No matter which group in society you identify with, I think it’s safe to say everyone has had an emotional year of ups and downs. Dealing with trauma and tragedy can feel like the most impossible uphill battle at times, yet it’s basically a required process as a way of life. Despite what’s happening at home, what’s going on in the world, what we see in the media, we’re expected to come to work everyday, engage as “normal,” and perform at high levels.
But what society doesn’t often consider, what employers and coworkers likely aren’t thinking about, is that for some, it’s a struggle just to even show up.
Although the battles date back generations, the regularly reproduced inequities facing Black lives and the violence enacted upon Black bodies by law enforcement have dominated national news this past year and a half. Our Black colleagues in (home) offices across the country have been forced to work with the weight of those calamities, creating an interesting tone of voice across generations of Black workers. One that I wanted to explore.
To do this, I sat down with a few emotionally available Black professionals from each generation, seeking to not only provide a window into their unique reality for us all to learn from, but to simultaneously listen for any similarities, differences and specific insight that may help us understand the intersection of generations and Blackness, particularly concerning work.
After countless conversations with each generational group, I noticed four key observations:
Black professionals, regardless of age, are looking for relatively the same thing from the companies and institutions they work for AND their non-Black colleagues, friends, and peers regarding the fight for racial equity and Black lives. Let’s dig into what both of those look like for the professionals I spoke with.
What does that look like for companies and institutions?
Actually showing your support, and being vocal about it. The Black professionals I spoke with are calling on the organizations they devote the majority of their daily lives to, to return a portion of that devotion by showing that they are more than workers to them. They’re human and their humanity matters. They’re asking these companies to speak up and out against racism of all kinds, including police brutality, rather than pretend it only affects the outside world.
Secondly, they’re requesting company leaders to “put your money where your mouth is” by financially contributing to creating and advancing equity in society. The answers on how to do so have become extremely accessible over the past several years, so I won’t unpack them here. Still, the opportunities for an organization’s support remain endless, and it’s time to start putting those into effect.
What are they asking from non-Black colleagues, friends, and peers?
Across generations, the request is the same simple answer - To care. They ask peers to empathize in the least. At most, take the time to apply curiosity, seek to learn, and engage. This means to not just sit back and let this transpire without voices, or resources being present from the people they interact with regularly.
Despite age and experience, this request remained the same from generation to generation.
Hope has been the trend for many this past year. However, what I’ve noticed in my many conversations with Black professionals is that the level of hope present, specifically around solving racial inequities, changes with age. Although no one can be sure things will improve for Black America, the younger we go down the generational spectrum, to my surprise, the more optimism we see.
Of course, I’ve considered the margin of error due to the stark reality of experiencing life, especially being Black in America. The longer you’ve seen things stay the same, the less likely you are to believe things can change. I get it.
In other words, the older I am, the less optimistic about change I’ll likely be. Some may see the realism, with which Baby Boomer interviewees view the world, as pessimism or cynicism. But perhaps that too is generationally relative.
Still, what everyone must know is that, none of them, regardless of generation or age, felt comfortable with the idea or expectation to avoid discussions about police brutality, the killings of unarmed Black people, the mistreatment of Black people by the police and other things that cause what one individual called “racial stress” at work.
That type of rhetoric typically centers the majority… Those most privileged by the racial hierarchy in our society… Commonly, white people. It’s something many of the Black professionals I spoke with are growing weary of.
From the mouths of these Black professionals, it became clear that to ignore these topics is only helpful for those who value their comfort over the pain and inclusion of those around them, and ultimately contributes to a culture of white supremacy at work.
Contrary to what many may want to believe, while Black professionals of all generations resonated with James Baldwin's quote, “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage,” their overwhelming emotion isn’t anger. A more accurate sentiment is… They are hurt.
To experience being Black in America means to be expected to accomplish daily achievements at an equal level of non-Black peers. Yet, the financial access, the social support, and even the judicial support both in and out of the workplaces they receive is not at that same “equal level.” This reality can make anyone angry.
To avoid falling into that pit of anger, and to give them the emotional fuel to “show up” everyday, they use similar defense strategies from generation to generation.
Those coping mechanisms include:
- Talking about it with friends or family
- Spending time with those they love (Especially with children, those who are still innocent and not yet jaded by the realities of the Black experience)
- Taking time to process and mourn.
These methods have become a lifestyle for many Black professionals across the age spectrum. While the mission for each task is to cope, the sacred support sparks passion for some. It’s a passion commonly misconstrued and mistaken for anger. In fact, it is not anger but rather a burning passion for change, for advocacy, for equity.
There is a perception from younger Black professionals that Black Gen Xers and Black Baby Boomers are not vocal, bold or direct enough when it comes to leveraging their power to fight for Black lives and equity in the corporate/business environment.
It’s inevitable that this perception may have been the cause of some slight cross-generational friction within the Black community. However, I believe it can be remedied with some sincere perspective sharing and empathy.
Generation X’s Perspective:
Those that fall into the 1960s and the early-1980s birth years had an overwhelming theme to their stories. They specifically talked about their need to take more calculated and strategic risks, having been the beneficiaries of great sacrifice and progress made by their parents. These are the offspring of a generation who didn’t have the opportunities they have.
They, therefore, provoke a sense of stewardship of that sacrifice and progress from their parents, and with that, feel the need to move carefully. They are clear, though, that they also have a responsibility to pioneer change for millennials, Gen Z, Gen Alpha, and further.
The “sandwiched generation” concept we often talk about when referring to Gen X takes on even greater meaning as Black Americans. Based on some of my other ongoing research, it appears the same is true for immigrants and other marginalized racial identities.
Baby Boomer’s Perspective:
After interviewing a panel of Baby Boomers, they shared how being silent and moving in the shadows is how they got to where they are today, which generations that have followed have benefited from. So to expect that they now become outspoken and take the same degree of risk younger professionals of color are is unrealistic for two reasons: 1. Conditioning 2. Fear of what could be lost. Not just personally, but communally.
I also see the characteristics that I often talk about of Boomers following protocol and tending to be rule followers at play here as well. It goes back to how they were raised as children and the business environment in which they grew up as budding professionals. Gen X, certainly Millennials, and Gen Zers, do not seem to have this characteristic.
It’s true that there is so much research done regularly about our generational differences. However, such an opportunity to explore how those generational differences are either the same or vastly different based upon our racial identity, particularly here in America, is woefully unconsidered. I’m excited to continue to share as my team and I embark upon our exploration of this intersection.
The conversation doesn’t end here. For more information and direct insight into some of the minds mentioned in this piece, head over to The Generational View Podcast. Here, you can hear some of the voices of the Black professionals that drove this analysis and guided the research. As always, the perspectives aren't limited to these individuals. I encourage you to talk to your Black colleagues with whom you have a relationship, and ask them for yourself - What is your experience of working while Black?
To the Black professionals whose voice drives this message, we so appreciate your insight, your deposit into our community. We know we made a withdrawal from our emotional bank accounts with each of you and we will be making deposits of our own, by following and supporting your work, amplifying your voices, and continuously, vehemently fighting on your behalf.