Lesson #8. Generations Don’t Matter that Much (or, Woodstock was not a Job Fair)


It seems like every time I read a magazine, journal or website there’s an article about how hard it is to manage a workforce composed of multiple generations and the challenges associated with finding, engaging and retaining younger employees. These analyses typically include subtle (or not so subtle) criticisms that younger workers:

  • are irresponsible
  • can’t be relied upon
  • don’t take work seriously
  • don’t have the same values as the older workforce
  • aren’t willing to commit to a job
  • will leave the company for another one that pays a little more or offers better hours.

My view on generational differences in the workplace is a bit different.  Here’s Rick’s Truth #8:

Generations don’t really matter that much.

We’re on the eve of destruction.
Every age group has a great variety of dedicated and less dedicated employees and just about every generation has a negative perception of the generations that follows their own. They also tend to believe the younger generations’ values are all screwed up.

One of my favorite quotes on the subject is this one:

“Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers. What will become of them? This world is truly coming to an end.”

I’m not sure about the “gobbling their food” part, but judging by the literature on the subject, many must feel that the “world is truly coming to an end” because of today’s irresponsible kids. But since Socrates made that statement in 430 B.C., maybe this whole generational thing is not such a new phenomenon.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
An important part of growing up is differentiating yourself from your parents and their generation. Long before flappers, through bobby soxers, rock and rollers, greasers, hoods, hippies, punkers, rappers, grunge, gang bangers, Gen-Xers, nexters, ravers millenials and gen y, “the youth of today”, have been vilified and recognized as the group that bring about the demise of the world as we know it!

Yet the world has not come crashing to a halt when the values of one generation merge into those of the next. In part that’s because the values and motivations of people evolve to become more like those of preceding generations as they mature through the various stages and responsibilities of life. It makes much more sense to consider the values and behaviors we see in the newer entrants in the workplace as transient states that we all grow through and not enduring traits that signal a forthcoming crisis.

If I leave here tomorrow…
Lets look at retention. In a decent economy, people are on the lookout for better opportunities regardless of age, race or gender. Shorter employment stays are not simply a function of one’s age. Turnover is most dramatically influenced by a robust economy, lots of job opportunities, high expectations by savvy employees who can and do shop their skills around via high and low tech networking. Add an internet that brings a world of opportunities to every desktop and you see heightened churn.

Employees of all ages have learned, either first-hand or through friends and family members that employer loyalty is a thing of the past. Because of experiences with layoffs, workforce reductions and downsizings, most people have developed “a fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” work attitude. For most workers, it’s extremely difficult to feel loyalty and commit to a company that will not or cannot commit to them. The need to keep your resume current and handy is a workplace reality, regardless of your age. (I’ll elaborate in an upcoming blog about how effective companies build rich cultures to retain and fully engage a diverse workforce.)

Consider, too, that often when a person leaves an organization, s/he is quitting to leave a specific boss. “Management Generated Turnover” is pervasive in the workforce and it affects all ages. If you were told that you had to start working again for the worst boss you’ve ever had, what would you do? Regardless of generation, most people say they’d quit, resign, leave, transfer, or in some way escape the situation. A bad boss is a major contributor to job dissatisfaction and is a mighty contributor to turnover.

Oh won’t you stay, just a little bit longer?
So what do those who see these younger worker as disengaged and transient prescribe to engage and retain them? Here’s a partial list from recent articles:

  • Opportunities for professional development
  • Fun on the job
  • Increased input and participation in decision-making
  • Greater appreciation and recognition
  • Flexible hours and working from home
  • Variety on the job
  • Open and timely two-way communication

My question is this: Who wouldn’t want to be treated like that? The management practices and techniques recommended to effectively manage the younger workforce are just good management practices.  So of course they would help retain younger workers, these factors are likely to retain everyone!

T-t-talking ’bout my generation.
When today’s more senior entrepreneurs, business leaders, captains of industry, C-level managers generalize about the values of the younger members of the workforce, I like to gently remind them that their generation has not always been as responsible or career oriented as they are today.

Take the group that we call the Baby Boomers – who are now and will continue to cycle out of the workforce for the next ten to fifteen years or so. When I hear these folks criticize younger workers it makes me ask: “Did the 1960’s really happen or was all of that just made up?”

This is a generation that battled their own government about the war in Vietnam and had regular demonstrations against “Pigs”, “the establishment” and “the military/industrial complex”. They “struggled against The Man” and decried “materialism”.  How could such a generation forget the huge chasm that existed between their views and values and those of their parents? How can they forget the now quaint “don’t trust anyone over 30” view of life, the less than stellar view of their generation by their elders and the rampant speculation that America would go to pot –literally and figuratively–when they (the long-hairs and hippies) ran things?

Dudes, how on earth could you possibly act as if you were born behind that mahogany desk?

Baby Boomers have not always been the solid silver-haired pillars of the workforce they act like today. Woodstock was not a job fair. It was not promoted as a major networking opportunity. When Jimi Hendrix asked “Are you experienced” he was not conducting a job interview.

Do a review of the music from the 60’s and 70’s and you’ll find that most songs highlight the recreational use of pharmaceuticals, they focus on getting free of responsibility, gaining independence from commitments or authorities and creating and enjoying leisure time.  To this day any self-respecting Parrot Head will attest that much of the appeal of Jimmy Buffett’s music is the drunken enjoyment of leisure time and freedom from work. So if the generation(s) that grew up in the 1960s and 1970s are going to claim that they’ve always been responsible hard-working people, there’s some very serious revisionist history going on!

It ain’t me, babe
When I talk to groups about ages in the workplace, at some point during the review of the whacked out 60’s (‘70’s and 80s) someone usually bristles and says “Not everyone was like that”.  You’ll hear people say…

  • I didn’t demonstrate against the war
  • I wasn’t at Woodstock
  • I had a job and supported myself, my family, kids, or parents
  • I didn’t smoke dope (or “I didn’t inhale”)
  • I was never tried acid (or ecstasy or coke or….)
  • I never went to a protest (or sit-in or concert or rave or…)

They point out that the gross generalizations just don’t fit them, that not everyone could be stereotyped with the general perceptions of their generation. They’ll usually say they don’t like being grouped in with others who were seen as lazy slackers, dopers, misdirected, or uncommitted because it doesn’t ft them.

…And if life were a cartoon,  it’s at this point you‘d see a light bulb go off above many heads.

Because isn’t that what people are doing when they stereotype and generalize a single set of values to all these younger employees? Aren’t we grouping people, lowering expectations, placing blame, making accusations and judging the values of an entire generation?

Aren’t we falling into the same rut that earlier generations have, going at least back to Socrates—predicting the downfall of society because of what they believe is lacking from the next generation(s)? And aren’t many (though not all) of these younger people just acting like so many generations have before them—when they were of comparable age?

I can see clearly now
Here’s the point: youth is a state, not an enduring trait. It’s not a chronic condition, people tend to grow out of it. As people age and mature, their interests and concerns evolve with the stages of their life. (Consider how Boomers’ concerns have evolved from long hair to no hair, cocaine to Rogaine, seeds and stems to roughage, killer weed to weed killer, dropping acid to using antacids, etc.)

What shall we do now?
Treat employees’ age and life stage like any other diversity factor and help people become better at working with others who not are not exactly like themselves.
Remember that not all people under 30 are bad, uncommitted slackers… assuming they are and treating them like they are going leave will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Remember that there are reliable and unreliable, responsible and irresponsible people in every age range (and you’ll see that when you believe it!)
Treat the behaviors you see equally across your workforce population
Establish a range of recruitment, compensation, benefits and retention strategies that will appeal to every life stage.
Offer a variety of benefits that fit people at all life stages – a 401k match might appeal to none but the most planful young employee, while a company kickball game or laser tag outing might not engage your close-to-retirement group.
Be strategic in your efforts to build a culture of retention (see the upcoming blog on this)
Pay handsomely for referrals to encourage existing employees to bring in more talent

When an organization is having a tough time keeping good young workers, don’t start by blaming the people who leave. Take a good hard look at the people who are staying to manage the organization, and what the organization has to offer. Make sure that managers know and are demonstrating he simple and effective management behaviors that all employees (not just younger workers) have a right to expect today. If not, turnover will remain high…and those who are most likely to leave will be those who have the least invested in the company (i.e., your younger workers).

I hope, the next time you draw on those tired old stereotypes about your younger employees you hear a line from that old Neil Young song running through your brain: “Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were”!

But be warned… you may also hear Mick Jagger respond: “What a drag it is getting old!”

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One thought on “Lesson #8. Generations Don’t Matter that Much (or, Woodstock was not a Job Fair)

  1. I recently read Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus”. Its a great book, one that I can wholeheartedly recommend just in general if you haven’t read it.

    In one section of the book, though, he speaks about “generational differences”, and largely agrees with you. The sentence that I think really captures the 3 or 4 pages he spends on the topic is “Generations really aren’t that fundamentally different, but generational opportunities are.” He speaks about the belief that Gen-X has largely been considered lazy and worthless, but then he points out that much of Gen-X came of age in a time where the job economy really rather sucked. As the economy improved, amazing how it works out, it turns out that Gen-X was, far from lazy and worthless, wildly entrepreneurial.

    Interesting reading, thanks again.

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