I hate to invoke broad sweeping generalizations about generational differences because they oversimplify the problem. The truth is that our experience in public service differs as greatly as our backgrounds. I can only speak from my experience. Even if your experience is different, I think the underlying message of this column is important. Either way, I encourage you to reflect upon and share your own experience regarding what follows, whether your experience is markedly different, or much the same.
There are currently 4 generations of people employed in the Public Service. Numerous studies have attempted to articulate the unique relationship that each generation has with their organization, their career, and their work. My generation, Gen Y, has been described as growing up with too much praise and not enough criticism: everyone got a trophy, no one made a mistake and we always had to be happy.
From what I can tell, this has resulted in the Gen Y cadre of public servants being highly educated, motivated and eager to dive right into the substantive work of our positions. We enter into the Public Service confident that we can enjoy immediate success, but withhold respect for process, protocol or superiors until they earn it.
Being educated, motivated and goal-oriented is an obvious benefit to our individual careers and, by extension, the Public Service more broadly. On the other hand, withholding respect until earned is to our detriment. If I had to define the problem, it would be as simple as “a lack of humility.”
Given the current climate it is hard to be humble. We have lived our entire lives being pumped up to bigger and better things. The overwhelming focus on the importance of youth, the next generation of public servant, etc. only exacerbates the problem.
Think about it.
Renewal plays directly into the hype that our generation has been eating up for the last decade. Employers, including the federal government, are literally tripping over themselves to bring young people into their organizations. For once, demand for talent is exceeding supply, and some organizations want to staff up so badly that they may be unknowingly compromising the integrity of their final product or service.
We don’t know how to be humble, because we have never been humbled before. How do you learn to get up if you never fall down?
Let me explain. Well actually, let one of my unofficial mentors explain:
“Being humble is difficult. You were the brightest kid in the class. You were the high achiever in your family. You are well educated, and have repeatedly tasted success in life. You have lived a life that has provided you with everything you need to be successful – everything except the humility you need in order to understand that you still have so much to learn. Sustaining a high level of achievement is no easy task, nor is it without cost. Humility, respect for process and hierarchy have never mattered before, or at least not to the extent they do within the public service. You are now evaluated on a completely different set of criteria then previously. Everyone here was the brightest kid. Everyone around you is highly educated. You are working in a level playing field. Slowing down, asking advice, respecting process, and hierarchy – these are important things that do not come naturally to people in your demographic. They are however of the utmost importance. They keep the machinations of government moving.”
I think Gen Y expects too much. I think we expect it too quickly. If we want to keep the machinations of government moving, if we want to keep our careers moving, learning the lesson of humility early on is imperative.
There is so much hype about making a career in government appeal to the younger demographic that I fear the imperative for us to deliver on our obligations – providing good service to Canadians – is often lost in translation.
It is not only the responsibility of the federal government to recruit us, retain us and promote us. It is our responsibility to earn the organization’s interest, their retention efforts and our promotions.