Mar 21, 2010

And the generations are back...

The crisis must be over, at least in mindset. The generation debate "oh my, we have Gen Y entering the workforce" is back from where we left it two years ago. Earlier this week my newspaper ran a hallucinating article of a plumber and his 20 attempts only this year to find a suitable fellow. Some were stealing (never good), some just not showing up either on the first day or after a week (the dog needed care), some overly incompetent (and lying about it), etc. In the weekend edition of the same paper, there's more under the title "Employers don't understand youngsters." It lists some of the value shift in the generation now entering the workforce: more immediate, more attracted by smaller firms where they can make a difference rather than being stuck in the boundaries of a big corporation, driven by challenge, feedback and reward (immediate by the way), valuing short concrete projects over longer jobs, valuing work/life balance (yes, the distance home-work IS important), and then some other shifting values... Skills being more important than looks, for example, if the newspaper is any authority. In short: the generation debate seems back, so let's reflect on what is going on. What's new in this debate, really?

Disclaimer: I'm by the way well aware that you can't and shouldn't make any individual judgment based on the statistical characteristics of an entire group of people. I'm putting no one in a box here. But statistics about groups of people CAN be rightfully used to make predictions about those groups. So while nothing in this debate can be brought to the individual level, group-wise it makes sense.

Question: Is the generation entering the workforce unfit? 
Answer: Not more than our parents thought the same of us, or our grandparents about them.
There is nothing new in the debate 'they don't know work ethics anymore, you can't trust them, they don't know the rewards of hard work, bla bla.' It seems that every major generations thinks that of the next one. There is nothing new there. It won't matter either. Every generation is shaped by the experiences of their youth and growing up: by that technology, mindset, etc. So yes once in a while there's a clash of values, and gradually society and work will find ways to accommodate the values of the new emerging and soon dominant generation. It has happened before.

Question: Will the new generation bring the new technology and fitting lifestyle (social networks, a lot of instant communication etc) to the workplace?
Answer: Yes, most likely. We have a precedent with the Internet.
Yes, the new generation and their preference for social technology and networking, constant and instant communication will impact the workforce. My generation did that before with the Internet. I first went online at my second year in university, because that is where the Internet was in those days. When I entered the workplace four years later, the corporate world was in a big debate if the Internet even had business value and if providing access from the office would not harm productivity as people would be surfing all the live long day. The discussion of those days closely resembles the one we have today about banning social networks at work, and whether LinkedIn is a blessing or a burden on corporate life. Just as with the rise of the Internet in the business world, we will have experimentation and exaggeration or abuse at both sides. In the end the new technology will find its rightful place and the trend will be that abuse of good stuff is not good. This debate isn't new and it's outcome is predictable because we have a precedent. It has happened before.

Question: Does the corporate world need to accommodate or adapt to the new generation an its values?
Answer: Accomodate, but not as before. The workplace is multi-generation now.
We have had new groups/generations entering the office before. Traditionally, there is friction of values until the new generation is powerful enough to influence practice and process according to its world view, and then step by step they become the dominant generation and it starts all over again. This will NOT happen again soon. There are a few trends that make the succession of the 'dominant generation' unlikely: ageing workforce that needs to work longer before they are allowed to retire, at the same time new generations entering the workforce and the one stuck in the middle not wanting to give in. The trend is for a workfloor that successfully and equally integrates multiple generations and their values, rather than converging around the values of the dominant generation. So the balance exercise for the years to come is to integrate multiple expectations and value schemes into the same environment. That is the generation challenge ahead, not just worrying about a particular GenY entering. It has not happened before.

Question: Is there anything different really with the GenY or Milleniums?
Answer: Yes. They seem to have balls.
You can find tables with broad characteristics of semi-arbitrary labels as 'baby boomer', 'gen x', 'gen y', 'milleniums', etc. So they say that the new generations want to make a difference and have a job with impact on the world, with challenges and new stuff to learn all the time. Is that new? Did any other generation ever enter the workforce with the dream of a boring job with no impact on the world whatsoever? This is not so new either. It would be sad to start your career without goals, some healthy ambition and high expectations. And then it happens: promotions are not as fast as you had imagined, there is some boring stuff and lot things you can't do, etc. I spot a difference here with the new generations: crisis or no crisis, having to pay for a mortgage and children or not,  they will not stand for it. We were not necessarily happy, but we understood the context and blabla and we stayed. The new generation seems to have more balls. They will go. They will take matter more in their own hands. They are not patient, and they are not obeying stupid stuff. More than us they will hack systems and ignore stupid rules (like not installing applications on your laptop that help you do your job but IT hasn't approved). How much more balls they will have five years into the workforce, and how much of their values they will not accept any compromise for is unclear. We'll know more when they have families and houses to pay for, and start leading other people instead of just worrying about their own performance. But the trends are there and that is new. Exiting times ahead in the corporate world!

So to conclude my Sunday rant on generations:
- The debate is back.
- There are some shifting values, nothing new about that. That brings some friction, nothing new about that either. The dominant workforce will call them unfit or even lazy, again nothing new.
- But this generation is not going to overtake the position of dominant generation any time soon, the future is for a multi-generational workforce. That is new.
- And the new generation seems to have more balls to stick with their values than generations before them. Let's see what that gives.

What do you make of all this generations talks?

No comments: