From Boomers to Linksters--Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work
Authors: Meagan Johnson, Larry Johnson
Pub Date: May 2010
Print Edition: $16.95
Print ISBN: 9780814415733
Page Count: 272
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814415764
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Signposts: Harbingers of Things to Come
‘‘Life is rather like a tin of sardines—we’re all of us
looking for the key.’’
—Alan Bennett, British author, actor, humorist, and playwright
When I was six years old, I went to the grocery store with my
father. He bought an item priced at $1.69, but the cashier
misread it and only charged him 69 cents. (This was 1976.
Scanners had yet to be invented, and cashiers manually entered
prices.) My father alerted her to her mistake. She thanked him
and charged him the extra dollar.
I was dumbfounded! At the time, my weekly allowance was a
dollar. My father had just thrown away what it took me a week
to earn. So I said, ‘‘Dad, that was dumb. All you had to do was
keep your mouth shut and you could have saved a whole dollar.’’
‘‘Yes,’’ he replied, ‘‘but how I feel about myself is worth more
than a dollar.’’
My memory of that event has followed me all my life. It helps me
decide how to handle situations in which I must determine the
right thing to do. It taught me that there is more to life than
material gain. I’ve even used it as a standard for picking the
company I keep. Would I want a friend who would have kept the
dollar? I think not. Thanks, Dad, for the great life lesson.
You’re welcome, Meagan, but gosh, I don’t even remember this
big event in your life. In retrospect, it seems I was able to convey
a simple life lesson for a pretty small price. If it had been a million
dollars at stake instead of one, I hope I would have acted as
It does remind me that early experiences can have lasting influences
on our lives. I attended YMCA summer camp when I was
ten years old. My family didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t
afford the tuition, but I was an enterprising sort. I secured a
position as a dishwasher that allowed me to go for free.
For some reason, an adult counselor at the camp considered
tuition workers second-class citizens. On an overnight excursion,
after a long day of hiking, this counselor told the kitchen crew to
wait until all the paid campers got their food from the chow line
before eating. I waited and waited. When I saw some of the paid
campers queuing up for seconds, I got in line. This counselor
grabbed my arm and jerked me out of line. In front of all the other
campers, he dressed me down, reminding me that I was just a
‘‘dishwasher,’’ and I had to wait for the ‘‘real’’ campers to eat.
My humiliation was unbearable. I burst into tears, threw my plate
in the counselor’s face, and ran into the woods, hoping I would
get lost and starve to death just to show them how unjustly I’d
Luckily, a more sympathetic counselor tracked me down and
escorted me back to camp, where he gave me something to eat.
He told me not to take the counselor who had been mean to me
seriously because he had some personal problems that caused
him to act that way. In retrospect, he should not have been
allowed to work with kids, problems or not, but I did gain something
positive from the experience. In the years since, I’ve traced
any empathy I have for people less fortunate than I to that unpleasant
incident. It gave me a small taste of what it feels like to be discriminated
against. It was a painful, but beneficial, event in my life.
Personal and Group Signposts
We call these kinds of events personal signposts: experiences in our lives
that significantly contribute to who we are. They are personal because
they are unique to each individual. They are signposts because they influence
our future decisions, reactions, attitudes, and behaviors.
Other signposts have just as much impact on us, but these spring
from the experiences of the groups to which we belong and the society in
which we live. These group signposts can have a strong effect on us because
they are magnified by the power of numbers. For example, if you are a
member of a racial minority, you may or may not have endured racism
yourself. However, the fact that your friends, family, and colleagues probably
did will affect how you view the issue of discrimination. And, if you
combine this group signpost with one or more personal signposts associated
with race, the effect can be very powerful.
Larry remembers an experience he had when working for a large
organization. He and his boss, Irene, were conducting interviews to fill a
position that would report directly to Larry. It came down to two finalists:
one Larry liked, and one Irene liked. Since Irene was the boss, Larry
yielded, and they hired her choice.
It turned out to be a mistake and they eventually had to let the
woman go. In discussing it later, Irene graciously claimed responsibility
for the fiasco. She said that she had let a prejudice hidden deep within
her affect her judgment. It turns out that Larry’s preferred choice was
white, and Irene’s was black. Irene herself is also black.
Larry was surprised. Irene had never struck him as being racially motivated.
After all, she had hired him, a white guy, when there had been
several minority candidates from whom to choose. She also had a sterling
reputation as the consummate HR professional. Larry asked her to explain.
Irene replied that she hadn’t preferred her candidate because she was
black, but because the white candidate’s Southern accent grated down at
her ‘‘very core.’’ As a young black woman growing up in the South, she
associated many negative experiences with a Southern drawl. The combina-
tion of a group signpost (being black) and the personal signposts (these
negative experiences) affected Irene’s ability, years later, to be fair and
impartial. To her credit, she promised to make a conscious effort not to
let this prejudice affect her judgment again.
Irene’s story illustrates the good news about signposts. They can have
very positive effects on our lives, as did Meagan’s experience with Larry
at the grocery store, or they can have very negative effects, like Irene’s
reaction to a Southern accent. But they can be changed. Signposts are not
life sentences. Irene proved the point. She learned from her insight and
made a conscious decision to move in a different direction.
A generational signpost is an event or cultural phenomenon that is specific
to one generation. Generational signposts shape, influence, and drive our
expectations, actions, and mind-sets about the products we buy, the com-
panies for which we work, and the expectations we have about life in
general. Generational signposts mold our ideas about company loyalty,
work ethics, and the definitions of a job well done.
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