I truly enjoy reading prognostications about the next big thing, then watching to see if the crystal-ball predictions become fact or fizzle out. I follow a very scientific formula to determine which trends to watch: if the prediction occurs once, ignore it. If it appears twice on my radar, keep an eye on it. If more than three writers cite an important fact to watch, I run it through my mental probability filter and watch for it to appear again in my favorite blogs and print sources.
One trend that has surfaced a number of times in the last few months is the result of the statistical tidbit about this demographic shift in the workplace: the Millennial Generation (born between 1980 and 1999) will soon represent the generational majority in the workplace. The flurry of articles and predictions spun off this factoid range from retention strategies (how to hold on to this elusive group who claim to have little loyalty for the employer) to engagement tactics (they are motivated in different and unique ways). Further angst is placed on integrating Millennials into leadership positions as Boomers retire.
Any of you who have read my blogs and newsletters know that I have huge heartburn with the belief (I hate to call it theory) that generational cohorts all exhibit the same values, beliefs and perspectives. I do see some validity in recognizing common perspectives in cohort groups but not by birthdate. Read on to get my spin on dealing with younger staff in the workplace.
— AliceAlice Waagen, PhD Founder, www.workforcelearning.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A DIFFERENT VIEW OF GENERATIONS AT WORK
By Dr. Alice Waagen
The fundamental basis for generational differences theory is that a birth-year cohort shares major historical events that happen in their early formative years and that these events shape their subsequent values, beliefs and perspectives on life. For the Greatest Generation (b. 1925 – 1946) it was World War II, for Boomers (b. 1946 – 1964) it was the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, for the Millennials it is 9-11 and the birth of the internet. I do not dispute that age-based cohorts can share a similar world view; my point of view is that these cohort differences are less based on world events and more based on their lifecycle stage. Rather than group people by birth year, I find a much more useful and accurate grouping is by age itself.
Society places expectations on people as they age, generally around the move from dependent to independent living combined with the expectation that the individual produce some value back to society. In youth we are expected to obtain education to enable independent living as adults. As young adults, we are expected to enter into sustainable employment. Once employment and independence are achieved, we are expected to continue our vocation and elect to produce offspring. Once children enter the picture, attention is focused on their upbringing and wellbeing. Finally, once freed of dependents, people are expected to give back and share their knowledge and wisdom with those who are coming behind them. Each of these life stages colors our perceptions and actions with the world around us in ways that I believe are much more universal and profound than the world events of our formative years.
Lacking the rigor of a true social scientist, I decided to test out my age-based theory on myself and in conversations with my age-peers. First I scanned the generational literature for the most prevalent characteristics of the Millennial cohort. I then did a bit of time travel in my head back to when I was the Millennial age to see if I fit these characteristics. Try this along with me and see if your stories match as well.
- Millennials are more tech savvy than any other generation; they are comfortable with new technology and embrace it as a way to work better, faster, more efficiently.
At the risk of looking very ancient, technology was making massive shifts in the way we worked back when I entered the workforce. The shift from mainframe processing to desktop applications may not look so revolutionary today but it meant rethinking and restructuring almost every business process. And who were in the forefront of embracing the new? Those who were at that time new to the world of work and not those who were too embedded in the existing ways of doing things.
- Millennials crave advancement and want clear career paths to use to chart career progress.
As soon as I felt that I had mastered my first job, I believe it was at one year, I was determined to get promoted to supervision. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see that I was clearly not ready for this promotion and I shudder to think of all the blunders I made those early years trying to direct the work of my small staff. My promotional desire was driven by the fact that I was newly-educated, ambitious, and arrogant enough to feel like I could conquer any job. Subsequent years of experience tempered ambition but I am certain I drove my bosses crazy then as the Millennials do now.
- Millennials have little loyalty to organizations and will job-hop for opportunities to advance and gain experience.
This is one Millennial trait that does not match my early work history. When I entered the world of work, I truly believed in finding the perfect organization and staying with it to retirement. But I do believe that my loyalty and the Millennial’s disloyalty is more based on promotion and compensation practices than on external events. In my early years, organizations were much more vertically structured, with many layers of supervision and management. Prior to the organizational flattening of the 1990’s which gutted layers of middle management, an ambitious worker could advance to higher levels and higher salary ranges. Annual merit increases were substantial enough to see your salary increased to support growing families. Not so today. With merit pools hovering at around 3% at best, a younger worker is forced to change employers to boost the base pay to support growing financial commitments like home ownership and burgeoning families.
I could go on but you should see my point by now: shifting the lens from year-based cohorts to age-based cohorts gives us a much more robust way to view differences in the workplace. One cautionary note: do not use either of these methods to stereotype people. Do not make assumptions or assign cause to anyone’s behavior based on cohort grouping. Use your assumption as a spring board for conversation before acting. If you feel that someone’s ambition to advance may be premature, don’t just excuse it as it being part of their age group. Engage them in conversation to determine their logic in pursuing advancement. Use this hard data to decide on your course of action or to coach your employees to temper their ambitions if they are misplaced or unrealistic. Open communication on the specifics of the situation is the best lens from which to view actions and motivation.
That said, Boomers, my specific cohort group, are always correct in what we think and do. Our opinions should be paramount in all business decisions …