Understanding multiple generations about generalities, individualities

Four SCNetwork members engage in back-and-forth on Giselle Kovary’s presentation

Ian Hendry: I thought Giselle Kovary of n-gen People Performance did a superb job of highlighting some of the primary differences between her designated age groupings of traditionalists, baby boomers, gen-Xers and millennials. The generalizations do provide a clue as to how the perspectives are different.

A good example would be the shift, over time, from traditionalists, whose loyalty was to the organization, to millennials, whose commitment is to colleagues. It did strike me, however, that age is but one factor in behavioural and attitudinal factors in the workplace.   

Tracey White: Yes, I agree Ian. Giselle was careful to position her demographic narratives as an aspect of diversity, which I think is very helpful.

Too often, these become generalizations that quickly devolve into stereotypes. 

I have great sympathy for millennials who are weary of generational labels, which really have more to do with economic than human factors.

Every new generation entering the workforce has faced this phenomenon. The increasing speed of economic and technological change and how they shape each successive generation’s behaviour interested me most.

Ian: But that’s key here. Weren’t baby boomers more patient? And, as a result, didn’t they manage promotional expectations accordingly?

Work, albeit sometimes mundane, still has to get done and millennials (instilled with “Pursue your passion” from boomer parents) are looking for that immediate challenge, and if they do not get it, they look elsewhere. Social media networks present lots of alternative ideas and leaders are faced with numerous conflict points. 

Paul Pittman: Employers constantly grapple with shifts in workplace values and we need to recognize that it’s the mix that is important, not the ingredients. Cohort management has became a distraction from the real job of engaging employees both as a group and individually.

It’s helpful to understand the traits that influence one generation over another, but it’s no silver bullet.

Work has become a commodity and market research has identified the segments that make up the customer base — the purchasers of corporate culture. Understanding what drives them will help inform how to best position the employment brand.

This is no different from how employers have always had to up their game to attract the best candidates.

It would be wrong to think that only particular cohorts exhibit certain traits — time and technology have blurred the edges. It has been four or five years since we first started seeing the workforce segmented in this way, and employee habits as the so-called “generations” have mixed and evolved.

Transparent and rational policies, and team-based, equitable incentives, are all essential in this collaborative new world and not products of the “millennial apocalypse.”

Age diversity should not be confused with gender diversity or even ethnic diversity, both of which have proven competitive advantages. Workforce generational bias is more likely to occur as a result of a particular industry, the physicality of work or the customer base.

Targeting age diversity per se, I would suspect, is unlikely to change financial results — but responding to those attracted to a type of work and culture will.

Jan van der Hoop: I agree, Paul. Even though one would have to agree that there are attributes and attitudes that define each generation on an aggregated basis, we also have to remember they are generalizations.

And while they may serve well enough as rough guideposts, they almost never apply as cleanly on an individual basis. There are too many nuances.

The only thing I know for certain is that each of us is a product of our environment and a reflection of our life experience. My parents, for example, grew up in Europe, fearing for their lives on a daily basis during the Second World War.

That experience shaped their worldview and left them with many emotional scars that coloured everything from their buying behaviour and financial decisions, to how they formed and maintained relationships.

Some of the descriptors in Giselle’s presentation were accurate; most were not.

Unfortunately, for the legion of consultants who have mined the “generational” thing for a decade now, the only really useful advice one can offer a manager leading a multigenerational team is pretty mundane.

In fact, it’s the same advice I saw in some training material from a “management skills” program my dad attended in the 1960s: “Take the time to get to know and understand each of your people, one on one.”

My father was a young manager at the time, leading people who were older than him and younger than him. He heeded the advice, and his men were insanely loyal to him.

That bland, mundane, inconvenient advice won’t sell a lot of consulting or speaking gigs, but it will heal a lot of the aches and pains felt in organizations. Unfortunately, there is no substitute, and no shortcut.

Ian: And therein lies the risk of generalizations. No one can doubt the uniqueness of every individual. It is what makes human resources so fascinating and complex — one size does not fit all, and it never will.

However, I do think ongoing studies help give leaders “behavioural tendencies” that can be considered with either individuals, or even groups, to some extent. 

Giselle made clear that a 75-minute presentation only catches some of the highlights of her work, but I think we did come away with some interesting insights.

However, as we all seem to agree, catering to the unique needs of every employee is a painstaking task, and often it seems that the human resources role is to convince leaders such an effort is worth it.

Paul: For sure, human resources recognizes the need and art of catering to one employee at a time, but our challenge as employers is to sustain engagement in workforces where there exist mixed-age profiles showing cohort traits that are perhaps more clearly evident than have been in the past, and where behaviours have morphed between them, enabled by technology and osmosis.

In a future environment with more frequent turnover (fuelled by recruiters), employers will be scrambling in this milieu to transfer knowledge from longer-tenured employees, who have served their dues and are heading for the exit, into the hands of less-experienced personnel whose tenure will likely not exceed three to four years.

Ian: Giselle made us keenly aware of the importance of identifying friction points. So, Paul, in your scenario, if millennials are impatient and role tenure is much shorter than in the past, one could surmise that baby boomers will be pushed out of the way in order to allow for upward progression.

If we believe hoarding happens today, with employees holding onto their roles, how much worse will it become?

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