At Work: The Generation Gap Is Narrower Than It Seems

Tensions between Millennials and their employers are often classic power struggles that misleadingly manifest as an intergenerational culture clash. 

 


“How long is a generation these days?”

                                            – Zadie Smith, “Generation Why?” (New York Review of Books)

 

Like a “zeitgeist,” a “generation” is a slippery thing that nonetheless seems to have certain definite characteristics. “Millennials,” so-called because they are coming into adulthood at the start of the new millennium, have lately been the subject of intense scrutiny, study, and debate. Are Millennials impassioned or flighty? Lazy or seeking work-life balance? Fiercely genuine or completely unprofessional?

What's the Big Idea? 

One fairly well-documented fact is that those Millennials lucky enough to be employed in the current economy are more dissatisfied with their jobs than were previous generations, and more likely to leave them in search of brighter pastures. These workplace frustrations can erupt into inter-generational finger-pointing and stereotyping, with Millennials judging their bosses as stodgy and authoritarian, while the latter accuse “these kids today” of having their priorities all mixed up.

According to Jennifer Deal, author of Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, the culture clash argument is often a proxy for something much more timeless: the will to power. As an organizational psychologist, researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership, which is affiliated with USC's Center for Effective Organizations, Deal works worldwide on intergenerational workplace communication. Key to avoiding these misleading clashes, she argues, is recognizing them for what they are  – power struggles – and addressing the underlying issue: workers’ universal need to feel valued, mentored, and engaged in meaningful work alongside people they trust.


What’s the Significance? 

Generational differences do exist, but they’re incredibly mercurial and complex. The stereotypes we adopt in daily life to clarify this gap can easily complicate relationships across generations, obscuring people’s actual motivations and the common ground they may share. So while Millennials and Baby Boomers alike can benefit from a nuanced sociological understanding of their differences, the generation gap is only part of the story.

Real progress in the workplace depends upon something beyond intergenerational tolerance. It isn’t a matter of teaching “these kids” to submit to authority or of teaching those in power to loosen up a bit. That kind of learning does happen, but it happens slowly, and never overtly. Real progress requires the kind of mutual respect that can only be built on a recognition of common goals and a willingness to work together to achieve them. In that kind of climate, even within a firmly established chain of command, employees at every level of the company can collaborate to establish a culture they can believe in, and in which they’re eager to invest the best of themselves.

This post is part of the series Inside Employees' Minds, presented by Mercer.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.