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Generational Differences at Work

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“They poison the mind and corrupt the morals of the young, who waste their time sitting on sofas immersed in dangerous fantasy worlds”.

What is this statement decrying? At first glance you might assume video games but it was written in the 1700’s and was aimed at a new medium that was springing up at the time, a medium that the older generation was lamenting was going to be the ruin of the younger generation, that medium was novels.  Today of course we would be thrilled if the younger generation became immersed in novels and got hooked on reading, it would be considered a virtue.

Whether it is novels, motion pictures, cars with rumble seats, rock and roll, hip hop, tattoos, green and orange hair or body piercing the older generation has looked at the younger generation and has always seen peril in the different fads or standards that get adopted. One has to wonder if it has more to do with the younger generation expressing their individuality and freedom to make their own choices or with the older generation wondering why the kids can’t find value in the same virtues that they did. It is a story that gets repeated with every generation and it is likely a bit of both.

The differing behaviors that the various generations adopt have the potential to set up interesting situations within the work environment. One generation may expect that certain behaviors be deemed acceptable or even necessary within the working environment, behavior that another generation might find unacceptable or unrealistic. One has to be very careful though not to paint with a broad brush and to characterize a generation in a certain way without regard to individual differences. After all generations are made up of individuals who are free to express their thoughts and behaviors as they desire. You are likely to find more variation of expression and behavior within one generation than you are across generations. General statements about what one generation is looking for over another are often nothing more than marketing contrivances. But you will also find an interesting thing when you scratch a bit below the surface of some of the more obvious characteristics expressed as generational differences and that is great similarity, especially when it comes to the world of work.

The current school year is just about finishing up and the next generation of kids is out there now searching for employment, for many of them their first real job. What new attitudes will they bring with them into the workplace and how will they affect their ability to personally succeed and interact successfully with the previous generations that came before them? Ron Zemke along with his co-authors captured in a book called “Generations at Work”, a listing of water cooler conversations of what one generation at work might be saying about another. Here are some examples of the statements he captured:

  • They have no work ethic. They are just a bunch of slackers.
  • So I told my boss, “If you are looking for loyalty, buy a dog”.
  • A hiring bonus! Wet behind the ears and he wants a hiring bonus! At his age I was grateful to have a job!
  • I have a new rule. I will not attend meetings that start after 5pm. I have a life.
  • He asks me, “Do you have an e-mail address?” I felt like telling him “Since you were in diapers buddy!”
  • If I hear “We tried that in ’87’ one more time, I’ll hurl in his wrinkly old face”.

These statements give rise to the idea that there are vast differences between generations in the work place. One has to wonder that since every older generation seems to see peril in the behaviors and attitudes of every younger generation whether that “vision of peril” is in fact wired into who we are as a species. Does it help our survival as a species for each younger generation to rebel in its own fashion and to try new things? Does that behavior increase our adaptability as a species, allowing the younger generation to deal with new unexpected situations that might arise? Does it demarcate or set up conditions to prepare the younger generation and instill the ability to separate from their parents, to live independently? While some of us may consider our kids to be some new form of human as we gaze into their rooms and review their behavior, they are just as human as you and I when we were their age and are today. And as humans they carry the same psychological make up that you and I do. So where do these differences come from?

Common statements that you hear today indicate that this “younger” generation cares less about job security and expects promotions faster than previous ones, among other differing expectations. Why might this younger generation care less about job security? It is a question I have asked groups that I speak to numerous times. I usually get a variety of answers, but then I probe. Did we evolve somehow into another form of human from the previous generation that cared greatly about job security to this generation that cares not? Did our psychological make-up somehow change? What caused this generation to care less?

Let’s examine what employment conditions were like when this younger generation grew up.  In general this new generation who has recently or is entering the workplace now grew up during a period of remarkably low unemployment. Take New York the state where I graduated from high school and college as an example. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the historical high for unemployment in New York was 10.5% in 1976, the year I was a junior in high school. The historical low was 4% in 1988 and today (March 2008) it is 4.8%. I can clearly remember a professor in one of my college classes telling me to go to graduate school since there were no jobs currently available. And I can remember when I was hiring employees in the late 80’s to the late 90’s, when there were more jobs available then there were people to fill them.

If there were 2-3 job opportunities for each person looking for a new job might there be less concern about job security on the part of the worker? Might long-term loyalty be less important to them? I believe that the differing attitudes observed regarding unemployment between the various generations are largely due to economic opportunity difference available to them. Further I believe that should this younger generation experience economic conditions similar to “my” generation that job security would be just as important to them as it was to me. Our generational differences were driven in large part by economic opportunity differences, and some other differences experienced in the environment in which we were raised. Given the same environmental conditions each generation will make the same choices, we are after all, each of us human.

When you take an outcome measure of pride in, satisfaction or engagement with the workplace and examine the drivers of those measures for generational differences, while you will find some differences you will also find much greater similarity. (Drivers are areas of importance that move in tandem with an outcome measure. As the driver moves in the positive direction the outcome, say pride, moves in the positive direction as well. Strong drivers are those that most closely match the movements of the outcome variable).  And I believe that the differences you do find can be explained as environmental variables, things that occur at some times and not others due to changes in the environment in which people live rather than due to differences in who people fundamentally are. You will find differences in the absolute scores regarding how positively one aspect of the workplace is viewed or not, but you will find much fewer differences in the drivers, especially those drivers that are fundamental.

Fundamental drivers are those things that while they may be expressed differently in the day-to-day are constant underneath. For instance, I would defy you to find any worker on this planet, from any generation, that did not want to be treated with respect and dignity as work. Whether they perceive themselves as in fact being treated with respect and dignity (the absolute score) and what they would have to experience to say they are being treated with respect and dignity will vary, but the desired end state, the state that will create a positively perceived environment for the employee, being treated with respect and dignity does not change. The organizational goal should be to create the conditions that allow each worker to feel that they are being treated with respect and dignity. The range of conditions needed to allow that to occur in the environment may differ, but not the desired end state.  Other fundamental drivers include things like sense of fairness and equity (that for the effort expended there is a commensurate reward), a sense of accomplishment (that what they are doing is meaningful), a sense of trust in the organization (the organization and its management do what they say), a sense of future (that there are compelling reasons to stick around), a sense of effectiveness (that the organizations provides what is needed to get the job done), and a sense of vision (that the work of the organization itself is important and the workers role in accomplishing that is clear).

Yes, we are all humans and with that comes both sameness between and among us and a uniqueness which allows for our differences, both individual and generational to emerge.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 13, 2009 at 8:04 am

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