It takes years to build a career and generations to shape one

2 August 2022
6 min read

The phrase 'OK boomer' became viral on TikTok in 2019. Thanks to musicians Peter Kuli and Jedwill, the meme quickly became the millennials and Gen Z's clapback to older generations (especially the Baby Boomers), not only for being too traditional but also for calling them snowflakes, among many other stereotypes. The two-word retort, which may simply seem to be stating one's generation, is meant to be dismissive and mocking – the same way people call millennials, millennials. Tit for tat, you could say. 

But now is not the time for generational wars. What we need is to harness generational diversity.

Over the past years, a great deal has been published about the stereotypical characteristics of, and differences between, generations. Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) are driven, highly competitive and value job security. Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1979), on the other hand, believe in balance and while they constantly monitor their careers, they work to live not the other way around. And millennials and idealistic Gen Zeds, in contrast, usually change jobs constantly in pursuit of flexibility, meaning, well-being – and higher salaries. 

As a Gen Xer myself and as someone who is working with younger generations, I've been thinking about the longer-term impact this fast and frequent changing of jobs will have on the working lives of millennials and Gen Zeds. Is it possible to build a career by choosing opportunities with quick returns rather than taking a more long-term approach? How will their careers turn out in the long run? 

And more importantly, what can businesses and leaders like us do to help bridge the gap between the different generations in the workplace and help people navigate and flourish in their careers?

Job vs. career

There are distinct differences between having a job and building a career. A job is a role. It is short-term and non-committal. A career, on the other hand, is the path you take to fulfil your professional goals and ambitions. It's the combination of all of your roles, experiences, education, skills and pathways. Building a career is a long-term commitment. It takes grit. 

To quote the American author Travis Bradberry: "Grit is that 'extra something' that separates the most successful people from the rest. It's the passion, perseverance, and stamina that we must channel in order to stick with our dreams until they become a reality."

Job hopping can advance a career, but every job has a salary ceiling. If your only motivation is money, eventually you'll max out and end up being the highest paid technician with nowhere to go. 

As more people change jobs amid the pandemic, businesses are facing very stiff competition to attract talent which, coupled with inflation, is fuelling higher pay. According to a survey provided to Wall Street Journal, 64 per cent of people who recently changed jobs are being paid more in their new role; and among these, nearly half got an 11 per cent raise or more. 

There's nothing wrong with chasing the money especially with talk of recessions looming, but you have to ask yourself what you'd prefer – a job or a career? 

Encouraging companies to celebrate generational diversity

While I was born and raised in the US, I've spent most of my 20-plus year-career working for multinational corporations in Asia. Now, as a Regional Managing Director of Greater China, one of my priorities is mentoring younger generations on how to build a successful career.

A defining characteristic of the younger generations is the expectation of getting results fast and to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. This may be due to the fact that we now live in an age where technology allows us to do that. Yet, in the architecture, engineering and construction industries, projects can easily run for five to ten years. In order to develop technical and non-technical skills and increase their professional standing, young professionals need to devote time for exposure to all stages of a project, instead of dropping in for a couple of years and failing to see the full process. 

To make our workplaces more attractive to younger (and older) generations, we should start by eradicating the 'one-size-fits-all' approach to employee benefits as we now know that employees' priorities change at different stages of life. A millennial who is raising a young family may value parental leave and subsidised childcare, whereas a Gen X might be more interested in retirement contributions and healthcare benefits. 

We need to rethink our approach to performance management and consider what will work best for everyone instead of doing what we've always done. Learning is not a one-way street. – there is so much to learn and realise when we look at things from different perspectives. 

In my first job as an architectural graduate, I decided to book a five-minute meeting with the president of the company to introduce myself and share what my plans were for my career. Surprisingly, that led me to have regular monthly meetings with him for the next five years. He became a valuable mentor to me and in return, I helped him understand perceptions from a grassroots level. His act of generosity is something I continue to pay forward to this day and is a tool I use to understand my role as a leader.

Generational differences are global

Being Chinese American, I acknowledge the many distinctions between the east and west but there's one thing I know to be consistent: Generational differences are a global phenomenon. 

While labels like Gen X and millennial can be useful shorthand for certain stereotypes, they also perpetuate biases and misconceptions which can be counterproductive or even destructive. The way to guard against this is to only speak positively about each cohort's peculiarities so the differences are perceived to be strengths, not reasons for division.

If companies can do a better job of managing generational differences in the workplace, they will be able to harness the full power of their network and the career opportunities will sell themselves. This extends to fostering a culture that is not merely inclusive of all age groups, but which truly values older workers. Why? Because we need the older generations to facilitate the intergenerational transfer of their knowledge, wisdom, and relationships. And we need them to coach, mentor, tutor, and guide tomorrow's leaders.

It will take years to build a career, but it will take generations to help you shape the one that's right for you.


Alton Chow
Written by
Alton Chow

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