What You Are Is Where You Were When

Back in the ’80’s, Morris Massey was an influential writer and speaker on what might be called generational sociology – how society changes from one generation to another.

Massey’s core concept, captured in the title of his major work, and this essay, is that people are molded by the way they see the world, growing up. What influences you, what motivates you, are the things that seemed the most important to your family in your impressionable years — your early teens.

Let me summarize his ideas as I learned them, back then. Consider children born on the eve of America’s entry into WWI. There was a mini baby boom then, from people wanting to avoid the draft. Children born in 1918 were just entering their teens at the start of the Great Depression. They saw their fathers and their neighbors falling into the abyss of long-term unemployment. When they came of working age, there weren’t any jobs. To them, a job was important and you worked very hard at keeping it.

Their children, born, say, in the late 1930’s, were barely aware of WWII, but hit their teens in the post war boom of the 1950’s. To them jobs were always available, so having a job wasn’t a motivator the way it was for their parents. They were more about material things, and Keeping Up With the Joneses.

Their children, born in the mid-to late 1950’s and teenagers in the turbulent 70’s, were not motivated by material things at all, but were driven by the need for social change.

And so forth.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, (and a more wide ranging version on his personal blog) SF writer Charles Stross extends the series to the present day, through Generations X, Y, and Z, the destruction of the job-for-life, the destruction of the stable job, and the growth of life on the Internet. His thesis is that for organizational security to work, there has to be loyalty both up and down, and that modern society has systematically destroyed that loyalty. This, of course, poses a problem for the organizations of the Intelligence Community.

Building on this, Bruce Schneier talks about how this enables whistle-blowing as the civil disobedience of the new generation. Today’s highly capable technology workers are used to openness, and don’t believe that organizational secrets trump society’s need to know. The secrets are going to come out, and the old managers and leaders haven’t a clue on what to do about it.

DNI Clapper is older than me and comes from a generation that is still motivated by loyalty to the organization, strengthened by a lifetime inside an organization dedicated to the concept. General Alexander, DIRNSA, while ten years younger than Clapper, is of the same ilk. Neither one of them is in a position to understand the kind of people they are dealing with, particularly because their day-to-day interactions are all with members of their same, loyal, employed-forever tribe.

As an example, their idea of firing 90% of their sysadmin force because of Snowden is the sort of clueless response one would expect in this situation. Their follow-on, to make the sysadmin job a no-lone-zone, would then require they hire back 11% of the 90% they just fired, so they can watch the remaining 10%, shows they not only don’t understand their people, they don’t understand what a sysadmin does.

A fascinating aspect of this is that, as described, it’s essentially a US phenomenon. Europeans experienced the world differently. The dates were different, the experiences were different, and more intense. Beyond Europe, China experienced WWII starting in 1931, and suffered under the Great Leap Forward in the 1960’s. India’s ties to Great Britain linked their generations, but the link was broken with independence, and her children have gone their own ways since. Africa, South America, the Middle East, all have followed different paths, and their children have experienced different generational motivators. We’re not talking simply different cultures here, we’re talking different generational paths within those cultures, as well.

What happens when children of these different life tracks, who were at different where’s/when, now grown and in control, meet to discuss the fate of the world?


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