Generations, Inc.

From Boomers to Linksters--Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work

 Generations, Inc.

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

Meagan Remembers

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.

Larry Responds

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

been treated.

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.

Generational Signposts

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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