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Talkin’ ‘bout three generations: what does it mean for schools when Xs, Ys and Boomers mix?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 12 November 2012

Karen Edge
People from the same generation tend to have some characteristics in common and, as a result, generational differences influence the daily lives of the organisations they work in. However, within education, rarely has a generational lens been used to explore and support the three generations (3-Gen) of teachers and leaders working in our schools at the moment: Boomers (born 1945–65), Generation X (1965–1980) and Generation Y (1980–2000).
Our current ESRC-funded study is nested within our wider interest in the influence of generational behaviour and attitudinal patterns on school-level improvements in teaching and learning. It focuses our energies on learning more about the emerging cohort of Gen X school leaders in London, New York and Toronto.
To kick-start our 3-Gen musings, based on our own and the wider emerging evidence we introduce three generationally stereotypical and fictitious teachers and leaders. Without further ado, your 3-Gen trio: Ayesha, Mark and Barbara:
Generation Y: Ayesha, 24
Ayesha recently accepted her first permanent teaching post. She is optimistic, confident, social and street-smart. Motivated by a sense of civic duty, Ayesha and her peers are part of a diverse cohort with a commitment to, and expectation of, a diverse workforce. Professionally, Ayesha is self-directed, tech savvy, well-networked and connected. She is willing to commit to her school and is eager to get ahead, demonstrated by her constant desire for learning and expanded responsibility. At times, Ayesha is easily intimidated by colleagues. She likes structure and supervision in the form of personalised learning and mentoring opportunities. Ayesha and her Gen Y colleagues often thrive with robust orientation programme and large-group collaboration under strong supportive leaders.
Generation X: Mark, 37
Mark is a technoliterate deputy headteacher although he is now frequently out-techsavvied by his Gen Y colleagues. During his first six years of teaching, he taught in four different schools. Thankfully, he is comfortable with change! He is at ease with people from all backgrounds, is globally-minded and has travelled and studied abroad. While he is comfortable with, and even craves, collaboration, he is content working on his own and is self-reliant. His sense of fun and informal approach to relationships and work is palpable. For Mark, work is defined by task, not time and place. However, he holds his commitment to his partner and family close to heart and defends his work-life balance. Mark is a great colleague because he is adaptable, creative and unintimidated by authority. However, his independence has fostered what is perceived as a “less than ideal” set of people skills and his cynicism can often get in the way.
Boomer: Barbara, 55
Barbara is optimistic, personable and very much a relationship-oriented headteacher. At work she is a great team player who is eager to please her colleagues, keen to be involved in any cross-school initiatives and always willing to go the extra mile. Yet she is also keen to avoid conflict, sensitive to feedback and reluctant to challenge her peers. Her natural tendency to focus on process and to be weary of budget and accountability structures can be to the detriment of the end result within an accountability, outcomes-driven culture. Barbara can also be fairly judgmental of those with a different perspective to her own, and can sometimes stray into believing her way is the only way.
What we are calling “generational awareness” may provide leaders with another strategy for understanding how individuals approach their work, collaboration and work-life balance. As a starter for ten, we suggest the following questions for consideration:

  • Are there generational patterns at play within your school?
  • Do you make the most of generational patterns to bring about school-level change and improvement?
  • Do you need (or have) a different skill and strategy set to recruit, retain, motivate and support colleagues from each generation?

Our work to build on collective understanding of the implications of our 3-Gen schools continues and we encourage you to join the debate/discussion. Contact k.edge@ioe.ac.uk.