Managing the generation gap

Tammy Erickson is an author and expert on organizations and the changing workforce and, in particular, the generational differences between workers today. She has also done extensive research on how corporations innovate through collaboration

Published: Nov 20, 2009

You recently wrote about managing Generation Y. Who are they and what makes this generation different?
My recent book, Plugged In, looks at how people born between about 1985 and 2000, Generation Y, are different from older workers. Because they grew up at a time when events such as terrorism and school violence were very much in the news, they tend to think in terms of how to make the most out of today and make sure that what they are doing is meaningful, interesting and challenging. They are a little less likely to defer gratification than some of the other generations.

Do you have an opinion about such behaviour?
I take a very positive stance on this generation; and, in fact, the book was a plea to them not to give up on us, the older generations. It was really a book designed to ask them to help us adopt some of their good practices.

What are some of the defining characteristics of Generation Y?
One of the things that I talk about is immediacy being a defining characteristic for this generation; I think it’s very easy to mistake that for pure impatience. We say they’re impatient; they want everything now. But I believe they’re just living in the moment; and, in a sense, they’re responding to the world we gave them. It was a world in which they would be likely to come to the conclusion that they better make the most of what they have right now.

How many Generation Y workers are there?
It’s a big generation. We’re talking about a lot of people: a quarter of the world’s population. The percentages differ a bit as you go around the world. In Europe the per cent of Gen Y to the total population is a little lower; obviously, in Asia, it’s a huge per cent of the population. Make no mistake: they are going to be a great force in a company: they bring a lot of good skills.

Are they formally educated — all college graduates?
Only about a quarter of them are finishing college. Our economies are changing faster than our educational systems. The jobs that are being created are very heavily weighted toward people who have a college education, but we haven’t switched our educational patterns to keep pace with that. So we actually have an alarming situation developing in which we’ll have a shortage of people with higher-level skills and, unfortunately, a surplus of under-educated people.

So three out of four have never been to college?
I should qualify that statement by saying a lot of these people start college, but they’re not necessarily following it through to the end. Interestingly, it’s skewed; girls tend to finish more than boys and some of that, I think, is a sense of relevance. A lot of the boys I interviewed felt they had opportunities available to them but that the college classes just weren’t relevant to achieving what they wanted to achieve.
What would you say is the major difference between Generation Y people and the rest of the workforce?
A major difference in this generation is that they could well have a life expectancy of up to 120 years, so they’re going to be around for a while. That contributes a bit to something I think older people get annoyed with: this generation tends to be looking at their 20s as a time of experimentation. So when we say, buckle down, get a good job; they’re responding, I have a lot of time. That’s a much more relaxed attitude than past generations have had.

How does that translate to the challenge for managers?
The differences in attitude and experiences of this group mean that organizations will have to lead them differently. A couple of things come to mind: first, don’t over-specify things; they love to figure things out for themselves. These are people who have gone through school, not necessarily reading a textbook from start to finish, but getting a snippet of information from here and there. So I don’t recommend over-training them: give them a challenge and let them figure it out.

Are there other key differences?
Secondly, a very interesting difference I found is their attitude toward feedback. I don’t know what “feedback” means to you; but, if somebody says that they are going to give me feedback, that sends a bit of a cold chill down my spine, because it usually means I’m going to be judged in some way, assessed. Generation Y doesn’t see that at all: feedback has a totally different meaning. For them, feedback is a tip, it’s coaching, and it’s something they want all the time, multiple times a day. So you can now witness some funny organizational situations in which a senior person will say, “Look kid, I told you; you’re doing fine!” But it’s not enough for Generation Y; the young person wants more and more bits of feedback.

What is the best way to communicate with them?
As I brought out in the book, this generation communicates differently. We need to understand that fact in order to communicate with them. One of their most striking characteristics is that they coordinate, but we schedule. If you were going to get together with a friend for dinner, you’d probably call in advance; you’d probably decide on a time and a place you were going to meet. They wouldn’t do any of that. They’d wait until the moment and then would send a message, probably by text instead of trying to connect voice-to-voice. But the interesting thing is, even then, the message would not say, “Let’s meet”: it would say, “Where are you?” It would be a request for your coordinates. Then they would text back their coordinates and begin a process of homing in on each other, like ships with radar, until they meet up at a particular place. They’re coordinators. Also, they love to text message. Often they prefer to text rather than talk.

In a group that has multiple generations, how should a manager begin to meld them into a team?
A leader with Generation Y employees needs to make some things explicit that older workers take for granted. I recommend that the manager have a conversation with the entire group. Assuming that most groups are going to be mixed, the manager should bring assumptions out on the table. For example, he or she should discuss how the team is going to communicate with each other, what will be considered as “office hours”, what the start time for the day is (and be precise: does everyone have to come in at 08:00 or 08:30?). Those are workplace issues this generation doesn’t understand much about, so bring those kinds of normative behaviours out into the open: encourage the team to have a conversation if the manager’s rules are difficult for some to understand, or accept. Decide which rules are something you must have, and yes, they’ll adapt; they’ll live by them. But I think you have to make them clear.

Do Generation Y workers truly fit into a  team?
This brings up another area in which I’ve done a lot of research, beyond Generation Y: the subject of collaborative teamwork. I have worked a great deal with Lynda Gratton of London Business School. We did one large study that looked at intact team collaboration to try to determine what correlated with teams that successfully work together. We found out that diversity works against collaboration. If you and I are different in just about any way — generationally, politically, educationally — that will make collaboration more difficult, if not impossible.

Impossible?
Perhaps. The kinds of things that help with collaboration include forming trust-based relationships, so workers have to get to know each other in some way. Companies can facilitate that by providing networking opportunities. But, interestingly, there were some very, I would say, hard-edged things as well: you have to have efficient processes. Collaboration is a discretionary activity. A worker can think, “I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to: you can’t make me.” And so to encourage such a worker, a company needs to make it easy to collaborate. If it’s really difficult, I’m just going to take off and work somewhere else. It also helps build collaboration if all team members have a clearly defined role.
What about the fact that many team members today work in different geographic locations?
If they’re working at a distance from each other, a leader needs to provide a basis for them to get to know each other. Technology helps, but, at least for many older workers today, it’s not enough. I would suggest that managers need a physical meeting to get that to happen. They need to make sure roles are clear; they need to make sure that the process of collaborating is easy; and they need to role-model what it means to be a team player. That makes a big difference.

Do you find that the concept of retirement is changing with each new generation?
I think retirement is an outdated notion. One of my previous books was on this subject. We’re seeing more and more that individuals, even if they officially retire from the system, are keeping busy in different ways. A lot of that book was about helping Boomers think about the kinds of lives they’d like to lead after official retirement. What Generation Y might think of retirement is still a work in progress.
This sounds like quite a revolutionary change in the concept of being a worker.

In many ways, today’s workers are changing the workplace. One of the problems organizations have is that they are based on a 20th century model, sometimes even a 19th century model. For example, people are racing to put in place collaborative technology, but they’re going to run right up against these 19th century organizations. Collaboration, in fact, goes against about five centuries of management practice and theory; and it certainly affects our younger generations in terms of their ability to feel comfortable and fit in, so that is the kind of thing we need to think about. Organizations in the past were based on an equation that essentially traded loyalty to the organization and the boss for protection and care. That’s not a collaborative concept; that leads to silo kinds of behaviour, so organizations need to begin to break that equation with different kinds of arrangements with employees.

Can you provide an example of that?
Surely. Many traditional organizations have a culture in which management basically endorses this viewpoint among workers: “You do your job; I’ll do mine, and, by the way, mind your own business.” So it would be impolite in many companies for me to comment directly to you on the quality of your work. I might gossip a bit, but I wouldn’t talk to you directly about it. That won’t work in a collaborative organization. So there are lots of behavioural things that we need to address head-on in order to begin to shift organizations, both to take advantage of collaborative technology and to welcome younger members of the workforce.

You mentioned earlier that you are optimistic about the generations now shaping the workplace. Still feel that way?
I do feel optimistic, perhaps for a reason we haven’t touched on yet, which is the missing generation: Gen X. My third book — it’s actually the last of a trilogy — will be about Gen X. I started that research, I have to admit, a little sceptical. My initial interviews with Gen Xers were a bit shocking to me as a Boomer. But over the course of several years of research, I really came to appreciate and respect Gen Xs. Their values are very different from mine, the way they approach things. For example, one man told me that Boomers are intent on climbing the beanstalk: “You just want to get as high as you can go.”  He continued, “I’m worried about the base of the beanstalk. I want to make sure that it’s as sturdy and as broad as it can be.” I think that’s a pretty good characterization of the difference. Gen X workers think in terms of options, what ifs. What would I do if this were to happen? Have I got a back-up plan? They’re very thoughtful about keeping multiple balls in the air at the same time, whereas Boomers may be much more full-steam-ahead toward one goal. Given our world today, given the challenges we face, I think Xs are going to be fantastic leaders. I think they actually bring the mindset that we need to lead our organizations in new directions over the next several decades. That makes me feel optimistic.

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