4/7 – The Generational Shift in the Workplace: Are WE Ready?

Learner Papers / April - June 2015

Kim Arellano

Kim Arellano

Kim Arellano

Ten thousand Millennials turn 21 each day (Torres, 2014, para. 5), while ten thousand Baby Boomers retire each day (Newsmax, 2010, para. 1). By 2025, the Millennials will make up 75% of the U.S. Labor Force (Tyler, 2013, para. 1). Many organizations are facing several challenges including transferring valuable knowledge to a younger generation in an efficient manner. In addition, many organizations have recognized a different generation perspectives in work habits and narratives. Organizations are looking for help in managing the personnel change. This essay explores the current conversation of generational dialogue in the workplace, and challenges the myths and truths of stereotyping generations, and takes an historical view of how conventional wisdom views these shifts. Changing paradigms, hierarchical vs. flat structures, dialogue and stakeholder conversations, will predict how the current generational shift may help business to align the right stakeholders in the conversation, to innovate the U.S. corporate structure into thriving humanistic work environments.

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Figure 1: Population Distribution of the Generations (New Media and Marketing, 2012)

 The Generational Shift in the Workplace: Are WE Ready?

My experience as a Generation Xer in the business world inspired my interest in the subject of generational shifts in the workplace. My parents were of the Baby Boomer generation, as were many of my high school teachers, my peers, bosses and mentors. With the Baby Boomer generation outnumbering the Gen Xers 2 to 1, it was very clear that I was assimilated into their culture. The Boomers I worked with in the telecommunications field had been at the same company for most of their careers. I also came along at a time when digital communication was emerging and replacing existing infrastructures. As a twenty-something, I had been around computers and video games for much of my pre-teen and teenage years, whereas for my Boomer counterparts, computer technology was learning a new language. For me, I didn’t have context to compare it to the “old” way, I didn’t use the “old” way. It should also be noted that technology was booming and the need replace old infrastructure led to an explosion in technology companies. As the Boomers moved up the ladder, entry-level jobs in technology needed to be filled. With the Generation X population being only half the size, finding a job was not that big of a challenge for many of us. In meetings, I would be the minority in a room full of Boomers. Moving up into the positions vacated by the Boomers was not as challenging, as the competition for these jobs was low. Boomers who had “been there and done that”, in regards to managing and leading people, settled into individual contributor roles and socked away money for retirement. By age 33, I was the regional sales director, with many of my Boomer peers now reporting to me.

As a leader in a technology organization still facing massive technological changes and advancements, I looked at my current staff to make sure the right folks were on the bus. Most of my direct reports were within 5-10 years of retirement, with two of them ready to retire within the year. I did have some of my Generation X peers, but they were looking to move into their own leadership roles vacated by Boomers. I tried to find and recruit the next generation of Millennials, and hit a brick wall. Faced with the need to manage Boomers moving out of the business with recruiting the next generation into the business required a deepening understanding of generational differences. In addition, I found my Gen X peers facing the same struggle. We are half the size of both the Boomers and Millennials, yet in the positions to manage both. This was 2007 and within two years, the economy collapsed and changed the paradigm. By 2009, the Boomers were not retiring, Gen Xers were not moving up and the next generation was entering the workforce at an increased rate. The questions regarding how business would adapt and change had many different factors, including generational work preferences. This quest to understand what Gen Xers managers needed to know about the Boomers and Millennials in order to be successful in corporate America changed my trajectory in business and has thus become my life’s work.

Current Conversation of Generational Differences

Definitions of the current generations in the workplace vary and many argue there is not a clear-cut measure to determine who fits in what definition. However, many agree on some basic assumptions based on the year in which one was born. The idea is the formidable years of shaping one’s worldview happens right around the pre-teens to mid-twenties. The cultural events and changes that happen during this time help shape these views. In American history, events such as: World War II, Vietnam, the Assassination of President Kennedy, the invention of television and other media; the internet and technology, made wide-spread shifts in perception. For those at the formidable years during these events, the views on work, family, culture, politics and many other things would have shifted from the generational experiences before the events. The resulting way in which a generation operated post-event is the generational shift. In an effort to contain the system, we will focus solely on the generational shift as it relates to working in corporate America as defined in Figure 2.

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Figure 2: Generally agreed timeline of the generations. (Lifvendahl, Arellano, 2008)

The following diagrams demonstrate the conventional-wisdom and data surrounding what many see are the differences in the generations. Figure 3 shows the birth rates in the United State to demonstrate the magnitude of people in the Baby Boomer Generation compared to the others. Note the drop in birth rates after the introduction of the birth control pill in 1964. That one availability to a drug allowed the explosion of women into the workplace, the dramatic drop in workers of the Generation X era, and a shift in our education and early-childhood systems. This is one example of how an event can have a rippled and far reaching effect upon our working environments today.

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Figure 3: Birth Rates  (Lifvendahl, 2008)

Figure 4 is an aggregate of research presented by Dr. Lifvendahl from the University of Wisconsin around generational learning characteristics (Lifvendahl, 2008, p. 3). These outcomes are consistent with many different presentations I have seen and books on the subject of generational differences.Arellano 4

Figure 4: Learning Characteristics by Generation (Lifvendahl, 2008)

Figure 5 was produced by the American Association of Retired Persons in a 2007 document titled, Leading a Multigenerational Workforce (American Association of Retired Persons [AARP], 2007, p. 18). These generational perspectives are boiled down to the following one-word cheat sheet.

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Figure 5: Generational Perspectives (aarp.org, 2007)

Authors and generational researchers, William Strauss and Neil Howe (1991), described generations as a repeating cycle of  “people moving through time” (p. 23). They believe the, “lesson of the cycle is that each generational type specializes in its own unique brand of positive and negative endowments” (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 39). They wanted to understand the confluence of life phases or stages and the impacts of single, large-scale events. For example, in 1918, the Spanish flu swept through the United States. How did this event impact those that were grandparents, parents, teenagers and children who went through the event? Did this event define a shift in a generational narrative that changed them moving forward? If we overlay different historic events over the life-stages of each at a certain time, how might this impact a generational narrative? I think of the Baby Boomer Generation in the 1960s. The parents and grandparents of Boomers had lived through WWI and WWII and the Great Depression. During this time, collectivism and banding together to support the troops and the homeland was expected and done with pride. When the Vietnam War broke out, many of the children who had only experienced the economic and social boom of the 1950s, rebelled against their parents and protested the war. One may argue that the life-stage of teenagers and early twenty-something’s would support the need to distance themselves and become independent from their parents. However, is there more to this phenomenon than life stages? Williams and Howe (1991) believed that generations behaved in a continuous diagonal or a predictable pattern, based on life cycle and major events. To illustrate this, they argue,

Now suppose a decisive event – say, a major war or revolution – suddenly hits society. Clearly, the event will affect each age group differently according to its central role. In the case of a major war, we can easily imagine youths encouraged and willing to keep out of the way (dependence), rising adults to arm and meet the enemy (activity), midlifers to organize the troops and manage the home front (leadership), and elders to offer wisdom and perspective (stewardship)…. The decisive event, therefore, creates four distinct cohort-groups, each about twenty-two years in length and each possessing a special collective personality that will later distinguish it from its age-bracket neighbors as it ages in place (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 61).

Strauss and Howe (1991) further define a “peer personality” where they look at,

..it’s chronology: its common age location, where its lifecycle is positioned against the background chronology of historic trends and events. Second, we look at its attributes; objective measures of its common beliefs and behavior, identifying which cohorts share common personality traits. Third, we look at awareness; how society perceives membership in a common generation – that is, who is generally considered a member and who is not (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 65).

Using these definitions and descriptions, Williams and Howe (1991) defined and mapped the generational cohorts from the Puritan’s of 1584 to present day and predict the future to 2069. They identified generational cycles changed to a new generation approximately twenty to thirty years. Within the chronological change, lifecycles were defined in terms of youth, rising adulthood, midlife and elder hood collective experiences, behaviors and values (Strauss & Howe, 1991, figure 6-6). They outline a pattern they explain as dominant and recessive generations as, “During social moments, DOMINANT generations are entering rising adulthood and elder hood. During social moments, RECESSIVE generations are entering youth and midlife” (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 73). To deepen the layers further, they describe four generational types as idealist, reactive, civic and adaptive. Where a particular generation falls at a given period of time is dependent on the chronological time and lifecycle age during social moments. Social moments happen either during secular crisis, such as World War II, or spiritual awakenings such as the Sexual Revolution. Strauss and Howe (1991) describe, “a social moment is an era, typically lasting about a decade, when people perceive that historic events are radically altering their social environment” (p. 71). They further explain, “There are two types of social moments: Secular Crises, when a society focuses on reordering the outer world of institutions and public behavior; and Spiritual Awakenings, when society focuses on changing the inner world of values and private behavior (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 71). Based on this model, Strauss and Howe (1991) outlined the generational traits and attributes from the Puritans until today, and used the model to predict future generational attitudes and traits.

In context of the current generational conversation between Boomers, Gen Xers (called the Thirteeners for the Thirteenth Generation) and Millennials, Strauss and Howe (1991) outlined the intersection of events and patterns to describe them. The dominant idealist describes the Boomer Generation, which grew up as indulged youths after the secular crisis of WWII, as coming of age, “inspiring a spiritual awakening” (Strauss & Howe, 1991). Then as rising adults, they focus on protecting and cherishing their own youth, or in this case, the Millennial Generation. The Millennials are described as a dominant, outer-fixated Civic Generation. In between, the recessive reactive and adaptive generations (Gen X and Silent Generations) had their own experiences as youths and mid-lifers during the Boomer Spiritual Awakening (Strauss & Howe, 1991).

Generations was written in 1991, during the time of birth and youth of the Millennial Generation. This generation is now occupying close to the majority of the U.S. workforce, as more Boomers retire and Millennials join the workforce. Increasingly articles describe a generation that needs to be understood and integrated into the workforce. In business, leadership and HR magazines, the Millennial generation seems to work differently than others. Much of what Strauss and Howe (1991) wrote continues to evolve into the dos and don’ts of managing each generation. For example, in January of 2010, Information Management Journal published an article titled, “Leveraging Generational Work Styles to Meeting Business Objectives” (Simons, 2010, p. 28). Here, the author characterizes Boomers, “by social change and increasing affluence”; Gen X, “by the expansion of mass media and the advent of technology”; and Millennials, “by the rise of instant communication technologies” (Simons, 2010, p. 29). Based on these characteristics, coupled with some explanation of different coming of age experiences, the author suggested a list of mentoring does including: “casual, friendly work environment, involvement, flexibility into freedom and a place to learn” for the Gen Xers (Simons, 2010, p. 30). For the Millennials, the dos include, structured, supportive work environment, personalized work, interactive relationship and to be prepared for demands and high expectations” (Simons, 2010, p. 30).

An article in Workforce Diversity exposed, “Generations at Work: The problems, power and promise explored” (Wilson, 2009, p. 46). The author explained,

We are influenced heavily from childhood, through high school graduation and beyond by our families, teachers and the events of the world. This is the time we form most of our core values, and we keep them throughout our lives, Further, we’re having these experiences at the same time as our peers, giving us shared knowledge and feelings that bond us together (Wilson, 2009, p. 48).

Wilson (2009) suggests that the differences in generations should be viewed as a diversity issue, managing and valuing the differences in perspectives, while finding common ground. In an effort to further help the reader understand the diversity, Wilson (2009) gave a breakdown of the four generations in the workplace with some basic characteristics such as the Loyal Traditionalists, Optimistic Baby Boomers, Independent Gen Xers and Technologically Savvy Millennials (p. 48). What strikes me about the diversity approach is that on one hand the focus is on similarities, and yet at the same time, the focus is on differences between stakeholders. This is very unique to the generational conversation, where it seems more politically correct to use age as a gauge of difference as opposed to religion, race, gender or other topics, which would normally create uproar in an office setting. Can you imagine a list of four religions found in the workplace with a list of each trait in each religion and how one should manage people by the trait? This perpetuates stereotypes and one of the interesting things I’m exploring is how age diversity is different. Or is it?

Social Change

My biggest challenge was recruiting the millennial generation into the business. I had asked some of my younger nieces and nephews why this was the case. The telecommunications company I worked for was high tech, but they did not see it that way. They saw my company as “old” school. Further probing identified a lack of excitement to work for large companies that were seen as institutional.  As a Generation Xer, this did not make sense as the natural path for my generation was to work for these companies. However, business had changed and many new and exciting companies, “dot coms”, had cropped up with the promise of perks like foosball tables and free-flowing root beer on tap.

Beyond the high school definition of “cool work”, there was a deeper and more troubling narrative I began to uncover in my conversations. The younger generation experienced growing up very differently than my generation and the Boomer generation. They grew up with parents who worked, a lot. They had lots of “stuff”, but they missed the family connectedness. They experienced fear and uncertainty when their parents lost their job and had to move to different companies. Their lives were affluent and filled with activities that kept them busy right alongside the busy lifestyle of their working parents. They were not sure they wanted to kill themselves to try and get ahead, only to be laid off and in debt. Some did not buy into the idea of a corporate body controlling their lives, or if the work they would be doing mattered in the larger scope of things. In hindsight, I suspect this was a widely held belief; however, this generation saw the warning signs and wanted to explore different alternatives.

Of course these are gross generalizations perhaps confined more to the middle to upper class American family. Other experiences relating to socio-economic and cultural/racial issues may have been very different. Even within the middle class home, individual circumstances vary wildly. However, each generation shared a common experience with being at the formidable age at a specific time in history, with the events that shaped not only our American narrative, but impacted the narrative generation. Television played a big part in introducing a cultural perspective on family life with shows like “Cosby” that portrayed an affluent African American family that brought the ideas of diversity acceptance to prime time. This concept would not have been dreamed of during the years of racial segregation, the formidable Baby Boomer times. For the Generation Xer, this was a palpable shift in acceptance of other cultures. For the Millennials, this is the way it is and always has been for them. Other examples of television and media portray equality of gender as well. Women are equal to men and for the Millennials, this is just the way it has always been.

Recently, I conducted a workshop focusing on generational issues in the workplace where we discussed sexual harassment and women in the workplace. The Boomer women commented that sexual harassment was tolerated as one of the challenges of women working alongside men. Women were just beginning to enter into the workforce beyond secretarial roles. Many understood that if they complained they were not protected legally, or emotionally. Accepting and handling the occasional sexist comment or unwanted advancement was part of the job. The issue and definition of sexual harassment was not clear. For my generation, the comments focused more on awareness and training surrounding sexual harassment. The Gen Xers knew the tide was shifting and that sexual harassment would not be tolerated from legal and human resource perspectives. However, the rules and actions were ambiguous in dealing with the issue, so many experienced some harassment issues, but felt more empowered to seek help in dealing with them. The Millennial participant crossed her arms in defiance and said, “if any man every thought they could disrespect me, they would have another thing coming!” She was shocked at the stories her Boomer counterpart told and could not fathom that experience in a current work environment.  This is an example of how the different generations have advanced social causes to shape the work environment. This can also be an example of how organizations are recognizing the financial advantages of keeping the workforce happy, healthy and productive.  Looking into the future, how this generation will shape the environment for themselves and future generations is the subject of many organizational development planners and C-level executives. The balance between maintaining a humanistic core while driving financial requirements is still seen as a big topic of debate and compromise in our capitalistic society.

Technological Changes

In addition to social advances, technological advances play a large role in generational differences. In 2007, Daniel Rasmus, a Microsoft employee wrote “Listening to the Future” for the Microsoft Executive Leadership Series (Rasmus & Salkowitz, 2007). In this book, the authors explains from a Microsoft and technological perspective what the next generation will require from their work environments to be successful. Rasmus and Salkowitz (2007) cite three factors for shaping a workforce including: “increasing global integration, demographic change and technological innovation” (p. 57). While the authors separated the factors, one may argue that the three are dependent on each other as the cause and effect of change. Technology opens the door for increasing global integration, and the need for more efficient global integration challenges technology to improve better ways for collaboration. Demographic change is fueled by the age of the worker, coupled with their comfort level with technology and global integration (Rasmus & Salkowitz, 2007). The authors argued that knowledge workers are,

…required to learn computers, software, communication and collaboration tools and technology, and the practices associated with the use, whether or not these skills were intrinsically related to their actual occupation. For a generation, this overlay of technology and technology-related practices has reshaped the expectations and perceptions of work by the existing workforce, often making it seem more complex, or demanding and more stressful (Rasmus & Salkowitz, 2007, p. 63).

At the time, I was attending a seminar hosted by Daniel Rasmus in a Microsoft conference room with many leaders from various large Pacific Northwest organizations. The focus of the conversation was how organizations needed to get behind embracing technology and the impacts of the working environment, such as teleworking, offering text and chat technology in addition to email and phone technologies. As he spoke, I pondered on the human toll of a more stressful work environment for older workers not accustomed to changing how they conduct business. Seven years later, I think about how the conversation of technology, globalization and demographic has morphed even further, and has seemingly divided generations.

I recently conducted a workshop with a communications department for a local government agency. We were exploring the natural learning shifts from what we think we know, to what we don’t know. In the process, we discussed how we are Masters to the point that we are blind to the changing game, and how Mastery can become obsolete. One of the Boomer attendees, who loved to write, made comments at how written communication has morphed to the point of incoherence. She said that anyone with an opinion can blurt out an idea, without the discipline or decency to explore the opinion and make an attempt to eloquently communicate the idea. To her, Facebook posts and Tweets were akin to, “a dog peeing on a bench, they come up, sniff, pee and move on”. This woman was nearing retirement and was resolved that the next generation would wipe out her life’s love of prose and written communication. However, at the end of the workshop, she opened up that she had a revelation. How could she capture the essence and point of the complexity in a blog, or in a Twitter post? How could she capture her emotions and herself in 144 characters? She no longer saw emerging technology as defeat, but as an opportunity to re-engage, to learn and explore how others are doing it, to grow as a person, to use her Mastery to further the cause of effective communications in a different medium. I believe Daniel Rasmus was on the right path when he talked about how organizations needed to take into consideration the complexity of technology and the impact on the knowledge worker. However, instead of focusing how organizations can improve adoption of current technology, what if organizations focused on the advancement of ideas, with technology as a tool? As my new friend demonstrated, technology is ineffective without the creative human’s openness to developing new and exciting ways to use it.

I believe the discussion around the impacts of technology is an important conversation in the generational dialogue. The technological divide is not just a generational issue; however, I believe we do experience a connection between technology and generational preferences. It was explained to me that if learning technology was like learning a language, then Boomers learned Spanish at 40, Gen Xers in High School and Millennials have always spoken Spanish. It’s how they think; it’s all they’ve known. What impact does this analogy have on the ability of the different generations to communicate and work together effectively? What ideas or intrinsic methods are lost in the translation? Peeling apart the onion of how people work together is the subject of countless sociological, psychological and management books. But I wonder if we aren’t looking at the differences in communication at the expense of looking at the process, or motivation behind communication as well as how it will morph in the future, regardless of technology. The conversation at Microsoft seven years ago focused on how large organizations need to embrace technology and provide technology and training for workers to remain productive. We did not talk about how organizations need to embrace how the workers themselves intrinsically play a larger role in productivity. We did not discuss the interconnectivity between workers of various degrees of proclivity and comfort with technology (regardless of age) and how to create a work environment conducive to innovation and creativity outside of technology. We didn’t ask how they wanted to communicate; we just said, “everyone is speaking Spanish, and here is how you deal with it”.

The Myth of Generational Differences

Much of this paper echoes much of the National conversation on generational diversity; the focus is on managing the differences. Five minutes of research will reap a plethora of educational materials, workshops, consulting and advice on managing Millennials. In my business, the question is, “how do I manage THESE people? How do I get them to want to work?”. Sitting in an airport waiting to board, I overheard a loud conversation between what seemed to be two boomers talking about the ills of the “younger generation”. Words like, “lazy”, “unmotivated”, “entitled”, “disrespectful” were tossed around. Sitting quietly nearby were neatly dressed younger folks on laptops and cell phones, plucking away while plugged into headphones. I had no idea whether they heard the comments or not. I was embarrassed if they did. What would have happened if the Boomer couple had replaced the focus from “Millennials”, to women, the handicapped, Latinos, or African Americans? I can imagine security being called and the hate police out in force. Talking about diversity issues using the generational gap seems more politically correct somehow. However, I fear that some of the older generations are not recognizing our own biases and discrimination and how this is shutting down dialogue in the corporate environments.  The result may be the younger generation is learning how to discriminate, judge and disregard the older generations. A divide is happening, where older corporations are not attracting a younger replacement workforce and younger corporations are not valuing (and don’t know how to integrate) the wisdom and experience of an older generation.

The first two years of my intergenerational presentations, I found the Millennials in the room becoming more and more cynical about the conversation. One member told me, “I’m tired of being put into a box of how I’m perceived to act and think”. Another said, “The only people with a generational problem are the older generations, I don’t see a problem at all. They are going to leave and retire and we will still do things the way we want to”. In addition, many articles that give advice about how to appease the Millennial Generation can just as easily be written about most workers, regardless of age. Who would not want a manager who is, “comfortable supporting them…collaborative…motivational” (AARP, 2007, p. 17)?

In 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in partnership with the University of Southern California and the London Business School published a NextGen study. PwC was concerned with the low attraction and retention rates, so they commissioned what they call the “largest global generational study ever conducted” (PricewaterhouseCoopers [PwC], 2013, p. 3). They studied 1000 Millennials in 18 territories, conducted over 300 interviews and compiled 44,000 web-based surveys (PwC, 2013, p. 3). Many different topics included, “workplace culture, communication and work styles, compensation, career structure, career development, opportunities and work/life balance” (PwC, 2013, p. 3). They did discover some interesting preferences,

Just as notable, however, are the widespread similarities between millennial employees and their non-Millennial counterparts, all of whom aspire to a new workplace paradigm that places a higher priority on work/life balance and workplace flexibility. The research shatters commonly held myths about Millennials in the workplace, uncovering attitudes and behavior that largely mirror those of their more senior colleagues (PwC, 2013, p. 3).

The findings of the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ study along with other research suggest that perhaps defining workplace preferences based on age or generation may not be as cut and dry as a formula to be put on a chart, or listed as management dos and don’ts.

What is the Real Question?

In working through understanding generational differences and the impact of the generational shift in the workplace, I began to discover my own attitudes changing. My focus began with wanting an understanding of the differences among the generations in order to better to foster better working environments. However, my conversations and analysis uncovered that there was minimal generational differences in relation to how we grow and develop individually. Personality traits, gender biases, social development and many other factors played roles in successful, or unsuccessful work environments, and the differences were not necessarily attributed to the generation in which one was born. Even within a generation, socioeconomic status, education level, family archetypes and other environmental factors may produce different generational results. The “Type A” personality is found in all generations, not just the Boomers. Uncovering the deeper layers, it seems to me that a 20 year old entering the workforce, a 40 year old balancing work/life or a 65-year-old contemplating life after retirement faced similar questions regardless of whether the year is 1965, 1985 or 2014. This led me to question the purpose of exploring generational differences at all. To what purpose should we understand generational preferences in work environments for overall business success? Are there other areas to study with more impact?

Language can be different between generations, as an example of something quite simple that we overlook during the generational discussion. In one workshop, a Boomer told the story of a new hire that reported to her. This new hire (a millennial) wanted access to her new manager’s calendar, so she can attend the meetings. The Boomer explained that she couldn’t just attend meetings. The Boomer communicated to her new hire she needed to see how she presented herself; she needed to earn the respect and trust the invitation to attend signifies. At that point, one of the millennial participants of the workshop spoke up. She explained that to her, respect should not be earned, but that she should have respected her new employee. Everyone should be respected in the workplace, regardless of age or any other factors. A light bulb went off in the group as the conversation focused on our generational understanding of a simple word: respect. The meaning and application of the word “respect”, and many others associated with soft skills, has evolved in our society and our workplaces. We can study these subtle shifts in narrative through open, honest and safe dialogue. It is in the process where trust and respect are built, so in a way, they were both right.

Our entire system, born of the industrial revolution, is in a constant state of evolution. We should question the generation of workers as a collective as the contribution to the change in the industrial revolution as much as the individual generational makeup. For example, let’s explore the technological shift during the 1980’s. The body of workers consisted of those that were in the traditional old-schools system of secretaries and typewriters at the same time those who were tinkering with soldering irons and silicon chips, and everyone in between. At that time, there were more of the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers and the oldest Gen Xers were just starting to emerge as young 20 year olds in the workplace. This description may conjure an organization like the auto industry versus Microsoft, however more likely, WITHIN the same company, those that typed contracts everyday worked at the same time with those inventing robotic assembly machinery using complex software algorithms. The point is that within the same organization, different generations with different skills sets worked together for emerging business success. The assembly line organizational consultant could be tasked with process improvement and focus on leadership, productivity enhancements using technology, or other methods regardless of that Organizational Development person’s generation. One’s generation does not necessarily determine their role within the company as a finance administrator, technology improvement officer, and secretary or line worker.

So why do we study generational differences in the workplace at all? I think the answer lies specifically in the systemic contribution of many of the following factors: How the organization approaches learning and leadership, what external and internal financial factors are at play, how the industry to which the organization is a part of shifting are just a few of the many internal and external factors that determine the future success, or failure of the organization. In each one of the components, the age and/or generation of the worker plays a role in shaping the future. It’s not a question of whether a Millennial is too lazy; the question is how does that Millennial contribute to the specific work group? The work group then contributes to the division, then the organization, the industry and the global collective. It’s a “butterfly effect” in organizational effectiveness. Starting with the individual and applying generational stereotypes is far too easy of a solution to address an ambiguous question. One must look at the larger system without judgment or ego wrapped around knowing a cause and effect.

In a 2010 article written in the Journal of Business Psychology, a research study of generational differences of “work ethics, job values and gender beliefs” was conducted using construction workers (Real, Mitnick, & Maloney, 2010, p. 303). Construction workers were chosen because the social and economic makeup of the construction worker was different than many of the academic or white collar workers used in many different generational preference studies. Many of these “blue-collar” workers come from families and communities with similar backgrounds, employment and social structures. Having a union-focus meant that many of the younger generation entered as apprentices and worked in the hierarchal structure. The results of the study showed, “Millennial workers were more similar to than different from other generations in their work-related values and beliefs. The differences elicited in focus groups were more likely the result of experience, position, or age than of generation” (Real et al., 2010, p. 310). The study further explained, “Many of these younger workers may have been socialized into these occupational communities in their home, neighborhood, and social class while in their formative years, thus learning the values, norms, and practices associated with construction crafts” (Real et al., 2010, p. 311). The study concluded that, “further research may want to examine how these occupational communities develop and maintain social capital and networks as they address the challenges of globalization, worker safety and changing work modalities” (Real et al., 2010, p. 311).

The recommendation is a valid concern for those in construction, as the industry faces its own challenges in attracting and retaining the next generation of workers. In May of 2014, the Chief Learning Officer journal published an article that concluded Millennials are “staying away from manufacturing and other trade careers” (Nikravan, 2014, para. 1). The challenge facing manufacturing and other trades to attract a younger generation is highlighted in a survey of 1,200 American manufacturers. The survey found, “three-quarters of manufacturers said that 25 percent or less of their workforce are in the Generation Y age group, and 49 percent say they expect that percentage to stay the same during the next two years” (Nikravan, 2014, para. 2). The reason attributed by the article is the heavy push by parents and the community for high school graduates to attend a 4-year college as opposed to a trade school. With the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs to overseas countries, many parents worry that their children will not be able to find work. So while the construction research study demonstrated little in the differences between generations in work values, new millennial workers entering the construction fields and other manufacturing is critical for sustainability. Boeing is a case in point where some estimates claim almost 50% of the workforce is eligible for retirement in the next 5 years, and 25% are eligible for retirement today.

Changing Paradigms

I recently read articles about how a restaurant noticed service seemed significantly slow. In the restaurant business, every minute a table is used (or not) and how many different paying customers use that table in an hour/or day has a mathematical computation that determines if the restaurant will be successful or not. In an industry with an average of 3% margin, every minute a table is not being turned over quickly to a new customer can determine the longevity of the restaurant. In this particular case, the very popular and always full restaurant was losing revenues because the tables were not being turned over. In many cases, a restaurant would look to the staff and try and determine what they are doing wrong. The manager would need to determine if they have the right caliber of wait staff, if they have a morale problem or a leadership problem. They may make investments in mandatory re-training, bring punishment and rewards systems in place or to the extreme, fire people and hire new people. Instead, this restaurant hired a consultant to come in and study the system and what they found was shocking. The issue was technology, specifically, customers using cell phones. Between taking pictures of their meals, being distracted by text messages and not reviewing the menu and asking the wait staff to take pictures of the group, up to 50 minutes was added to each table visit (McCann, 2014)! The system and expectation of the restaurant dining experience has changed, yet many managers are still using outdated methods to fix something that wasn’t the problem. It’s like trying to find a landmark in Michigan with a map of Indiana. You can use a system of rewards, punishments, re-training and even firing folks, but that will not solve the problem.

I think this is a very relevant argument applicable to the generational discussion. Many organizations want to use training or re-training, systems or rewards or leadership development to address problems they attribute to intergenerational work conflict. However, is addressing intergenerational conflict the real problem? Or has the system changed and we as leaders should incorporate the wisdom of the stakeholder to explore the root of the challenge? The restaurant company hired a consultant to do the study. What if they had asked the wait staff to get together to discuss how they service the tables? I am not saying that the generation has no influence. In fact, in the restaurant analogy, I wonder if the wait staff had an innate tolerance for the cell phone distraction because this is a normal way of living for them as well. They do not know or understand from past experience that things were ever different. They might also see taking pictures of food, or the group dining as a positive customer experience as a part of the joy of living (and the bigger tips, returning clients) and not as a problem. It is for this reason, that the generational shift in the workplace is critical. How can a restaurant use the information they received to transform the customer experience as opposed to look at it as a problem to be eliminated? I’ll bet the wait staff would have some excellent ideas. Likewise, asking the younger generation to engage in a conversation around Millennial, what types of work they want to do, may help resolve some of the challenges facing manufacturing and the trades. Engaging the generational stakeholders will not only help the organization determine the flow of buying habits and innovation impacts, but it can also engage the stakeholder in developing how corporate America evolves.

Hierarchal vs. Flat Infrastructures

The conversation to involve stakeholders in fundamental conversations around the structure of the organization itself can cause much consternation from the leaders of such organizations. In small organizations and start-ups, soliciting input and trying new things is not only practical, it’s part of the development process of the organization. In large organizations and institutions, there is little room for innovation at different levels to make an impact, unless a larger system is at play to support the experiment, which is highly impractical. Hierarchal infrastructures are necessary to build an airplane, for example. It would not be wise to leave ambiguity and decision making to a new wing assembly worker at Boeing to design and develop their own type of rivet. The decisions as to how things happen are a culmination of many years of trial and error, along with a hierarchy of decisions and decision processes. Tenure and experience is necessary in many current industries. However, this leaves room for the status quo to ignore signs of change until it is too late to adapt.

Maslow’s learning cycle explains that we all move from a state of unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence then to unconscious competence. Basically, we do not know what we don’t know when first starting. We rely on experience and guidance to uncover what we need to learn. Once we begin to learn, we build a competence and an understanding on how this newfound competence fits into the scheme. Once we have mastered our responsibility, it becomes easy to forget how to explain the purpose to the system. We simply do these things because it’s the way they have always been done. But the lesson in the learning cycle is that change will always move those stuck in unconscious competence, to unconscious incompetence. The restaurant example demonstrated that leadership had a choice to do what they have always done and focus programs on improving productivity on the worker, when in reality, the game changed and they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Through guidance and learning, they adapted to the game. But even in the restaurant example, unconscious competence sought to change the customers’ habits, instead of adapting a traditional restaurant experience to the new paradigm of customers wanting to record their dining experience.

For this reason, organizations need to re-think their hierarchal structures that do not create an environment that allows for analysis of a changing game. What I have experienced in my consulting business are leaders wanting to understand the generational differences in an effort to teach managers how to change their behavior, to teach the newer workers how to assimilate into the system. This is the equivalent of telling managers how Millennials define respect, then telling them how they need to change their definition to fit the organizations definition.  However, the bigger system is changing. Many organizations are recognizing the need to look at the experience and tap the internal wisdom of the stakeholder to analyze if and how the game has changed. Millennials are, “looking for flatter organizations and less hierarchy. They think about their careers as scaffolding, not ladders. On ladders, there’s only one direction and only one person can go up at a time” (Tyler, 2013, para. 9).

A division within Microsoft has tapped into this concept with much success. Led by one of the oldest workers at Microsoft, an initiative was born in the Windows Security Test Team. While Microsoft is viewed as a large, hierarchal organization, it should not be forgotten that its roots were forged with a flat structure of peers developing a transformational technology. Marc McDonald, the very first Microsoft employee, brought this experience to a group of 85 people, many of whom were Millennials. McDonald recalls, “I began to realize the depth of talent in this group. From the annual employee survey, I knew people were feeling underutilized. So it got me thinking about what we could offer these people in terms of applying their talent” (Birkinshaw & Crainer, 2008, para. 3). One of the workers said to him, “Generation Y wants to work on cool, cutting-edge projects, and it wants to be recognized for its work by peers, family and friends. If such projects are not provided in the workplace, many will find them in online communities and work on them – for free – in their spare time” (Birkinshaw & Crainer, 2008, p. 4). The game had changed for Microsoft. They realized if they wanted to continue to innovate and develop this team, they needed to create a space where the workers felt intrinsically motivated to create and innovate. They created an environment of open dialogue and weekly “free pizza” meetings as a forum. Smith explains, “the structure is really flat – everybody’s ideas get equal billing, and everybody’s comments are valid. We try to make sure that there’s no hierarch in the room” (Birkinshaw & Crainer, 2008, para. 11).  The challenge is for organizations to look at their own systems to determine if they have the setup to provide these types of flat environments. Are they really appropriate and how will organizations change for the future? How and where does an organization like Boeing, or construction trades, or hospital environments balance the traditional needs of service, while contemplating shifting an institutional structure? Can it even be done, or will these organizations or institutions be replaced with something we have never seen? One thing is certain, like all of the generations before; this current generation holds the key just by their very existence. We as the Gen X and Boomer leaders have a choice. We can fight it and force compliance, or we can become curious to figure out what this all might look like.

Explore the Unknown

Alec Levenson wrote in the Journal of Business Psychology in 2010,

The challenge for researchers and practitioners is to determine whether these generational differences are “real” in the sense that Millennial are going to have difficulty acculturating into organizations where the power is held by people from different generations – or whether the substantive difference between the Millennials and their predecessors are more perceived than real (Levenson, 2010, p. 1).

This is indeed the paradox that I am struggling with as well. Organizational leaders want to develop and implement treatments to resolve their perception of a generational conflict, and it’s that treatment, absent of input from the stakeholder group affected, that perpetuates the conflict. Interventions that highlight the different perceptions and working styles of the generations in an effort to celebrate diversity could backfire and perpetuate biases and stereotypes that are not helpful to intergenerational relations. At the end of the day, organizations are concerned with performance and looking at inter-generational challenges as a problem to be solved is akin to training the wait staff to serve food faster, or worse, telling the customers to stop using phones in the restaurant. While the problem turned out not to be the wait staff, integrating the wait staff in identifying the problem AND proposing solutions could be the key to improving performance.

One of the challenges in this approach is many Millennials, while having lots of education, may be lacking in diversity and breadth of experience. Addressing the intergenerational challenge isn’t a Millennial issue, it requires all generations to meet on an equal and flat surface to talk about the advantages in narrative and perception that can be used to improve productivity in organizations.  Appreciative Inquiry, or looking to what has worked, is a great way for a generational conversation to include different experiences and perspectives. Inquiry in general, or being curious about the other generation, would encourage dialogue, teamwork and creativity in addressing how the organizations provide a sustainable workplace that is conducive to innovation.

A 2010 Pew Research Study found that 66% of Millennials say they will likely switch careers sometime in their work life, compared to 55% of Gen Exers and 31% of Boomers (Pew Research Center, 2010, p. 46). In addition, 84% of Boomers said they will stay at their current job, while 62% of Gen Xers did and only 42% of Millennials (Pew Research Center, 2010, p. 46).  The issue of retaining Millennials becomes a different conversation if an organization builds programs assuming that the Millennials will leave, as opposed to focusing efforts on getting them to change their perspectives and become more like the Boomers in thoughts on staying.  The conversation may change if Millennials were asked when they expect to leave and under what circumstances. Assuming this is the natural flow and evolution, how might organizations change their structure, such as hiring more contract staff that can work with different organizations, instead of changing the worker? Furthermore, research done in 2008 on Millennial preferences found, “sixty-five percent of 1000 respondents age 24-35 said they preferred to look for a job in the place where I would like to live rather than look for the best job I can find wherever it is located” (Rawlins, Indvik, & Johnson, 2008, p. 4). Organizations may need to also integrate what attracts Millennials to their community, outside of the company. How might organizations leverage regional recreational opportunities, for example, to attract and retain employees? I believe the answers are found through inquiry and open dialogue.

In the PwC NextGen Study, the leaders took the results and created a space and system to address the challenges facing an organization that recognizes they need to change to attract and retain the next generation. They note,

It is important to note that these are not top-down changes that are taking place at PwC. They are the by-product of the firm’s commitment to listen actively and attentively to its employees…The transformation that is underway will not be complete in a matter of months or years; more likely, it will be an ever-evolving, dynamic process for many years to come (PwC, 2013, p. 11).

Part of the strategy at PwC is to combat the stereotypes about generational issues, for example, “Millennials are often stereotyped as self-absorbed, quick to shift their loyalties, lazy and uncommitted to work. We’ve heard all of these unfounded myths and that’s exactly what they are. At PwC, we’ve used education to address assumptions like these” (Moritz, 2014, para. 21).

The one that I found interesting, that we do not hear as much about, is the need to “evaluate the impact that Millennials may have on the contingent workforce strategy of your organization” (PwC, 2013, p. 12). Organizations spend a lot of time on the generational discussion talking about how to help intergenerational conflict, attraction and retention, motivation of the generations or how to assimilate into the larger organization. For me, the bigger and more interesting question is what is the impact of the generations on a specific organization? We envision a Millennial as a newer member, fresh out of college and starting at the ground level. However, the oldest Millennials are in their 30s, with kids, mini-vans and mortgages. They are the customers, business partners, buyers and contract workers. They are an integral part of a moving and changing system. Not to mention, the next generation behind them, called Gen Z, are now entering high school and will be joining the workforce with their own worldviews and narrative. This is a generation that has always known social media, smart phones, extreme political views as mainstream and war. The issue is not how to fix a Millennial problem, or even a generational problem. The question is how does an organization access and encourage the wisdom they have as an asset to their organization for the betterment of all parts of the organization? This begins with understanding the system itself from all stakeholder perspectives.

While much of the energy seems to be focused on the Millennial generation in the workplace, organizations cannot forget that with each Boomer that retires, institutional knowledge and honed soft skills are lost, if a transfer is not managed. Michael Sabado, an IT manager in healthcare and a Millennial said,

One of my biggest frustrations with my organization is the lack of succession planning. Board approve executive positions are the only positions that I have seen where proper succession planning is taking place. Most succession is taking place in a very reactive way. As senior leaders are retiring, many of their immediate managers are left with additional work that they are not properly resourced or trained for. May major point of frustration is that even when I have identified areas that we need to have succession planning for critical roles, my concerns are mostly ignored. For employees that show long term commitment to the organization and who have constantly performed above average, there is little to no formal career planning available. I feel as though this is a major risk for the organization because we are losing a tremendous amount of valuable experience as baby boomers are retiring and we are not doing a good job of knowledge transferring (Kaifi, 2014, p. 106).

Organizations need the wisdom and experience of the Boomer generation, who believed the power and potential of the individual, and that one can do anything if they work hard enough. They need the independent and resourceful Generation Xers to MacGyver the existing resources to build something sustainable, while maintaining a healthy home life for the next generation. The Millennials KNOW how to get information. They maybe didn’t memorize everything, but they know how information is organized and how to find it. They also know how to get things done with a diverse group and how to share leadership because they had to as kids growing up in their educational system. If an organization wants to know how to transfer knowledge, create a motivational workplace, and increase sustainability, they just need to ask the wisdom in the room.


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About the Author

Kim Arellano is an Organizational Development Practitioner focused on Generational Leadership.  She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology and is a certified Human Resource Professional (PHR). Kim is currently a PhD student in Organizational Leadership and Transformation at Saybrook University. For the past 7 years, Kim has been delivering keynote presentations and workshops on generations in the workplace and is currently working with midsized and large businesses on managing the generational change in leadership and workforce to ensure sustained organizational success. Kim resides in the Pacific Northwest with her family and farm and enjoys hiking the majestic Cascade mountains every spare moment for inspiration.  kim@workforceevolution.com – www.workforceevolution.com


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