The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 12, 2010


Author Tammy Erickson (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)

Tammy Erickson is a generational guru (among many other things)

Even if you don’t know Tammy Erickson, writer, executive coach, wife, mother, speaker, board member, consultant, frequent flier, you probably know her house, the gorgeous 1891 classic New England colonial with the big red barn and rolling horse pastures. abutting Great Brook Farm State Park.

Yet most of us who know Tammy as a Pony Club Mom, horsewoman and dog/sheep/pig/chicken owner don’t know Tammy the Harvard MBA, consultant and McKinsey Award-winning expert on organizations and the changing workforce. It was this latter Tammy who showed up to a packed house for her reading at the Concord Book Shop on Saturday, February 28, to discuss the ideas in her latest book, What’s Next, Gen X?: Keeping up, Moving Ahead and Getting the Career You Want.

Tammy has written three books in the last three years about generational analysis and work. She has also authored three Harvard Business Review articles about retirement and work. Her most recent research poses the question, “How do the different generations approach work and the workforce, and what informs their decisions when it comes to work and getting ahead?” She says it was her daughter Kate, now 21, who got her interested in writing about generations’ attitudes toward work.

Three books later

Her first book was Retire Retirement: Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation, (2008) in which she explores the Baby Boomer generation’s relationship to the idea of retirement and work. Not surprisingly, Erickson, herself a Boomer, argues that this is not your parents’ retirement, filled with leisurely days at the golf course. With the widening gap between workers and the demand for talent, businesses are looking to keep valuable employees around longer. Furthermore, with the financial losses many have suffered with the market crash and recession, retiring may not be an option.

Her second book (2009) was Plugged in: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work. In it, Erickson examines the strengths of this generation (aged 15 to 30) and encourages them to use their unique skill set as a way to make the workplace better. As you might have guessed, their ideas about work are pretty different from the Boomers’ and even from the Generation X’ers.

The latest book, (2010), What’s Next, Gen X?: Keeping Up, Moving Ahead and Getting the Career You Want, looks at the 30-45 age cohort sandwiched between the Boomers, who are not going away quietly from leadership positions, and the Y’s, with their confidence, noncommittal attitude, technology aptitude and demand for attention.

One of the most interesting points Erickson makes about generation analysis is that “key assumptions and values are formed between the ages of 11 and 13. So in studying a generation, you have to look at formative events of those years – in other words, what was happening culturally, historically and economically at that time. “For Generation Y, it was clearly terrorism,” Erickson points out as an example. “They grew up witnessing and having to process the Columbine Shootings and September 11 – unexpected, random acts” of violence, destruction and death. Boomers may perceive this generation as “impatient,” yet Erickson would argue they are living exactly as one should expect from their history: they live in the moment, and they live every day to the fullest.

“Gen X’ers” differ from Boomers in many ways, but one major tendency that sets them apart, according to Erickson, is their need to “keep multiple options open.” Think early 1980s for their key formative events: skyrocketing unemployment rates, layoffs, a divorce rate of 50%, the Challenger disaster and the fact that X’ers are the first real generation of “latch-key” kids with no one around when they got home from school. They grew up not trusting institutions, but instead relying on themselves and each other. And, says Erickson, they feel that at the end of the day, they are the ones who have to take care of themselves. “A Boomer relies on family,” she argues. “X’ers have ‘tribes,’ and very often their closest friends are those maintained since junior high and high school.”

In describing the X’ers’ focus on self-reliance, Erickson uses a Jack & the Beanstalk analogy: “Boomers are climbing that beanstalk, trying to get to the top,” she smiles. “X’ers are taking care of that beanstalk from the bottom, making sure it’s not going to collapse, but they’re also planting other beanstalk seeds all over the ground! X’ers have a backup plan and a backup plan to the backup plan,” Erickson says. “They have lots of irons in the fire at all times.”

Each generation seems to have its share of stereotyped labels: Gen Y is dumb and impatient, Gen X’ers are slackers and the Boomers are full of self congratulatory arrogance and entitlement. Such labeling, says Erickson, is unfair, and results not from truths but from the differences in generational perspectives and communication issues. “Assumptions are made and we come to the wrong conclusions about each other,” she says. Generations may share values and traits – “but they don’t exhibit them the same way,” she points out.

X’ers came of age in the era of MTV and CNN. “They are the beginning of a truly global generation,” argues Erickson, “while Boomers are pretty national.” Boomers grew up in a crowded world. They were raised to be decisive and competitive. They embraced idealism, and wanted to change the world. Gen X’ers find that hypocritical: “You want to change the world but you want to get ahead?”

Generation Y views work in a totally different construct than X’ers or Boomers do. The Ys are programmed to live every day to the fullest, and to live in the moment. “Ys think every day should be meaningful and challenging,” says Erickson. They are also the first generation with an unconscious digital facility. The way they use technology is very different from the X’ers and certainly from the Boomers. No surprise to those with texting and Twittering teenagers. “A Y might not only resist reporting to an office every day, they are truly puzzled why they have to show up for work at 8:30. You want me to be here, when? Why?”

When pressed for the biggest misconception about the X’ers, Erickson admits, “Boomers think they are slackers. Boomers think they don’t care, that they are not committed or ambitious. But that’s not accurate. They just don’t exhibit the same way Boomers do”. On the other hand, she says, to X’ers, Boomers “assume things have to be done the way they’ve always been done.”

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between X’ers and Boomers, maintains Erickson, is their approach to parenting and family. “Boomers are completely dedicated to their children’s success, (often making sacrifices and seizing opportunities for the benefit of their children’s futures) while X’ers are dedicated to being successful parents. There’s a difference. And corporations sometimes have a conflict with that.”

Erickson is convinced that Generation X is well equipped to lead. However, although some of their tendencies (keeping options open, a tolerance for multiple points of view, embracing diversity and a commitment to finding balance between work and family) are strengths in the corporate world, “they still drive Boomers crazy.”

There’s another twist to the conflict between Xers and Boomers: Boomers bend over backwards to please the Ys, their children. “Boomers are obsessed with making Generation Y happy in the workforce,” Erickson says. So you have resentment from the Xers, who feel misunderstood and unappreciated. Sounds like any normal dysfunctional family, right?

How did she get into this field? She holds a BA in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago – and assumed a medical career was part of her future. Until her first day volunteering at a children’s hospital, where she was instructed to hold together the lacerated head of a young child while the ER doctor stitched him up. “I watched the whole thing, holding that kid’s head, and when he got that last stitch in place, I passed out. When I came to, I handed in my [white] coat and my resignation.”

After graduating from Harvard Business School, Erickson began her career at Arthur D. Little in 1975 where her secret label was “the experiment.” As the only woman in her position, she was often not invited to lunch with male clients, because the lunches were booked at male-only restaurants and clubs. At colleagues’ dinner parties, their wives would grill her. “They wanted to know how I did the laundry and the grocery shopping.” But the funniest question was undoubtedly, ‘Who reads your husband’s newspaper?’ “I said, ‘huh?’” Erickson laughs. It turns out this was a daily duty of her colleagues’ wives. “Someone had to brief the men every day on what they should read, what they needed to be informed about. This was a wife’s duty, in order to help her husband get ahead. No one asked me who read MY newspaper!” she laughs.

How does she do it all? She laughs. “There are tradeoffs. I have wonderful family and friends. That is a big part of it. And you need lots of great help.” Despite her long hours and constant travel, Erickson is having fun. She spends about half her time doing research work and half her time speaking, writing and training executive teams. She loves her work. “I feel like I’m my own boss now,” she smiles.

What’s next for Tammy Erickson, the writer? “I’m exploring three possible next books: a business book on the future of work, a book on today’s children (the “Re-Generation” is her name for this group) for parents and educators, and a book about the farm and our great experiences living in Carlisle!”

Maybe that will be the Tammy who turns up for her next reading in muck boots instead of cashmere. We’ll wait and see. ∆

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