Getting diversity right for Generation Y

One of the things I observe in organisations is how generations think differently about diversity.  So I was really interested to read John Harris’ recent article on ‘Why has Generation Y become so right wing?’.  His article’s not about organisations.  But it highlights generational differences towards individuality and collectivism, and provokes some interesting questions about the future of diversity and inclusion in organisations that will be headed up by the Gen-Yers of today.

Here’s the dilemma.  On the one hand, as Harris says, ‘Gen Y is admirably socially enlightened: its support for gender equality and gay rights is overwhelming, and on such ideas as the wearing of traditional dress in state schools, its live-and-let-live mores tower over those of older generations’.  In my experience this is true of the workplace too.  Generation Y employees struggle significantly less with individual expressions of diversity and difference than their Gen X colleagues.  For Gen Y people know that clothes and piercings and tattoos – and gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, working patterns – say nothing about someone’s ability to do their job.  From that perspective, I’m optimistic for the future of diversity and inclusion under the leadership of Gen Y people.  Surely a generation that’s so easy-come, easy-go about individual difference would support workplace interventions that make the expression of difference easier?

On the other hand, Harris describes a generation for whom ‘postwar collectivism is increasingly but a distant memory’ and who think that ‘joblessness is usually the result of character failings rather than the state of the economy’.  He’s talking about Gen Y hostility to the welfare state, but it made me think about the objections I’ve heard from many Gen Y people (not only from Gen Y people, of course) to collectivist workplace interventions on diversity and inclusion – to things like women’s networks, for instance, and minority ethnic development programmes.  Many Gen Y people are simply not interested in getting involved in anything that smacks of lefty identity politics at work, which is often how action on diversity and inclusion is (mistakenly) perceived.

From that perspective, I’m concerned for the future of diversity and inclusion in Gen Y’s hands.  If the prevailing view of Gen Y is that failure comes from not trying hard enough, what sense will be made of the careers of those female, black, gay, disabled colleagues, who don’t make it to the top?  The reasons may be to do with institutionalised racism, or the universal challenge of combining work and family, or any of the other systemic barriers to diversity and inclusion.  But without a collectivist lens, will the story go in the future, that they just didn’t try hard enough, or simply lacked the ambition to succeed?

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