In a recent discussion about generational differences in the workforce an employee was skeptical of the stereotypes being applied to his generation. “I’m a (generation),” he said, “and I’ve never thought like that, and I don’t feel like my peers do either.”
I’m purposely not sharing his generation because, it has happened for years and with every generation. Though, right now, the Millennials are most likely to be singing “but not me” as they are the current focus of the most intense scrutiny. This person, or group of people, exists in every single large workshop. The vocal anomaly who refuses to be put in a box. And he’s not wrong.
Yet the rest of the heads in the room are nodding in recognition of all his peers that fulfill the stereotype. Is it cognitive dissonance? Emperor’s new clothes? No. He’s simply not like most of his generation. Maybe it’s a parenting influence, maybe he is a “cusper” (born on the cusp of two generations—the birth year groupings are neither official nor scientific), or maybe he wasn’t born in a western society. These, along with birth order, are additional influences that may influence how “like” their generation they actually are.
Norms are averages, and of course they don’t apply to all. But researchers have seen that generational norms are fairly consistent and telling, which is why studying them continues to inspire conversation.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made big waves with her book, Lean In. But a recent study of Millennials, conducted by Bentley University’s Center for Women in Business, seems to agree with her assertion of an ambition gap among female workers.
According to the study, while nearly 20% of Millennial women seek to emulate women leaders in their companies, another 20% have “no interest in becoming a leader at my current company.” Of course that leaves a good majority floating somewhere in the middle.
It’s even more interesting when you apply the assumptions these Millennials are making about the women CFOs in general:
- More than 60% believe women leaders have to hide their femininity to fit in
- Roughly 50% believe women leaders are less likely to have children AND probably do not have time be as good a mother as they could be
With Millennials’ strong sense of self, and wanting to be accepted for who they are, it’s not surprising that these assumptions would make Millennial women less interested in becoming leaders. The challenge for companies – at least those that want to encourage women leaders – is to create an environment where these assumptions are refuted.
Don’t tell the Baby Boomers, but despite their numbers and impact on the world, they are not going to live forever. Apparently the most universal of truths is contributing to the latest in Boomer-driven business trends: eco-friendly burials. At least that’s what the Associate Press is telling us.
According to “Eco-friendly burials gain favor among Baby Boomers,” Al Gore’s generation is feeling a little guilty about the environmental legacy they are leaving behind and are increasingly opting to eschew traditional burials for a more “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” approach. Make no mistake, the 40 green cemeteries in the U.S. are not threatening the traditional business, but they are an interesting take on entrepreneurism. This is one more example of the Boomer generation saying “I did it my way.”
This is a trend I would expect to grow – not only because the younger generations, especially Millennials, are even more concerned about the environment than their Boomer parents. They are also more open-minded to non-traditional ideals. Why would burial practices be any different?
Celebrities like to say that they never read reviews, never listen to the critics. Really? I understand not letting tabloids impact your life, but hearing dissenting ideas can often help sharpen your own. That’s why I was intrigued by this article in Canada’s National Post. In it Robert Fulford laments the “absurd alphabetification of society.” And no, spell check doesn’t think that is a word, either.
Fulford explains the history behind the Gen X label, and points out that it has only been recently that generations have been labeled as anything specific – Boomers, Gen X…and Y and Z (or Millennials and iGen, as the latter are also known). And he has a point. However, when it comes to the way that generations interact in the workforce, the workplace itself has changed in recent years. It has only been in the relatively recent past that employees have become so mobile and focused on their own interests, rather than following traditional paths based on family tradition. Differing attitudes and perspectives were more attributed to social status or the type of work one did (industrial, agricultural, etc.). Today those distinctions are undercurrents to generational attributes, which is why business leaders and marketers spend so much time trying to understand each generation.
Fulford’s larger concern—that the very act of labeling a generation has the power to inform its characteristics more than the simple coincidence of close birth years—also has some validity. While I believe that there are clear similarities, or norms, that exist within each generation, those norms are not universal. The individual should always be considered…but the generation can provide context that explains seemingly illogical behavior or attitudes. That context can help improve communication, and improved communication is rarely a bad thing.
Older workers sometimes feel displaced by younger workers who are more tech-savvy, having grown up in a mobile-oriented world. But those same aging Boomers are creating business opportunity for technology companies.
As this San Francisco Gate article points out, Boomers want to be using technology to make their lives better and more enjoyable…but they have different challenges with it than the younger generation of developers personally encounter. So savvy tech companies are turning to seniors as consultants in new technology development. It’s not rocket science – companies have been using focus groups to understand their target audiences for years. But what is interesting here is that these are businesses created and led by Xers and Millennials, but focused on serving the technology needs of Boomers. It puts the younger generations in the driver seat in terms of leadership, but the Boomers in control in terms of customer service expectations – the reverse of many work environments today.
Have you followed Humans of New York? Photographer Brandon Stanton takes portraits of random individuals and asks them a question or two. The answers appear at the photo captions. It’s utterly captivating art and social commentary. Every so often an image will strike a nerve with HONY followers as with this recent portrait. Or more accurately, the caption that accompanied the image. “I’m a little headstrong at work, which can get me into trouble with my manager. But if my way works just fine, why do I have to do things his way?” The generational gap in two sentences.
The responses on the HONY facebook page are textbook, neatly divided by “because he’s the boss” to “she’s got a point.” I would bet money that the profiles of the responders would reveal a generational divide as well. Pragmatic or insolent? Depends on whether you are bringing Boomer or Gen X/Y values to the conversation. Not surprisingly, an internet discussion among strangers didn’t resolve this one!
We are almost halfway through 2014, which means that in six short months every member of the Boomer generation will have turned 50. Orange is the new black, 50 is the new 40.
So when the membership cards arrive in their mailboxes, these new AARP recruits will be welcomed with promotions aimed at enticing them to enjoy their later years with deals that are anything but old. New benefits include concert ticket deals with Live Nation, among other travel and entertainment-oriented options. In a recent Associated Piece, and AARP spokesperson confirmed this is a shift from as recently as just 10 years ago.
Business leaders would do well to pay attention. AARP membership aside, most 50 year olds are still 15-plus years away from retirement. Keeping them—and their institutional knowledge about your business—can be beneficial to your stability and success.
Just as the AARP and many individual businesses are providing new and different benefits to Boomers, businesses should consider the same. Overall compensation, especially strong health benefits, will always be important. But soft benefits are increasingly valuable, such as flexible schedules, memberships, discount purchases, and more.
Which non-compensation benefits resonate most with your Boomer employees?
Technology has enabled a virtual world that Boomers and Matures never imagined, and one that Millennials and Xers have come to expect–especially in the white collar workplace. Why should someone be tied to a desk all day if their peers are not in the same office, or even the same time zone? What difference does it make if I work from 7-2, take a break to handle afterschool duties, and then resume working at home from 8-10, as long as I meet my deadlines?
This unorthodox balance of the personal and the professional, and the underlying message that time has its own value, has been central to the expectations of younger generations in the workplace for years. In recent years, it is becoming increasingly important to older generations as well.
Whether due to financial need or simply a desire to stay active and involved, Boomers are working longer, but are increasingly seeking more flexible work options. A recent New York Times article, The Age Premium: Retaining Older Workers, shares the stories of Boomers and employers that are seeking to create balance for older workers. One of the most interesting approaches is that of CVS’s “snowbird” program that allows employees in northern climates to transfer to stores in the south during the winter. The program allows CVS to place its mature employees where their customer base is also largely mature, creating a benefit for the business as well as the employees. Other companies offer reduced schedules for semi-retired employees, allowing them to serve as mentors to rising leaders.
And that may be the critical thing. With Generation X such a small workforce compared to Boomers and Millennials, businesses may be facing a knowledge gap. Looking outside the box and considering flexible employment scenarios can help bridge that gap while also helping hesitant Boomers ease into their retirement years.
I am frequently asked whether the differences in the generations are true differences or simply differences between ages. It is also a common belief that individuals grow more conservative as they grow older, however statistics do not necessarily bear that one out. The Pew Research Center recently reviewed 30 years of voting trends, comparing the percent of young (age 18-29) and older (age 65+) voters who voted democratic in each election between 1972 and 2012. With the exception of the 1972 Nixon election and the 2008 and 2012 elections of Barack Obama, the gap between the ages has only been a few percentage points.
In every year between Nixon and Obama, the percent of democratic voters was fairly consistent at both ends of age spectrum. So while Millennials and Boomers are not voting alike right now – there was a 21 percentage point gap in the 2008 election and 16 point gap in 2012, older and younger generations have more of a consistent voting record than one would think. In fact, from 1988 through 2004, the democratic vote for both age groups hovered around 50 percent. What does this mean for the workplace? Honestly, I’m not sure.
But what I do know is that for most of the Millennials’ lives, their supposedly “more conservative” elders have actually been voting fairly democratic. And as the Millennials came of voting age the percent of young people voting democratic jumped to 60+ percent.
I can’t help but think that this has a correlation to the Millennial desire to “find a job you love” – the manifestation of ideas set in motion, but never quite realized, by their Boomer parents.
In fact, some researchers used statistics to prove that theory a few years ago. Generational behaviors are no different. One poll says that Gen X is the most optimistic it has ever been. Another says it has the most financial stress of all the generations. Another says, no, Boomers are the ones who are facing financial crisis. All the while Boomers are lauded as the having most of the nation’s buying power.
If you want to take a position on the generations, you can find a study that will back you up. But that’s what makes it interesting…how do you get to the bottom of the numbers and figure out what’s what? That’s where generational norms come into play. When you step back and consider the world that each generation grew up in, and how that world makes an imprint on the generational DNA, you’ll notice that trends begin to emerge among all the disparate research. The essence of each generation begins to appear. And while there are, of course, individual differences from person to person, generational norms tend to ring true more often than not.
The studies, polls and research are interesting moment-in-time snapshots of a particular issue. The fundamental truths of each generation are the reasons why they are responding to a moment in time in a particular way. The more you know, the more you can predict, or at least adapt to, the way your coworkers, managers and employees react to changes in the workplace based on their generational perspective. And I’ve got the stats to prove it.