How people work across generations

Dave Ulrich, Professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and partner at the RBL Group examines how people work across generations

In almost every management conference and popular press on the workforce, we are reminded how different millennials or Gen Y (born 1982 to 2004) are from traditionalist (pre 1946) baby boomers (1946 to 1964) and Gen X (1964 to 1982). Any of us who spend time with mixed generations recognize these differences. But to really work across generations, we should separate why people work from how they work. Knowing why people work explains underlying motives and helps forge bonds across generations. Understand- ing how people work explains current behaviours and helps tailor management approaches for each generation.

Why people work is about finding meaning from work. According to Ken Dychtwald, Robert Morison, Tamara Erickson, when asked to divide 100 points across 10 motives for work, each generation divides the points about equally. When asked to define their “dream” company, all generations in a Latin American study highlighted inspirational work environment (~30%), organization flexibility (~27%), and organization purpose (~10%). In mine and Wendy Ulrich’s summary of why people work (Why of Work, 2010), we found seven common drivers that apply equally across generations (identity, purpose, work environment, work itself, relationships, learning and delight).

It appears that people are people. While some propose that next generation employees’ altruistic values are changing society, those of us who are baby boomers remember that we also changed education, housing and work. All generations want to do work that makes a difference in the world. Leaders who understand these common motives can better relate to employees across generations.

How people work is about work expectations and style. Most of the Gen Y uniqueness comes from how they approach work. At the risk of over simplifying a complex phenomenon, there are three primary work patterns that differ with millennials. First, access. Millennials are digital natives who readily access information, make technology part of their identity and who risk process addictions. We all appreciate reverse mentoring around technology. Second, alienation. Millennials often lack trust in traditional organizations. They have seen their caregivers lose their jobs; government not serve them; college degrees not leading to jobs; and religious beliefs failing to morally sustain them. Organizational cynicism has replaced loyalty and millennials emphasize life/work more than work/life in their professional trade-offs. Their distrust of organizations also leads to reliance on personal relationships and close teams. Third, disposability. Among millennials, short-term and throwaway philosophy exists in posses- sions, relationships and work. Long term is often Tuesday and there is a passion for what matters today. This mindset encourages more flexible work schedules for Gen Y employees. Leaders who appreciate these life and work style differences can adapt work requirements to individual employees.

Leading others is a subtle art. It requires connecting around common values to build mutual understanding. It also requires appreciating differences to personalize a relationship. Effective leaders get the most out of others by finding commonality about why people work and appreciating generational differences about how people work. Likewise, HR professionals who distinguish the why and how of work can also build both common and unique HR practices to help employees deliver to their full potential.