2011 August 11

One of the biggest changes to the workplace has been the way that the different generations have absorbed, and adapted, the rules of workplace clothing. While we probably can’t identify the subtle differences (called signifiers in sociology) that tell us how old a colleague is, we can all spot them.

All this really matters if you’re an older person wanting to stay in employment but feeling like you’re being put on the shelf, or a younger person who feels ready for promotion but gets passed over – in both cases, the way you dress might be sending signals to people that you just don’t understand.

The four workplace generations

The Disciplined Generation – Those who entered the workplace after the Second World War are often considered to be the most disciplined employees ever. They recognise authority and enjoy structure and many of them will have either worked in the same organisation all their lives or built their own organisation, team or department from scratch early in their working careers. Their clothing is conservative, and often uses colours that were popular when they were young, navy, forest green, battleship grey and camouflage beige – in other words, the colour of uniforms worn in the war.

Baby Boomers – This term has become common in the UK, although it’s American in origin. Many Boomers are heading more or less happily for retirement or semi-retirement. They were the first generation to rebel against clothing norms and often express their sense of self by either dressing very casually (hippy) or by flaunting designer labels and sharp styling in a reaction against the previous generation.

Generation X – Sharper in dress than their Boomer parents, the Xers like to keep their rebellion for outside work. They work hard and play hard and bounce from job to job rather than sticking to any one company. Personal expression is important but an Xer is more likely to have an individual style arising from tattoos, a unique haircut or distinctive make up than from clothing choices. Generation X is the T-shirt generation and more than any other will wear a mixture of casual and smart in the workplace.

Generation Y – This generation are the workplace babies – and they are often deeply quirky in their clothing choices, opting to express Emo, Goth, Skater or other alternative lifestyles through clothing, to focus on fair trade or recycled clothing or to buy individually tailored or previously worn or vintage items.

If you’re a Y and you want to be taken more seriously, tone down your clothing but opt for a sharp haircut – it adds a couple of years to your age and makes you look like an Xer. If you’re a member of the Disciplined Generation and you want to hang on to your job, jettison your usual clothing colours: move into black if you have to wear a suit and tone it with a maroon or golden tie which drops you straight down into the Boomer model – if clothing choices are more relaxed, look at wearing polo-shirts in colours that give you warmth: russet, pink, orange. Allow your shoes and belt or bag and shoes to be unmatched – coordinating shoe colour, belt colour, bag and earring colour together is a clear sign of age that can pin you down as an older man or women to any viewer.

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