "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."  In 1983 only 7 percent of households owned computers.  By 2004, forty-four percent owned one and over 60 percent of those households had children.  And by 2008, 100 percent of American schools provide Internet access, a far cry from the 15 percent of all households in the U.S. that had access in 1995 to the Internet and World Wide Web.   Today seventy-five percent of teenagers have mobile phones and a similar number use the Internet.


 In 2009 many business leaders consider social networking sites a big waste time, just like the New York Times and Ken Olsen considered TV and PCs a few decades  earlier.  But consider this: just as newspapers are shutting down, radio stations are cutting back, satellite radio stations Sirius/XM are just about bankrupt, while LinkedIn is adding subscribers at a rate of about one member per second, Twitter surpassed 17 million subscribers and Facebook passed the 200 million mark.  A passing fad? 


Time will tell. But in this day and age of disruptive change, you can ill afford a wait-and-see attitude.

Generation Gaps: What a difference 50 years makes

The concept of a “generation” is attributed to social scientist Karl Mannheim (1920s). A generation is a group of people who are programmed by events they share in history while growing up. The result of this "programming" are cohorts of people who share a common set of memories, expectations, and values based on headlines and heroes, music and mood, parenting style, and education systems.

We're all familiar with the common generational clashpoints involving attitudes toward work, communication (the personal handwritten note vs texting), and expectations (immediate vs delayed.)  But just take a few minutes and read these scenarios to remember-way-back-when (for you geezers) or to put current events in perspective (for you geeks).

Scenario:  Johnny and Mark get into a fistfight after school.
– Crowd gathers. Mark wins. Johnny and Mark shake hands and end up buddies.
2009 – Police called, SWAT team arrives, arrests Johnny and Mark. Charge them with assault, both expelled even though Johnny started it.   

Scenario:  Jeffrey won't sit still in class, disrupts other students.
1959 – Jeffrey sent to office and given a good paddling by the Principal. Returns to class, sits still and does not disrupt class again.
2009 – Jeffrey given huge doses of Ritalin. Becomes a zombie. Tested for ADD. School gets extra money from state because Jeffrey has a disability.
Scenario:  Mark gets a headache and takes some aspirin to school.
1959 – Mark shares aspirin with Principal out on the smoking dock.
2007 – Police called, Mark expelled from school for drug violations. Car searched for drugs and weapons.
Scenario:  Johnny falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee. He is found crying by his teacher, Mary.  Mary hugs him to comfort him.
– In a short time, Johnny feels better and goes on playing.
2009 – Mary is accused of being a sexual predator and loses her job. She faces 3 years in State Prison. Johnny undergoes 5 years of therapy.  
How times have changed! What will they be writing about in 2059? Do you have other examples you'd like to share?  Please add them to the comment box below.

The Dumbest Generation

My column about The Dumbest Generation in this week’s newsletter The Total View generated quite a response. (I also had posted it to this blog too.) One in particular came from a very upset 23 year-old. I won’t share the entire message but let it suffice to say, this Gen Y is not dumb. In fact he’s incredibly bright, well-educated… and opinionated – all characteristics of another segment of Gen Y cohorts. Here’s just a few thoughts on his mind:

Just some thoughts from a dumb kid, though. I mean, what could I possibly know? I’ve got six instant messenger windows open as I type this, and I have been responding to each incoming query in quick succession without losing a beat with this e-mail. I haven’t had my first sip of coffee yet so I can barely keep my eyes open (generation of addicts, anyone?), and I’m staying awake largely by keeping myself distracted with the pretty blinking digital dalliances around me. I’ve also had four back-and-fourth text message conversations going on, and I managed to check five other e-mail accounts before completing this message, on the second computer monitor set up to my right, with a quick tapping of shortcuts at the top of my keyboard. What insights could I possibly have, here or in the workforce?

Unfortunately the gap between the dumbest and smartest seems to be widening. And if hearsay and observations from employers have any value, then the dumb may be outnumbering the smart – and this young man is the rare exception (which proves my point about a shortage of skilled young workers.) Giving all due respect to this generation, much of the blame lies on us Baby Boomers.  Our educational system is a mess with less than 7 out of every 10 ninth-grade students finishing high school.

Considering all the strong emotion about these new entrants into the workforce,I felt the column was worth re-posting to the blog in the hopes of collecting and sharing the comments.

The generation that is most comfortable with digital technology, which gives them unprecedented access to all of the world’s knowledge, knows less than the previous generation that lacked this advantage. In other words, the generations whose thumbs do most of their talking can’t express themselves beyond the level of a text message. Could the vast majority of people under the age of 30 be so clueless?

Regrettably the answer is yes.  According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 74 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds did not know that Condolezza Rice was the U.S. Secretary of State.  Six times more of these young adults were more likely to identify the latest winner of American Idol than the Speaker of the House of Representatives.   Another 60 percent did not know the Civil War took place in the second half of the 19th century.

This is a generation who grew up reading blogs instead of books. They read updates about friends on MySpace instead of reading current events in newspapers.  They know more about World of Warcraft than they do about World War II.

The result is that just one-third of high school seniors graduated with the ability to read proficiently.  Just one-fourth could write a basic paragraph.

The problem is that many young adults are using technology to communicate rather than to learn.  In effect by using shorthand texting, they are reinforcing their own illiteracy every time they send and receive a text message. 

What’s this mean for employers:

In a world of scarce talent, employers will need to transform themselves to make effective use of a generation that isn’t ready to contribute to the traditional workplace.  As a result, companies will have to invest in training programs that offer a crash course in the basic skills these workers lack. These programs will need to be tailored so that they are relevant to the actual work the employee will perform.

The small percentage of well-educated, high achieving college students will have their choice of employers and competition for them will be fierce. While this isn’t new news, what’s different this time around is that the gap between the-best-and-the-brightest and the average graduate is much wider. Because the return on investment is so much greater for these star performers, employers can be certain that the competition for talent will only be getting more intense.

Source: Trends E-Magazine, July 2008

What do you think? A colleague of mine responded to me with these questions.  Before answering…stop and think.  The correct answers may not be that simple.

Is this another sign of a generational gap where jobs have to be redesigned to meet the skills/interests of younger people? 

Do the older generations have to learn new languages? 

Are we looking for the wrong things when we expect coherent writing and high school reading abilities?

Does it make any difference if people in their 20s don’t know history or current events?

Will the Gen Y’s (or Millennials) legacy become known as the dumbest generation? What’s been your experience as an employer, a parent, a GenY?  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.  Invite others to participate, too.