Handling the ‘alien invasion’

Figuring out what different generations want is critical to recruitment and retention


Generational Differences: In April, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosted Sean Lyons, a professor at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont., at its monthly breakfast event in Toronto. Lyons talked about the differences among the four generations currently in the workforce — matures, baby boomers, Generation X and millennials. For more information, visit www.scnetwork.ca.


Handling the ‘alien invasion’

Generational differences at work

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies



Handling the ‘alien invasion’

By Shannon Klie

The stereotype of the most recent generation to enter the workforce is that they’re rebellious and don’t care what anyone in authority has to say. But for these children of baby boomers, who are used to their parents being involved in every decision they make, input from parents or a trusted advisor is essential in their decision-making process.

That’s why employers that want to attract this generation of workers, known as millennials, will have to convince both the candidates and their parents of the value of the job and the organization, Sean Lyons, a professor at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont., told a group of HR practitioners at a meeting in Toronto last month.

Lyons, whose research focuses on intergenerational differences and their impact on workplace dynamics and people management, began to notice a change in his undergraduate students around the year 2000. At first he couldn’t figure out what was different, and then he realized he had finished teaching the youngest members of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) and had begun teaching millennials (1980 to 1994).

“This is a different breed of creature altogether. It’s almost like an alien invasion,” he said.

Millennials have overly involved “helicopter” parents who hover over them to the point that orientation week at university now has parent events, said Lyons. And this generation will continue to turn to their parents for guidance, especially when it comes to making job choices.

“When you’re recruiting people in this generation, you have to sell the jobs to their parents, not just to them,” said Lyons.

In the workplace, millennials need close supervision and instantaneous feedback, another holdover from their parents, so traditional annual performance review won’t cut it.

One of the best programs a company can offer to address this issue, and help build bridges between the generations, is a mentoring program, said Lyons.

By connecting a millennial employee with a mature (born between 1925 and 1945) or baby boomer (1946 to 1964) employee, a company can keep the older worker invested in work while increasing the younger worker’s knowledge and boosting his loyalty to the company, said Lyons.

“The youngest group is a loyal group, but they’re not loyal to their company. They’re loyal to the people around them,” he said. “If your company does not have some formal or informal mentoring program, you’re missing the boat. You’re missing a valuable opportunity for learning and intergenerational connection.”

There are currently four different generations in the workplace, according to Statistics Canada data: Mature (six per cent of workforce in 2007), baby boomers (40 per cent), Generation X (33 per cent) and millennials (21 per cent).

Understanding the generational differences will help HR deal with the three big issues facing organizations: retirement, recruitment and retention.

Within the next 10 years, one-in-five workers will be eligible for retirement, with this proportion expected to be higher in some industries and positions, such as management, said Lyons.

As the number of retirees begins to outnumber new entrants to the workforce, employers will enter a phase of constant hiring.

“Recruitment is a highly competitive situation right now,” said Lyons. “We need high-value recruits, not just warm bodies.”

Once an employer finds and hires the right candidate, it must then figure out how to retain him, particularly if he’s part of the younger generation that’s known for high mobility.

“HR professionals need to make the most of all four generations of people, regardless of whether they’re at the beginning of their careers or at the end of their careers,” said Lyons.

As part of his research into the generations, Lyons uncovered the top priorities for each generation in the workplace.

Top priorities by generation

Millennials: The top priority is a good salary and the second priority, which didn’t make the top 10 list for any other generation, is the opportunity for advancement. The theme for this generation is they want to be taken seriously as contributors, said Lyons.

Generation X: Interesting work is the number one priority. It was the only generation to rank stimulating work and the opportunity for continuous learning in the top 10 (at number five). The theme for this generation, the most highly educated of the four generations, is the need to be challenged and keep learning, he said.

Baby boomers: Boomers, who were born into prosperous times and have worked hard for their success, rank work-life balance as their number one priority. They also want interesting work that is personally fulfilling and compatible with their values. The theme for this generation is to find meaning and balance.

Veterans: The oldest of the generations, who lived through the Depression and the Second World War and values experience over book smarts, want work that is compatible with their moral values, makes use of their abilities and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Five common themes

From the generations’ top 10 lists, Lyons uncovered five common themes: work-life balance, interesting work, good salary, good benefits and flexible hours.

However, good salary and good benefits mean different things to the different generations, so HR will have to be flexible with these policies, said Lyons.

For millennials, money is a means of maintaining their lifestyle and they’ll need a lot of it upfront when they leave their affluent baby boomer parents. This is a need employers can take advantage of.

“A little bit of money as a signing bonus can go a long way to getting them in there and locking them in,” said Lyons.

Good money to start is important, but millennials need to see their careers progressing quickly or they’ll move on, said Lyons. Millennials, like Generation X, don’t believe in paying their dues, but for different reasons.

Generation X sees dues paying as a promise that might not be kept because they entered the labour force during tougher economic times. They’re also likely to leave a job when they feel like they’re not learning anything new or if they’re not getting work-life balance, said Lyons.

Millennials, on the other hand, believe they should be given the respect and reverence their parents always gave them, he said.

Growing up surrounded by technology and inundated with information has given this generation the valuable skill of true multitasking. When Lyons caught a student carrying on four different online chats during his lecture, he was surprised to find out the student could also recite his lecture nearly verbatim.

This skill can come in handy in meetings in the workplace if a millennial employee is allowed to research issues as they arise so they can be resolved before the end of the meeting, said Lyons. Baby boomer employers will just have to accept that people of this generation can pay attention while simultaneously surfing the web and answering an e-mail or two.



Next executive series
Look for coverage of the May event, which looks at mobilizing minds, in the June 16 issue. Want to attend one of the events? On June 17, in a special evening session, SCNetwork is presenting “Highlights from the 2008 HRPS Global Conference.” For more information, visit www.scnetwork.ca for more information.

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Generational differences at work

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.


Finally: Aquarius for the ’60s generation?

By Dave Crisp

Youth have always grown through stages — beginning with interest but no great commitment to work, looking for novelty and involvement until they marry, at which time they acquire bigger responsibilities and mortgages. By then their expectations are dashed in many traditional organizations because no one took up their idealistic ideas.

We still see this in study after study showing engagement tails off after the first 18 months on a job, for older as well as younger employees. In the old days, youth would learn to wade slowly up the hierarchy, “earning” positions from which they could in turn command newer generations of workers to adapt to a typical assembly-line approach in which a few at the top developed strategy and everyone else was expected to follow.

Now, with the information age still dawning, the Internet and e-mail begin to equalize us. On the Internet, no one knows your age and masses of information on every topic, including what your company leaders think in detail, is more available to even the newest recruits equally. Everyone can have an opinion and a better idea. And thanks to talent shortages, we finally see that we need everyone.

If it is finally the dawning of the true Age of Aquarius with “harmony and understanding” as the song goes, we’re on the right track in trying to understand generations. Gratifying, but ironically, shortages now enforce our typical value statements: Treat everyone with respect and recognize their ideas as having value.

As I write, I’m multitasking like a millennial — listening to a conference call discussing what’s new in leadership according to several experts in the deep “new science” of complexity. They’re excited about a new approach that helps organizations create “a phase shift, a major transition or a new order” in which new ideas, continual growth and positive change become the culture for everyone and everyone helps it evolve. It’s a move away from the leader as hero toward the leader as a coach who provides an environment for many to experiment and contribute through small projects with no recriminations for those who try and fail.

This is a theme we’ve heard again and again at SCNetwork from leading-edge thinkers who continually tell us this is the way of the future for business strategy, leaders and evolving organizations. The only way it happens is if we can blend together the strengths from not only all generations, but all groups — men and women, different business and ethnic cultures as well as differing lengths of experience. Everyone deserves to be respected and involved. If they are, my experience is they will continue to be engaged.

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.CrispStrategies.com.

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Listening to my iPod is not a sign of disrespect

By Barry Barnes

For the first time we have a sort of perfect storm of generations. Thanks to better education, better health care and a strong economy, older people (those born before 1946) find themselves still in the workforce at the same time as the boomers, Generation X and the millennials. Take into account the fact that the youngest of the four generations do not know of workplaces without cellphones, e-mail or the Internet, and what we have is a never-before-seen generational mix. Four generations with more than just differences in values, but different sets of skills and ways of communicating.

We have a generation that works with technology with an ease never before seen, one that accepts and expects technology will be as available in the workplace as in their personal lives.

Sean Lyons delivered an excellent summary of the census data around the four cohorts. He identified many of the issues that create friction between the groups in the workplace. Other researchers and authors have been pointing out similar issues in the popular and academic press with articles on the war for talent, the demographic pressure on the labour force, the need to engage workers and the techno-immigrants versus techno-citizens.

The concepts of creating workplaces that provide rapid feedback, interesting and engaging work, mentoring, flexible hours and all the other values-based strategies would be appealing to more mature workers as well. The challenge is in the design of the organizations we have created.

More people are employed in small- and medium-sized businesses than in large corporations and the trend is increasing. Many see a career in a large corporation as less and less desirable. Yet there are opportunities that can only be taken advantage of in such organizations. The key may be in the difference in the flexibility of smaller organizations versus the limiting structure of large organizations.

Our organizations have been designed on a hierarchical structure. People practices are founded on a concept of fairness and equality, but in the interest of treating individuals fairly organizations have found themselves with monstrous policy manuals and rules and regulations that ultimately eradicate individual worth and pride.

Much of the intergenerational friction in the workplace comes not as much from the different values of these generations, but from the fact that workplaces are insufficiently flexible to allow the very creativity, innovation and engagement that we so dearly seek. We need to discover ways to make our corporations more people-friendly — no matter what generation — more flexible and more cognizant that different isn’t wrong. It’s just different.

Barry Barnes is SCNetwork's lead commentator on organizational effectiveness. He is executive vice-president of ESOP Builders, a firm that develops employee-share ownership plans for private Canadian enterprises. He is also president of The Crystalpines Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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Differences do matter

By Matt Hemmingsen

Each of the four generations brings unique and distinctive perspectives, values and skills to the workplace. Each cohort has been influenced by key life events during their formative years — the impact of the world wars for the matures; the significant social upheaval for the boomers; the extreme economic cycles for Generation X; and the accelerated technological innovations for the millennials.

All this makes for fascinating reading. However, why should these differences matter? What impact can they have on an organization’s success?

Consider the following. Critical to any organization’s continued sustainability is the ability to effectively execute strategy and deliver on annual plans. Initiatives and decisions are being made on an ongoing basis. They are not static. They happen in real time.

Each generation possesses significantly different value systems and leadership requirements. Unless we acknowledge and understand these differences and, more importantly, how they interrelate, we will not see the progress we need to make in order to compete.

Although the current generational mix is dominated by boomers, Generation X and millennials combine to form the largest segment of the employee population. But how are their common values being recognized? Are their perspectives being heard? Are their contributions deemed worthy? Are we taking the requisite steps for their full inclusiveness? And, most importantly, are we retaining the best for our future leadership needs?

Looking at the challenges and opportunities of generational diversity is important. We must begin with that honest dialogue to clearly understand both group and individual differences, resolve potential conflicts and, together, create future opportunities. Notwithstanding the shared characteristics of each cohort, leaders should never lose sight of the fact that they are always working with individuals. Given all the research on the generations, we should remind ourselves of noted Harvard psychologist Henry Murray’s quote: “We are like all others; we are like some others; and we are like no others.” Differences do matter.

Matt Hemmingsen is SCNetwork's lead commentator on strategic capability. He has held senior HR leadership roles in global corporations. He is a managing partner with Personal Strengths Canada, a member of an international company focused on improving business performance through relationship awareness. For more information, visit www.personalstrengths.ca or e-mail [email protected]

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