WPRI’s precocious Millennial reporter Ted Nesi tweeted out a link to a Boston Magazine essay by Kris Frieswick about the woes of my generation, Generation X. We’ve grown up from our angry grunge youths; we’ve weathered the painfully timed recessions of the early ’90s, the tech bubble pop, and the Great Recession; and now (per the theme of Frieswick’s essay) we see the Baby Boomers looking to skip over us in the economy as a final act of revenge against the generation that insulted them by being young when they no longer were.
But I won’t dwell on generational resentments, because I think Frieswick is right that GenXers are in part defined by their problem-solving ability, and that’s more important. We’ll grumble about unfairness, but after we’ve worked all that out in the mosh pit, we’ll assess the situation and look for a fix. In this case, Frieswick just misses it.
Consider the reflections of Boston Boomer John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction:
When I spoke with Fish at his offices in December, he seemed agitated and dismayed. He had taken a hard look at his own company, which employs about 1,000 people in Greater Boston, and found 50-year-old superintendents still using paper drawings and sketches while 27-year-old employees work off 3D models that can cut hours-long tasks to mere seconds. He started offering technology training to help Gen Xers remain vibrant, valuable members of his team, but received immediate pushback. “A lot of people are like, ‘I’m not going to do it that way,’” Fish says. “They want to be adaptable. But it’s not natural to them. It’s like a basketball player shooting lefty when they’re a righty.” And if he can’t get them up to speed, he fears his company could lose something more valuable than wasted hours. A coming storm threatens to sweep a generation of workers out of their jobs well before their time—and value—has expired.
Far be it from me to suggest to a Boomer that he might be misinterpreting my generation a little. Maybe those superintendents like drawings and sketches. Maybe the tangible nature is part of what connects them to the work that they’re doing. More importantly, maybe slower drawing and measuring has benefits for creativity and for comprehension. Hints of these possibilities appear in Frieswick’s essay again in the sentence I’ve emphasized in the following paragraph:
According to experts, here’s who we are: The first latchkey kids. The last free-range kids. The first generation born to mothers who didn’t see child-rearing as their highest calling. The first for whom divorced parents were the norm. The first whose babysitter was a TV. The only generation that has transitioned out of a completely analog workplace world into one dominated by digital. The first generation that is worse off financially than its parents. The one that lost more of its median net worth, 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, during the years around the Great Recession than any other generational cohort, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Oddly, the essay never quite articulates how significant that experience is. Working on a complex residential construction project a decade or so, I had a big folder of paper plans, but I was also on the cutting edge of using graphing software and a computer phone to work out problems and communicate with the architect. (That’s what the devices were called before Apple gave them the pretentious name “smart phones.”) Before beginning to cut the lumber in challenging areas, I used 3D modeling software, and I would notice, for instance, when the roofing system plan didn’t quite match up with the plan for the second floor framing. In such situations, I could email a photo of the existing framing to the architect, and he could superimpose the solution on the photo and send it back.
As useful as the 3D tech can be, though, the brain processes things differently when it has to translate from lines on paper to a mental image. It’s like the difference between reading a story and watching the movie. The same quality that makes it possible for two drawings of an object to look correct from different angles, but not to fit together in actuality, makes it possible to imagine things that might need some adjustment to work. The architect (also GenX) once told me that clients do better with rough sketches than 3D models at the concept phase, because they can imagine all of the things that are really important to them without (yet) worrying about how they’ll go together.
This natural juxtaposition of the analog and the digital may be GenX’s most important lesson for our society. Frieswick quotes manufacturing director Ken Stuart reminiscing that he learned his company from “the ground floor” up, “making mistakes” along the way. Now, Stuart says, Millennials “feel like it’s beneath them” to gather that kind of experience
Just so, Boomers were already managers when information technology really started to revolutionize the way tasks could be done, but they weren’t actually doing the tasks anymore. Millennials have a similar view from the opposite end: Why do something the hard way when technology makes it easy? Why should they spend time on tedious tasks that they’ll never have to do and that will soon be automated away? Give them specific instructions, and they’ll use their toys to whip up a finished product.
GenX, by contrast, has experience trying to fit the technological roof onto the analog walls and can see where some additional solution is needed in order to make the whole thing work in a way that keeps the key parts of each.
This dynamic applies to culture, too, as seen in the revolutions that the Baby Boomers imposed on our culture when they were young. The goals of progress were wonderful, but the rush just to get to the finish undermined social foundations. Arguably, that destruction is behind our most vexing problems, today, and has caused untold and unnecessary suffering.
If only there had been a “sandwich generation” to capture the lessons as the revolution happened. Or maybe there was and our culture has just written its experience off.