Age could be a greater determinate of values and managerial style than education or social class
Generations are the new social class. For some commentators, the birth cohort of a manager or team member has taken on a significance which transcends other variables – such as level of education, social class, ethnicity or other defining characteristics and influences. This approach, underpinned by Generation Theory, argues that people of the same generation hold common values derived from their shared experiences of historical events, economic conditions, social trends and cultural icons. Millennials – those born between 1981 and the turn of the millennium – frequently get a bad press, often labelled as impatient, easily distracted, egotistical and carrying a strong sense of entitlement, while suffering from ‘fomo’ – the fear of missing out.
Yet generational conflicts at work are not a new construct. In 1971, Thomas F Stroh wrote on problems between ‘long-haired hippie’ junior subordinates and their experienced, established, older managers – who thought these young people had a relaxed attitude to work and no respect for authority. While the terms had not yet been coined, Stroh was referring to tensions between the Silent Generation – born between 1922 and World War II – and the Baby Boomers, the generation born in the two decades immediately after the conflict. Today it is often these once-hippyish Baby Boomers, now in leadership positions, who are taking issue with Millennial staff.
In collaboration with Ashridge Business School, we at the Institute researched Millennials and found significant differences between what predominantly Generation X and Baby Boomer managers and their chiefly Millennial staffers expected from each other. While both agreed that interesting work and progression possibilities were important, younger employees were far less interested in the importance of leadership and management, yet had higher expectations of personal development and access to training opportunities. Behaviours generally perceived as central to being an effective manager – such as providing regular performance feedback and setting clear detailed goals – weren’t what Millennials considered important. Rather, they exhibited a strong need for autonomy and wanting to be judged by their results rather than the process that got them there. Expectations of the role of manager are changing, and Millennials want to be coached not managed, to be inspired and trusted, and are much more likely to see leadership as a collaborative process.
The Hawthorne experiments of the 1920s and 1930s discovered that employees working for line managers who took an interest in them, who told them what was going on and genuinely listened to what their staff thought about it, were more productive than those who didn’t. These findings drove the acceptance of interpersonal skills under the wider umbrella of ‘soft’ skills. Older Millennials, now in their thirties and in leadership positions, are far more likely than their older peers to have effective people skills because the growth in the value the market places on social acumen has paralleled Millennials’ own development.
The propensity and ability to connect, which reflects the Millennial life experience, fits well with the changing nature of work where the ability to influence has gained significance, while command-and-control management has receded. This connected generation, inclined to work collaboratively, forms functional relationships more quickly than previous generations, and recognizes the skills needed to form such bonds. Increasingly disperse, virtual team-working; and less hierarchical organizations mean the Millennials’ focus on outputs is a creed whose time has come.
Yet those born in the 1980s and beyond ought not have a monopoly on open, results-focused management. The Baby Boom should remember their long-haired hippie past, and relearn from today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings. Some Boomers might recall Blood, Sweat and Tears’ debut album of 1968. It was called Child is Father to the Man.