Employers will have their work cut out leading simultaneously four generations with four very different outlooks, writes David Woods
In the mid 19th century, the mathematician Malthus used a simple equation to estimate global populations in the future: double the number 1, and you get 2; double the number 2 and that gives you 4; double 4 to make 8, and so on. By following this rule, the number reached by doubling one 50 times is colossal.
The world population has experienced continuous growth since the end of the Black Death in 1350, when it stood at 370 million. In January 2014, the world’s population was 7,177,568,766 (a growth of more than six billion people over the intervening 664 years) and the UN Population Division estimates the population could be as large as 24.8 billion by the year 2150.
As population growth continues inexorably, and people live longer, for the first time in history, there will be four generations of employees in the workplace: baby boomers (born in the late 1940s and early 1950s), generation X (born in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s), generation Y/millenials (born in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s) and generation Z (born in the late 1990s).
Kevin Kelly, until recently global CEO of Heidrich and Struggles, sums up the issues this brings to employers eloquently, explaining that generation Y expects to have held 14 jobs each by the age of 38. Employers are left with the challenge of trying to recruit, retain, motivate, engage and lead this growing group of aspiring individuals as well as their older colleagues. And Kelly is fearful: “The war for talent is over,” he says. “And talent won.”
Employers will have their work cut out, managing simultaneously four generations with four very different outlooks.
Defining Gen Y
The UN says 138 million babies were born in the late 1980s and as Steve Hewitt, HR director of Lumesse (a business consultancy with 22 offices in 18 countries), explains: “By 2025, members of generation Y will make up 70% of the global workforce, according to BPW Foundation’s study.
“With the stream of millennials entering the workplace set to become a flood, organizations need a better understanding of how to attract and retain this emerging talent.”
So while employers will need to be nimble in demonstrating four different management styles to match four generations, soon the needs
of gen Y will be driving new management theories.
Jeff Cornwall, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University in Nashville, thinks that because parents have increasingly raised their children to be independent, one differentiating aspect of generation Y is that they are more inclined to follow their entrepreneurial pursuits.
Hewitt continues: “According to a 2012 report by the Kauffman Foundation, the largest entrepreneurial foundation in the US, 29.4% of entrepreneurs were 20 to 34 years-old and roughly 160,000 start-ups a month were led by millennials in 2011. Additionally, a recent survey of IT candidates aged under 35 by recruitment consultants Harvey Nash found almost half had some entrepreneurial experience.
One important way in which gen Y is different and needs to be managed differently at work is that they need their space and freedom to be more entrepreneurial to show what they
Hewitt adds: “Once businesses have understood the case for recruiting generation Y, they’ll need to create a talent strategy specifically tailored to doing so.”
Understanding generation Y
But employers are struggling. US-based university admissions consulting firm Anna Ivey reports that managers find it hard to discover the best ways to recruit, manage and retain generation Y. Why? Because many employers simply do not understand what makes them tick.
“This is not about the age of employees; it’s about experience during the formative years,” says Justine James, founding director of Talent Smoothie, which has completed a study of more than 2,500 generation Y employees.
“It’s very much based on how our parents treated us – for example, for baby boomers it was a case of children being seen and not heard, whereas generation Y see themselves as the centre of the universe.
“Generation Y are much more likely to go straight over the management layers and speak to the CEO. Generation X would be less likely to
“Take the example of going to the cinema and how you would gather people. Generation X didn’t have mobile phones, so they made a plan, couldn’t change it and everyone would stick to it.
“In a work context, this means generation X will have a plan – a generation X manager might find it frustrating if generation Y deviated from a plan. Generation X have to learn to manage the outcome rather than the inputs, i.e., have you made it to the cinema? The challenge for these managers is not to judge others by their behaviour, but by the outcomes.”
Tech-savvy millennials grew up in a world with a high level of interactive stimulation: TV, video games, the internet and “social web” (Facebook, Twitter), an experience that older generations do not always readily appreciate.
“As a result, today’s recruitment communication and channels are rarely aligned with the interests and social media preferences of this target audience,” says Hewitt.
“This creates the need for new strategies, which are experience-based, responsive and centred on relationships.”
Jamie Homer, global director of HR and talent at fashion retail chain Urban Outfitters, agrees: “The very concept of generation Y and Z is a interesting and often complex one for someone from Generation X to comprehend.
“I’m a member of generation X. I can still remember getting my first ever email address back in 1997 and my first mobile in 2001. Fast-forward to 2014 and the world is suddenly a tiny online, connected community. Everyone and everything is “Google-able”, accessible and right here for us to discover.
“We shop, bank and book GP appointments with our phones, we price-check product in the store to make sure the deal is the best one possible, we watch TV whenever and wherever we want even if it is broadcast live, we order product from any store/website and have it delivered to any address (or Amazon drop box) in the world and we can talk to anyone in the world from anywhere we are, instantly. Not only that, we have come to expect that kind of personal and commercial immediacy – the idea of connectivity is now a commodity to the point that one day service providers may not even be able to charge you for it.
“And as we think about what this means in modern day business, I believe we must shift our focus away from these concepts of old and recognize that we, from pre-Y and Z generations likely don’t know what we don’t know in the new reality of today.
“And it doesn’t just affect us as employers, it also affects us as business people. To me, the number one challenge facing an older generation that are stuck in their old world mentality is failing to see and grasp the opportunity that technology affords us all. Mobile commerce does not create issues, rather it creates, and has already created, massive opportunities that forward-thinking businesses have adapted to and integrated into their business models; in other words, they have embraced this challenge, not hidden from or rebelled against it. Technology leads a business forward and we must recognize that our customer expects an easy, seamless, simple and, above all, safe transaction. Failure to embrace this only keeps us firmly planted in the past and unable to drive forward.
“And considering the pace at which things move, evolve and grow today, this concept of mobile technology is already yesterday’s event.
Is there a problem?
Given mounting evidence of a disconnect in the workplace, will it be possible to lead and engage all the generations going forward? Sally Bibb, founder of Engaging Minds and author of Generation Y for Rookies, thinks so.
“Generation Y can be led if they are inspired and feel like they are learning and being stretched,” she explains. “gen Y have a different expectation of what it means to have a leader – they have high expectations of that person and view the relationship as very much equal. They demand as much of the leader as the leader does of them. They don’t hold the hierarchical ideal as gen X and boomers do. It’s much more about servant leadership I guess.
“In my experience, the best leaders embrace the generation gap and seek to learn from gen Y. In practice, this takes the form of reciprocal mentoring, eg, a phone company that has gen Y mentoring execs about the internet and social media, and execs helping gen Y with influencing skills and stakeholder management.
“Business leaders can embrace and accept the generational differences in the workplace by creating a mutual understanding and appreciation between generations. Mutual appreciation of the views and value each generation brings is key. As is an understanding that you can’t label and box off people according simply to their age. The so-called generational divide can only damage organizational culture when it is not addressed and managed positively. Business leaders certainly need to think about what management and leadership means – in fact, what Gen Y want Gen X would have liked too, but we were conditioned not to expect it.”
Jez Langhorn, senior VP (people) at global fast food chain McDonald’s, is emphatic in his belief that employee engagement and the right leadership could and should cut through any generational divide.
“At McDonald’s, you will find people of all ages and backgrounds working together and playing an important role in the business,” he tells Dialogue. “Whether it is a 35-year-old mom or a teenager looking for their first job, we look for qualities such as enthusiasm, initiative and passion for delivering great customer service, rather than qualifications or their background.
Drawing on her research, Talent Smoothie’s James supports this. She says: “It’s a misnomer that generation Y are more ‘flighty’. They don’t go into an organization planning to leave – but planning to work their way up the ladder. They’re less likely to put up with stuff they don’t like; but would be more likely to return to an organization they have left. And I have a hunch this is going to happen more depending on salary opportunity.”
She explains: “Generation Y have watched their parents remain loyal to organisations and face redundancy, so they don’t have the same ideas of loyalty and a job for life. They want a job they love. Career opportunities and career development are on the list for generation Y, but these are less important for other generations. Society encourages them to be individual and focuses on personalization.”
Langhorn tries not to draw lines around generation X, Y and Z in his business: “We offer the same opportunities to all of our employees, regardless of their age.”
And returning to the notion that generation X, Y and Z clash over their worldviews and that their misconceptions and miscommunications can stifle business growth, he doesn’t believe this is an issue.
“While the vast majority of our employees are under 30, it’s good for our people and good for our business to have a diverse range of ages in our restaurants,’ he says. “Our own research (with Lancaster University) shows how a blend of generations can be a positive influence. Young people can teach leaders a lot, particularly in an ever-increasing digital world, bringing a new, fresh perspective to business, while the older generation provide mentoring skills to the workplace, helping younger colleagues develop and mature.”
Commenting on the research to which Langhorne alludes, Paul Sparrow, director of the Centre for Performance-led HR at Lancaster University, adds: “The research demonstrates the very real business value of recruiting an age diverse workforce. Mature employees are a key part of the performance recipe.
“This is good news for the workforce, given the changing demographics of our society. We are likely to see more and more people working for longer, either because they are sufficiently fit and healthy to do so, or to store up their financial security.”
Langhorn picks up the story. ‘Talking to young people, we identified a couple of areas where they felt they needed support and which, as employers, we could provide guidance on. For example, many have never had anyone give an employer’s view of their CV, highlighting what works and what doesn’t. The same applies to interview technique – showing them what impresses an employer and how to prepare,” he says.
“As a business, we have thought about what we can do to help. Recently we piloted a How to Get Hired programme, extending our internal support for young people to those who don’t work for us. We invited young people who have been unemployed for longer than three months to take part in workshops designed to give them a helping hand in their job hunt. Interestingly, the young people who took part in the workshops told us that their biggest lesson was hearing exactly what an employer is looking for. Many were surprised that relatively simple things such as timekeeping, enthusiasm and demonstrating passion for a business can make a real difference to their prospects of securing that all important first job. This is the kind of basic information that mentoring by an older generation could provide.”
Generation Y as leaders
In 2012, during a session called Leadership Across Generations at the World Economic Forum at Davos, a group of 70 millennial leaders from around the world said that leaders need to “think younger” and come up with new ways to address the challenges their businesses face.
Lumesse’s Hewitt explains that Martina Mangelsdorf, the founder of GAIA Insights, a firm specializing
in leadership development for generation Y, believes that recruiting graduates will help to improve
a company’s entrpreneurship and bring
its associated benefits – a fresh perspective, passion and innovation – to the business.
James agrees, adding: “Generation Y and Z tend to get on with the older generations, but I think the trick is about respecting others and being respected by them. Reciprocal mentoring is a good solution – the idea of old mentoring young and young mentoring old (on social media for example), but it has to be equal value on both sides.
“With networking, for example, for generation Y, it’s part of the psyche; older generations find this a bit more difficult. This is generation diversity – there have never been four generations in the workplace before at the same time – there are so many perspectives and the opportunities are endless.’
Urban Outfitters’ Homer picks
up the thread from a personal perspective: “It seems to me that if I am going to stay relevant and connected in the world of retail today and into the future, I need to stay in touch with the younger generation, the Y and Z generation, who are living their lives the only way they know how: right here and right now – doing it for themselves.
“My daughter only knows how to change her home screen by touching it and interacting with it. As she grows up, I could probably only do myself a favour by understanding her view of the world more and figuring how that will translate into the world of consumption.”
In fact, he goes one step further, adding: “The notion of generation Y being led and managed seems to be the antithesis of what this generation is actually all about.
“Accepting what they are told, accepting what they read and watch on the news, accepting what their politicians tell them simply doesn’t happen anymore. Why would it when you can do your own research on Google and Wikipedia and form your own opinion in less than 10 minutes? Look at how fast the Arab Spring took hold. World-changing events mediated through social media and online platforms by young people who know more than any of us that if they want something to happen at the pace they have become to expect, they believe they must instigate the change themselves.”
This concept of non-conformity presents challenges to the traditional workplace and it is evident that many work cultures are not equipped to handle this. They need to become so.
Interview with a Generation Y leader
Josh Allan Dykstra (age 33), co-founder of Work Revolution and member of the Young Entrepreneur Council
I think the clichés around generation Y have some truth – but employers are missing the reasoning behind them. It’s not that generation Y don’t care about the workplace. I think they care too much. They want their work to be meaningful and I think some managers are missing the opportunity to engage people who want to be passionate about their job.
I think leaders need to think about looking at the similarities between the generations, rather than the differences.
Generations are more similar than they are different and I think through mentoring, generation Y can be engaged the same way as baby boomers. Are we speaking a common language? Are we focusing on the right thing? Surely we will widen the divide between the generations if we continue to think they are different.
Mentoring has been a big component in my life – I would always be keen to go to a baby boomer and ask for advice.
But the main question should be: “How do we accomplish the best work possible and create something as a team?”
The market is acting like generation Y with a fast flow of information in a digital age and I think businesses need to adopt a gen Y mentality. It’s no longer about communicating better; it’s about catching up before we are left behind.
It’s Never OK to Kiss the Interviewer, Jane Sunley, (2014)
Generation Y for Rookies, Sally Bibb, (2008)