No More Generation Bashing
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.”
– Hesiod, Greek poet and philosopher, 700 BC
We’ve been hearing the same complaints about generational differences for, literally, millennia. The old lament the youth of today, while the young believe themselves to be the future and that the generation before them – although living in the present – is already the past. It’s all reductive and too dismissive of the motivations and habits of any generation.
And yet it’s become the hallmark of some of the more popular research around generational differences in the workplace – and it’s a troubling trend. I recently heard an expert describe “Generation Z,” the next generation to soon enter the workforce whose members were born between the late 1990s and today, as one that expects the latest technology in their work environment because their parents handed them an electronic device any time they threw a tantrum.
Again, the observation about what motivates and shapes the behavior of a generation reduces the analysis of generational diversity to caricatures, frequently perpetuating negative images of the younger generations. Millennials (or Gen Y, itself a reductive term whose only descriptive quality is that it tells you they come after Gen X) are decried as narcissistic, coddled, and lazy, raised by helicopter parents, and feeling entitled to take over the world without earning their stripes through hard work. Not only are such characterizations about the younger generation harmful, they are also wrong. Recent research by IBM blows major holes through these depictions of Millennials, and finds that there are fewer differences in workplace expectations among the different generations. Moreover, the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint (FEV) Survey report by OPM, “reveals a picture of Millennial employees who strongly believe the work they do is important, who believe they are given real opportunities to improve their skills, and who are satisfied with their jobs.” These values are not markedly different from their Gen X and Boomer counterparts.
Young professionals expect the latest technology because technological advancements took place so rapidly in their formative years. Think about it: a Millennial entering high school in 2004 would have seen the rise of YouTube, the iTunes music and video stores, and the iPhone (among countless other innovations) before graduating. One day “apps” weren’t a thing; the next day they were all anyone could talk about and a possible way to make a living. So yes, they might seem frustrated by walking into an office with five-year-old laptops. In 2015, aren’t we all?
So let’s change the conversation.
Imagine your life priorities in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. What is most important to you? What is most pressing to you in terms of family, free time, career, and finances?
Granted, the period of time in which a group of people grows up does impact views, social norms, and expectations. Cultural, political, economic events, technological and medical advancements, educational and parenting philosophies – these all can contribute to generational trends. However, we limit ourselves as leaders when we fall into the trap of saying, “all people from this group act a certain way because…” How would the conversation change if you simply answered these questions with “professional and personal priorities are unique to each person no matter their age or group?”
What type of leadership is needed for the future workforce? Let’s ask them.
As we look at Millennials and the next wave of professionals, Gen Z, who will very soon make up the majority of our workforce, what do we need to consider? The 2015 Annual Deloitte Millennial Survey asked Millennials across the globe to define their expectations for the workplace. Millennials feel that business needs to hit the reset button, “paying as much attention to people and purpose as it does products and profit.” Millennials expect leadership that is “socially focused.” Millennials want leaders who are strategic, inspirational, visionary, passionate, and possess strong interpersonal skills. The Partnership for Public Service (PPS) argues that Millennials do not have high expectations for their growth because of a sense of entitlement; rather they are eager to “hit the ground running, solve problems, and have a measureable impact.” And their more seasoned senior leaders agree, according to PPS.
In fact, in a guest blog for the Washington Post, PPS Vice President Tom Fox argues that leaders don’t need “flashy new management techniques” to engage the younger workforce. Helping young professionals see how their current work helps lead to future opportunities, providing formal and informal learning and development opportunities, encouraging mentoring relationships with seasoned professionals, and giving frequent constructive feedback support and engage young workers and prepare them to be successful.
As leaders, our role is to create a workplace that works for everyone, including the diversity of ages represented in our organizations. Creating an open and flexible working environment that values every individual’s voice is not just a tactic to keep Millennials and Gen Z around longer, it creates a better workplace for all employees. It leads to greater productivity and personal ownership over the work product, and ensures that organizations stay innovative and creative.