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Status anxiety

Prepare to tiptoe around generation snowflake in the workplace

Companies need to get prepared for young employees who will take offence at anything

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

Last week I was asked to give a talk about generation snowflake. This was at a breakfast organised by a recruitment company called GTI Solutions and the idea was that I would provide an urban anthropologist’s take on this new tribe for the benefit of their corporate clients, most of whom are thinking about how to recruit them and, once they’ve got them, how to keep them happy. This has given me an idea about a new consultancy service I could provide.

The main challenge thrown up by employing these new graduates, it seems to me, is that they won’t be particularly good at communicating with members of other generations in the workplace. One of the hallmarks of the ‘me, me, me generation’ is that they’re marooned in a kind of no man’s land between adolescence and adulthood. I say ‘no man’s land’, but perhaps ‘safe space’ is a better description because they clearly like being there. Why do they refuse to take the final step into adulthood? Partly because their immersion in social media since the year dot has accustomed them to just communicating with their peers. It’s difficult to grow up if you have no idea how to talk to grown-ups.

That, at any rate, is the theory of Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).

‘Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers,’ he told Time magazine. ‘To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things: 17-year-olds never grow up if they’re just hanging around other 17-year-olds.’


Quite plausible, and it means that when these ‘kidults’ arrive in the workplace they will have difficulty making themselves understood. Indeed, they probably won’t be able to fully grasp what it is their seniors are saying to them either. It’ll be like the United Nations, except without the simultaneous translation. And the snowflakes will be speaking Esperanto.

So how can I help? Well, that isn’t a million miles from my experience working for Vanity Fair in the Condé Nast building on Madison Avenue in the mid-1990s. As a youngish Fleet Street hack surrounded by middle-aged Americans, I often found myself talking at cross purposes to my workmates. That was particularly true if I ever tried to make anyone laugh.

For instance, on my first day at work I was in the lift waiting to be transported to the 11th floor when an attractive Vogue fashion editor standing next to me tried to hold the doors open for her friend. They slammed shut, almost trapping her hand, and I turned to her and said, ‘They’re fashion sensitive. If you’re not wearing Prada or Gucci they will take your arm off.’ She gave me a baffled look: ‘But I am wearing Prada.’

After I’d made a couple more of these unsuccessful attempts at flirtatious banter, someone left a copy of Condé Nast’s ‘Sexual Harassment Policy’ on my desk. ‘It has long been the policy of Condé Nast to maintain a professional working environment for all its employees, free of any form of discrimination or harassment,’ it said. The next bit was underlined in red felt-tip pen: ‘A joke considered amusing by one may be offensive to another.’

I found out just how true those words were when I hired a strippergram to surprise a male colleague on his birthday on what turned out to be Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Talk about cultural miscommunication. Anyway, the point is that my experiences in the Condé Nast building in the 1990s, struggling to make myself understood to the generation immediately above me, will be similar to that of snowflakes in the workplace, except it won’t just be members of generation X they’ll have to work alongside, but boomers as well.

The situation is complicated by the fact that I kept giving offence, whereas generation snowflake will take offence. Instead of them worrying about saying the wrong thing to people my age, it’ll be middle-aged men like me worrying about saying the wrong thing to them. We’ll be sandwiched between a disapproving older generation and an even more disapproving younger generation. Which, come to think of it, is a bit like being a parent.

So that’s my consultancy idea: I’ll advise corporate clients, at vast expense, how to manage the miscommunication that’s bound to occur when these Peter Pans turn up in their offices. Any takers?

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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