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Managing Peter Pan

It’s enough to make your average manager heave a heavy sigh. Just when the social trend watchers thought they had all the generational attitudes pretty well pegged—and had developed strategies for managing generational diversity—along come the twixters, the grups and the growing notion that Americans just aren’t aging like they used to.

Some observers argue that more and more Americans are going through extended periods during which—psychologically and culturally speaking—they are hanging onto their youth with alarming fervor. First, there’s the post-teenager phase. “The years from 18 to 25 and even beyond have become a distinct and separate life stage,” reports Lev Grossman (2005) in Time magazine, “a strange, transitional never-never land between adolescence and adulthood in which people stall for a few extra years, putting off the iron cage of adult responsibility that constantly threatens to crash down on them.”

Sometimes known as “twixters” because they’re “betwixt and between” two stages of life, these young adults don’t want to or simply can’t afford to step directly into conventional adulthood. They’re getting married later, having children later and increasingly living with their parents well into their 20s. Part of the reason may be economic, with the annual earnings among U.S. men 25 to 34 who have full-time jobs dropping by 17% from 1971 to 2002. But there’s also a work-related psychological component. Grossman notes that twixters jump from job to job searching for “a sense of purpose and importance in their work, something that will add meaning to their lives, and many don’t want to rest until they find it.”

But perhaps even stranger than this extended adolescence are the growing numbers of Americans trying to hold onto the best aspects of youth well into middle age. “This is an obituary for the generation gap,” writes Adam Sternbergh (2006) in New York magazine. “It is a story about 40-year-old men and women who look, talk, act and dress like people who are 22 years old.” Sternbergh refers to these people as “grups,” a term from an old “Star Trek” episode about a planet inhabited by children who can never reach adulthood.

Sternbergh argues that there’s a sizable subset of skilled urban dwellers who—whether in their 30s, 40s, or even 50s—are redefining adulthood as a time when they can share many of the same tastes, fashions, entertainments and even work attitudes as their 20-something counterparts. And he isn’t the only one who thinks so. In his book Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up, Christopher Noxon describes what he calls “a new breed of adult, identified by a determination to remain playful, energetic and flexible in the face of adult responsibilities” (Donahue 2006).

Noxon points out that half of the visitors to Disney World are now adults with no children and that the average age of people who play video games is 29, up from 18 in 1990 (Berfield, 2006). And this trend extends even up to the Baby Boomers, whose desire for youth-targeted products is so intense that marketers have actually named it “downward aspiration.” Noxon writes, “Today there is simply no sanction against child-like enthusiasm, little shame in childish impulsiveness and no one to stop us from cultivating the pleasures that adults of yesteryear were pressured to abandon the moment they entered the workforce” (Hinds 2006).

So, what difference does it make if the U.S. workforce is increasingly populated by 30- and 40-something video-game-playing, Disney-visiting, Death-Cab-for-Cutie-listening, jeans-and-sneakers-sporting, skate-boarding folk who have no intention of forsaking their youthful ways? For one thing, most of the “rejuveniles” are part of the talent-packed urban professional class that is often in high demand, but they tend to share many of the work values of younger hipsters.

Sternbergh argues that the grups (or rejuveniles, yupsters or whatever else we want to call them) are primarily motivated by passion—they’re passionate about everything from music to fashion to parenting to work. In this, they’re similar to their twixter counterparts, with both groups pursuing a sense of meaning in their work. Being a grup, Sternbergh writes, is largely about “rejecting a hand-me-down model of adulthood that asks, or even necessitates, that you let go of everything you ever felt passionate about.”

This presents something of a conundrum for businesses. On one hand, their combination of work experience, work passion and openness to new ideas makes grups attractive to corporations striving to create an innovative workplace packed with engaged employees. On the other, grups often seem to be entrepreneurs, independent contractors or freelancers who don’t fit well into conventional corporate life.

It’s possible, then, that the same kind of approaches traditionally intended to attract and motivate younger workers—such as establishing flexible schedules and a sense of fun, providing considerable autonomy, and offering mentoring and different kinds of challenging work—will work for grups as well. It’s also possible that the search for passion and meaning among both twixters and grups will slowly change the prevailing cultures and even the raison d’être of more businesses in the future.

For much more information on the multigenerational workforce, visit HRI’s Website.

Documents used in the preparation of this article include:

Berfield, Susan. “Adults Do the Darnedest Things.” BusinessWeek. ProQuest. June 19, 2006.

Donahue, Deirdre. “‘Rejuvenile’ Toys with the Idea of Adulthood.” USA Today, June 20, 2006, p. 1D.

Grossman, Lev. “Grow Up? Not So Fast.” Time. ProQuest. January 24, 2005.

Hinds, Julie. “Grow Up? Never! Kids Stuff Is Cool for a New Breed of Adults.” Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. ProQuest. June 28, 2006.

Sternbergh, Adam. “Up with Grups.” New York. ProQuest. April 3, 2006.