Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Gen X as Transitional

Those of us who went through grad school in the 90's probably remember when “post-” was the prefix of choice. (For younger readers, it was similar to the use of “e-” ten years ago or “i-” now.) It started with “postmodernism,” but quickly grew to become a cultural habit. “Posties” were those who couldn't stop proclaiming the “death of...” whatever. The cultural mood at the time was that we were at the end of something, but the next thing hadn't arrived yet. We were late to the party, but didn't really have one of our own.

In thinking through some reader feedback on the notes about Gen X in higher ed last week, I saw the same thing. The public academy in its classic Boomer-era form is crumbling, but its successor isn't entirely clear yet. We X'ers are getting here just as things are winding down.

That puts us in an odd position, which isn't unusual. The cohort born from, say, the mid-60's to about 1980 is smaller than the cohorts on either side of it, which is why we tend to get overshadowed culturally. This was the group that ‘pirated’ music on cassettes; it wasn’t until the next cohort came along that the entire music industry model was destroyed. This was the group that entered grad school being told of a forthcoming great wave of retirements that required our presence, only to find ourselves freeway flying. (And yes, dear readers, I did time as a freeway flyer myself, in a hatchback without air conditioning.)

Being the transitional group can kind of suck. You fight like hell to board a sinking ship.

Now I’m seeing a frustrating number of talented, intelligent, well-respected Gen X types on campus walk away from leadership roles for family reasons.

I can’t blame any of them. At this point, many of the institutional constraints on leadership roles are so thorough, and so encrusted with history, that any thinking person would chafe under them. On the personal side, a generation raised mostly by divorced parents can be forgiven for not wanting to pass on that particular tradition. Given the option of generating family tension for not very much money and a whole lot of stress, there’s something to be said for walking away. But I’m concerned about the vacuum they leave behind.

I see an increasingly desperate swirl of the same cohort hanging on, with nobody stepping up to replace them. The transition that needs to happen isn’t happening.

I recall many years ago hearing some big muckety-muck proclaim that “rotation of elites” was a sign of institutional health. Presumably, a lack of rotation would indicate the opposite. If that’s true, then I’m seeing some pretty severe signs of ill health. Smart people with options are opting out of a system that doesn’t meet their needs. The generation whose needs it met is still largely here, but on the way out.

The tragedy of it is that given the chance, the X’ers could be damn good at running institutions. They’re (we’re) notoriously pragmatic, and far less likely to get caught up in the futile chase for Next Big Things. I see a lot less moralizing in this cohort than in the boomers, which strikes me as a general improvement. In the best case, the X’ers could change colleges to fit the realities of people’s lives as they’re lived now. That would be a real contribution, worthy of celebration.

But then, I recall forecasts that the influx of women into corporations would make corporations more humane and aware of work/life balance. How did that work out?

My free advice to colleges that hope to survive over the long term: bring in the X’ers, and bring them in now. Reform while it’s still a matter of choice. By the time it’s not optional, it will be too late. Disruptive changes are remarkably unforgiving; you can bend now, or break later. This group offers your last, best chance to bend.

Part of the problem is that some of our GenX pragmatism strikes at the heart of sacred cows of academia and the sweet, well-intentioned, moral baby boomers at the very top of administration don't want to see us fire people who need to be fired, reorganize functions that need to be reorganized or streamline things that need to be streamlined.

From where I sit, we GenX middle managers in academic administration are given responsibility for results (which we like) without control of the factors above (which we don't like).

I could easily go back to corporate America, but the culture grates on me. At the moment, academia is the lesser of evils.
I wonder how much those "don't want to be leadership because of family responsibilities" are really just "don't want to be leadership because it would suck to have to deal with you all."

Just saying.
Agreed. Gen X could do a lot to bring about reform in academia, and to make college a better experience for students. Some of us are doing exactly that as faculty. Making the jump to administration is 'Probelmatic' in that the likelihood of change is limited. Right now there is too much money and prestige to be raked in the way things are. The boomers will refuse to hand over meaningful power or resources and continue their great intergenerational plunder of public goods.

Why would I want to take charge when the piggy bank will be empty and left holding the bag for thirty years of Reaganomics? I'd rather spend time with my family or doing something small (like research) that I have some modicum of control over.

God, I wish Kurt Cobain and Joe Strummer were still here. There was more to be said. (OK so Strummer wasn't Gen-X, but still. He had the right sensibility.)
Despite the fact that he is squarely a boomer, doesn't Prince Charles face he same problem?
Yeah, it must really suck when things you imagine you invented, like pirating music on cassette tapes or post modernism, were in full bloom more than a decade (and a generation) earlier.

I think it is risky to try to characterize the group of people currently between the ages of 29 and 47 as a single group, just as it is risky to imagine that boomers -- between the ages of 47 and 65 -- have the same outlook. There is a big difference between the first two boomer Presidents (both born in 1946 and both dodging the Vietnam draft in their own way) and the current one (born in 1961), and the experiences of my boomer cohort differ from both of those. We had less of a breeze from the draft and the universities had already been post-modernized by the faculty hired in the 60s.

Some of our Gen X faculty have been teaching for 20 years, while others are still wet behind the ears. The ones with the least experience appear to be the ones most likely to chase after the Next Best Thing, whether it is proposed by an old Gen Xer or a young Boomer. However, both groups are in academia because they like helping students and like the locus of control they have in the classroom and in the research lab. Both hate giving that up for the hassles of middle management (noted by Anonymous@4:26AM), which have not changed in more than a century whether you like it or not.
To Matt_L@5:27AM -
In my state, almost all of the power to control resources that impact academia is in the hands of Gen X legislators.
DD, your post strikes me as resting on the assumption that leadership comes from professional administrators. That's very progressive of you, but I wonder if there might be another way to see the problem. IMHO, accepting an alternative conception of leadership seems particularly warranted when you're facing changes that you cannot yet identify, much less organize a response to.

There is leadership in telling others what to do--the admin role--but there is also leadership in doing. Putting your stereotype of tenured faculty aside for a moment, even you must recognize that some faculty do try new things and generate spontaneous new orders. Even though they may be a minority, they serve as focal points for changing how the majority thinks--i.e., leaders.

Perhaps the challenge for you is to set aside your progressivism and broaden your horizons of leadership. If Gen-X isn't interested in admin positions, perhaps your college should do less administering and let your faculty do more leading. This doesn't mean expecting them to step into preconcieved positions and committees and other roles that you want them to, it means leaving them free to decide what roles and positions are worth filling. Let them create diverse solutions and see what succeeds.
Obama is a GenXer - yes he is on the cusp but the man has a facebook page. When he went to the white house, they had to negotiate his cell phone use and his reaction to the computers there was horror. He is waaaaaaaaaay too tech savvy to be a boomer.

I think GenXer’s are walking away from leadership because the situation we are inheriting is so ridiculous. The money that made being an administrator fun (because building things is much more fun than taking them apart) is gone. Voters (our parents) have not been willing to invest in us the way their parents invested in them. Voters have this weird aversion to increasing the taxes on anyone – even if it’s a trivial amount. The “car tax” in California brought down a governor – it would have cost the average Californian $72. We regularly vote down parcel taxes of less than $100 because all tax increases are evil. And we won’t increase the taxes on the richest 1% of Americans even though they make (on average) $27 million a year. We have lost the sense that each of us, as part of this society, has a role to play in making it better and that paying taxes to support basic infrastructure and services is part of that role. There are certain levels of consumption that are obscene while citizens are starving, unemployed, or working two jobs just to live in a crappy apartment in a crime ridden city, barely getting by.

If you want to see GenXers step up, wait 10 years and see what happens. When our kids are in the later parts of high school and college (instead of being babies or grade school kids) I suspect that more of us will be willing to throw our hat in the ring. Frankly, that’s how long it’s going to take for some of the people who irritate us the most to retire. Once that is done and the economy recovers some it will be easier to sell those positions to GenX. It’s just too early for us to join the dance.
Yeah, I gotta agree -- as long as the Boomers and "Greatest Generation" who didn't agree with the Civil Rights Movement are busy burning everything down, it's not exactly awesome to be the person building things. Waiting until the Teabaggers spend themselves and coming in when things are finally at the bottom makes way more sense.

And Obama may be an Xer, but his politics -- and economics -- are pure Boomer. That's why he's going to be exactly as successful as the previous two Boomer Presidents.
Rubashov is so right! Let the faculty do more leading! This idea of the noble, enlightened administration is such a farce. I did the admin thing for 3 years, as asst dean. It was a bunch of meetings and forms. I pissed off someone with every decision I made. I got a sense of where the college was, and where it was going, and that was cool. I got a salary bump which was nice. But I got off that track and I am so glad! I am CONSTANTLY innovating as a CC instructor. I also try to publish occasionally. Gee, yeah, it would be nice to DOUBLE my base salary by going into admin but I'm not going to feel any guilt that I am "letting my generation down" by doing what I truly enjoy.
Yes to what Ivory said!

DeanDad, you really had me with "You fight like hell to board a sinking ship." If the ships are sinking why bother? GenXers need to build new things that work and let the old ones founder on the bottom.
Part of this discussion is the implication that Baby Boomers sucked up all the good tenure-track jobs in the 70s and now won't retire.

Maybe I'm over-generalizing from my own experience, but try graphing, from 1965 through today, the number of full-time faculty at your campus, along with the number of adjuncts and the number of students.

If you work at a CA cc, you'll probably see a big jump in full-time faculty from 1965 through about 1970, then a long mostly flat line that trends slightly upwards. You'll see the number of part-timers increasing by leaps and bounds, and you'll see that that increase tracks enrollment.

Baby Boomers, and I'm one, born in 1947, didn't get out of grad school until the early 70s. By then, all the full-time jobs were gone, so we spent a long time adjuncting, too. For me it was 15 years. The last full-time
hire in the English department where I work was in 1972; the next hire (me) didn't happen until 1988.

At the same time the number of English department adjuncts grew from 1 (me again) to 70-some. I spent as much time waiting for the "forthcoming wave of retirements" as anyone in the audience.

And, gee, while I still really like my job and am still good at it, I wouldn't mind retiring. But our State retirement system is based on service credits, which is calculated by the number of years of FULL-time service. My 15 part-time years (many of them working more than 100%, but in several different districts) don't count for squat.

I put off having kids (and only had one) until I got a full-time job at age 45. Now my son is getting ready for college next year. So while I wouldn't mind retiring, I can't live at all comfortably and take care of my kid at 42% of my salary.

We all ought to be wise enough, and experienced enough, to understand that, whether you're a Boomer or an Xer or whatever, life ain't necessarily fair and that nobody has a guarantee of happiness and success. We only get to try for it.

Blaming everything on the Boomers is just too easy, and it's not necessarily accurate.

You actually made my point about diversity within generations, Ivory, rather than demolish it. Would you argue that Bill Gates (1955) wasn't tech savvy when he started Microsoft? Steve Jobs (also 1955)? John Lasseter (1957) who started Pixar?

There are also some errors made about the Greatest Generation, who are all well over 80 and not that active politically. It is the middle group born during the Depression (65 to 80) who have been the most active Tea Party folks, although plenty of Boomers are just as selfish. We were, after all, sometimes spoiled silly, and did the same to our Gen Y kids.

BTW, I have a facebook page, as do many of my HS friends (some already on early retirement), but -- unlike my youngest Gen X colleagues -- I don't friend my students.

PS -
I'll second what Anonymous Philip said about faculty job hiring patterns, and have blogged about it quite a lot in the past. My age cohort is the least represented one in physics faculties in the US.
What CC Physicist said. I don't want to overgeneralize from my CA cc English department, but going through my mental catalog of full-time faculty members--including retirees--it's Baby Boomers who are the LEAST represented faculty members. Lots and lots of folks born before 1945, and lots and lots of folks born after 1960, but not a whole lot of Boomers.

I have to wonder how much of what you are seeing is because of any real generational difference. If academic administration has simply become less attractive than the alternatives over the past 20 or 30 years, that would also explain what you are seeing.
Would you argue that Bill Gates (1955) wasn't tech savvy when he started Microsoft? Steve Jobs (also 1955)? John Lasseter (1957) who started Pixar?

Can’t speak to Lasseter but I would say that Gates and Jobs both approach technology like boomers. Though they are tech savvy, they are hardware/software guys - not webby. Their company's attempts to enter web based markets has been fraught with issues and mistakes. They both created closed technologies which endusers cannot modify. They don't have the naive openness that GenX people have - we do friend our students (sometimes) in my case, some have become my friends in real life. There's nothing inherently wrong with that - but it does seem strange to Boomers.

GenXers (like Obama) use web based technologies more natively. They don't have to be taught to use Web 2.0 tools - chances are they're already doing it. That's not to say that baby boomers don't blog or tweet or use facebook. It's more that GenXers assume that those tools will be available and include them in thinking about solving problems (which the Obama campaign did – brilliantly.)

Boomers are about the device. GenXers are about the portal
GenY is all about the ap
Wha...? The iPad and iPhone both define the American web experience going forward for the next 20 years.
Wha...? The iPad and iPhone both define the American web experience going forward for the next 20 years.

But not in a good way! Apple's portable technology couldn't handle Flash programming until they changed the scripting language to be compatible with hardware accelloration. The size and user interface constraints of mobile devices force companies to build separate websites for them. And Apple is not developing the aps that populate their devices - other companies are (and you should hear all the bellyaching programmers do when they talk about what Apple makes you do to launch an ap.) So while i-devices are nice tech, they've forced the internet to change to accommodate the device – even apple TV requires that you purchase an Apple device (Netflix can be streamed on almost anything with an internet connection and a videocard.) The interactive and web based parts of Apple technology are build by others. Apple builds frames – not art.
Sorry, don't buy it -- the entire European web experience is mobile.

Unless, of course, the eight year olds there are Boomers too.
I totally related to your post. I too went the grad school route and got the Ph.D. Turns out all those geezers in power are NEVER going to retire. Thanks to the economic meltdown, yep, they're still there, some pushing 80 years old. And they will never die, either....

With no jobs in sight, I did what all my colleagues did- I created my own career. Yes, I took a stab at doing director-level admin work. I did a damn good job. But, the ingrained institutional dysfunction combined with working for peanuts was more than I wanted to take on.

I paid my dues in childhood and vowed to have a better life. I made it through the parents' divorce, their remarriages and blended family crap, and I did it being a latch-key kid starting at age 6. After that there's no way would I deal with the ridiculous drama just to be able to say I am part of the grossly underpaid, disempowered management structure.

Making a difference in my field is still a goal. My own efforts fuel it one project at a time. My special skill is evaluating a system, throwing the grenade and giving suggestions on how to clean up the mess.

Being a Gen X outsider is my claim to fame. I don't care if I am liked. I have the objectivity to not get sucked in, so I can see what needs to happen and just do the right thing.

Now I can pick and choose which grenade I'm going to throw and still be there for my husband and kid.

Luckily, I've been able to embrace my alienation and use it to do the needful.
CCPhysicist is entirely correct. It's dangerous to generalize generations. In fact where I work management is almost entirely GenX, with the oldest only in their 50s. Young GenX (30s) are moving into younger management roles and I wonder where Gen Y will go as GenX squeezes out the boomers and doesn't want anyone following them.

The boomers I work with are on the young side, hate the boomer label, hate all the "hippie" stuff they think it stands for, hate taxes, and are politically active enough to be backing up the Tea Party BS. But a lot of tea party activists on the ground are probably GenX, and GenY. There are no noble generations here. My boomer parents hate how the opportunities available to them are not available to me and wonder why as a nation are defunding education. They are incredibly thankful for their pension and warned me early on that benefits were being eroded and I needed to be more proactive in planning for myself. My parents are also very web savvy. My Dad bought his truck off Ebay and my mom is on Facebook whereas I am not.

Hence why these generalizations are terrible. I will say it's been painful watching my generation come of age post 9-11 when the job economy has been pretty much crap all the time. In '08 as the recession got going I had plenty of friends go back to school in hopes of waiting it out only to be graduating last year and this year in a still terrible economy. Unions are being destroyed, tuition keeps going up, and meaningful attempts at health care reform are slaughtered. I'm not sure where the impetus for change will come from, most people I know my age are generally ambivalent about politics as I am starting to become. I vote, but I am so angry I just don't talk about it anymore and I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?