Talkin’ ‘bout three generations: what does it mean for schools when Xs, Ys and Boomers mix?

Karen Edge

People from the same generation tend to have some characteristics in common and, as a result, generational differences influence the daily lives of the organisations they work in. However, within education, rarely has a generational lens been used to explore and support the three generations (3-Gen) of teachers and leaders working in our schools at the moment: Boomers (born 1945–65), Generation X (1965–1980) and Generation Y (1980–2000).

Our current ESRC-funded study is nested within our wider interest in the influence of generational behaviour and attitudinal patterns on school-level improvements in teaching and learning. It focuses our energies on learning more about the emerging cohort of Gen X school leaders in London, New York and Toronto.

To kick-start our 3-Gen musings, based on our own and the wider emerging evidence we introduce three generationally stereotypical and fictitious teachers and leaders. Without further ado, your 3-Gen trio: Ayesha, Mark and Barbara:

Generation Y: Ayesha, 24
Ayesha recently accepted her first permanent teaching post. She is optimistic, confident, social and street-smart. Motivated by a sense of civic duty, Ayesha and her peers are part of a diverse cohort with a commitment to, and expectation of, a diverse workforce. Professionally, Ayesha is self-directed, tech savvy, well-networked and connected. She is willing to commit to her school and is eager to get ahead, demonstrated by her constant desire for learning and expanded responsibility. At times, Ayesha is easily intimidated by colleagues. She likes structure and supervision in the form of personalised learning and mentoring opportunities. Ayesha and her Gen Y colleagues often thrive with robust orientation programme and large-group collaboration under strong supportive leaders.

Generation X: Mark, 37
Mark is a technoliterate deputy headteacher although he is now frequently out-techsavvied by his Gen Y colleagues. During his first six years of teaching, he taught in four different schools. Thankfully, he is comfortable with change! He is at ease with people from all backgrounds, is globally-minded and has travelled and studied abroad. While he is comfortable with, and even craves, collaboration, he is content working on his own and is self-reliant. His sense of fun and informal approach to relationships and work is palpable. For Mark, work is defined by task, not time and place. However, he holds his commitment to his partner and family close to heart and defends his work-life balance. Mark is a great colleague because he is adaptable, creative and unintimidated by authority. However, his independence has fostered what is perceived as a “less than ideal” set of people skills and his cynicism can often get in the way.

Boomer: Barbara, 55
Barbara is optimistic, personable and very much a relationship-oriented headteacher. At work she is a great team player who is eager to please her colleagues, keen to be involved in any cross-school initiatives and always willing to go the extra mile. Yet she is also keen to avoid conflict, sensitive to feedback and reluctant to challenge her peers. Her natural tendency to focus on process and to be weary of budget and accountability structures can be to the detriment of the end result within an accountability, outcomes-driven culture. Barbara can also be fairly judgmental of those with a different perspective to her own, and can sometimes stray into believing her way is the only way.

What we are calling “generational awareness” may provide leaders with another strategy for understanding how individuals approach their work, collaboration and work-life balance. As a starter for ten, we suggest the following questions for consideration:

  • Are there generational patterns at play within your school?
  • Do you make the most of generational patterns to bring about school-level change and improvement?
  • Do you need (or have) a different skill and strategy set to recruit, retain, motivate and support colleagues from each generation?

Our work to build on collective understanding of the implications of our 3-Gen schools continues and we encourage you to join the debate/discussion. Contact k.edge@ioe.ac.uk.

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Posted in Karen Edge, Leadership and management
4 comments on “Talkin’ ‘bout three generations: what does it mean for schools when Xs, Ys and Boomers mix?
  1. Miss Honey says:

    I suggest the following questions for consideration instead:
    Is this a form of ageism masquerading as something more palatable?
    Is it any more acceptable to attribute stereotypical views, attitudes, beliefs and other characteristics to people on “generational” grounds, than it is on the grounds of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality etc.?
    Is a “leader” who takes such an approach, fit to lead?

  2. Denis Mongon says:

    I think there is something very interesting in this discussion. Of course, attributing stereotypical attitudes or skills to individuals on an ageist basis is as unacceptable as doing so on any other basis. It’s not good ethically and its not good practically. A leader who takes that approach isn’t fit to lead but a leader who is sensitive to the background, interests and dispositions of her team might be.

    I don’t think that Karen and her colleagues are inviting us to indulge in stereotypes. I read it that they are challenging us to consider whether there are generational trends inside leadership teams and across schools and have set up three caricatures to start that debate. I’d have used three different time phases but that’s always a debate in historical perspective: I’d have gone for 1945-65, 65-85, 85-2005. I think that nationally there were three trends in education corresponding to those phases – the 1944 settlement, the comprehensive movement and finally the emergence of autonomy. Those education phases might – arguably – correspond to national moods, the country’s image of itself and in turn be reflected in generational attitudes to work and, in our interest, work in education.
    It’s not a definitive matter, but it is an interesting question.

  3. Lucym808 says:

    I think this is potentially fascinating. Personally I’d have looked more closely at the times people underwent teacher training rather than by age. I, for example, am a Generation X-er (born at the tail-end of 1969), but training in 1994 after the NC was introduced. I think that’s a much more significant measure of approach and attitude than age between the X-ers and the Boomers.

  4. Lucym808 says:

    Sorry, ‘trained’ in 1994…

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