"I won't grow up...I don't want to wear a tie...And a serious expression...In the middle of July."
So sang Peter Pan and the Lost Boys in Disney’s version of the classic story Peter Pan.
Yet for many business leaders, it seems this childhood story is being played out daily among employees nationwide – revealing an entire generation (actually two) that doesn’t want to grow up. Or so it seems.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Sir James Barrie’s Peter Pan.
It is a fitting time to look at the role of the younger generations – specifically Generation Xers and the New Millennials – who combined, now make up half of the workforce, and whose values and beliefs seem to mirror the young boy who refused to grow up. Now more than ever, the younger generations in our society do not want to follow in the footsteps of their elders. And while their managers blame it on age, the cause seems to lie more in perspective. These generations do want to grow up...they just don’t want to grow up like the generations before them.
Our nation today lives in the world created by a generation known collectively as the Matures. Born prior to 1945, they total approximately 30 million people. Heavily influenced by the military, the Mature generation created a workplace that reflected that hierarchy with a clear chain of command. Promotions, bonuses, and raises were granted when an employee proved himself ready for the next level. Employees worked hard to achieve higher ranks. All employees shared a similar definition of success: climbing the company ladder and earning the perks that came with it. Successive job titles and the associated perks were admired and envied by those employees on their way up and relished by those already at the top.
This model is still the basis for today’s workforce. The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1965) now occupy the higher rungs on the company ladder and make up 45% of today’s workforce. They are in control. But they don’t always feel like it. Boomers share a common language of "success" that is very similar to the Matures’ definition. However, Matures now make up a mere 5% of the workforce. The other 50% – Gen Xers and the Millennials – present a challenge to their Boomer managers. They are not interested in the time-honored traditions. They are unconcerned with how things have always been done. They don’t care how their managers got where they are. They are focused, often single-mindedly, on what it will take to get where they want to go.
Since the second world war, senior generations have assumed two things about younger generations as the younger ones entered the workplace:
- Younger generations will measure success the same way the senior generations did.
- Younger generations should "pay their dues" in the same way the senior generations did to achieve the same levels of success.
These assumptions essentially create and define "the company ladder" as we know it today and keep it intact in workplaces across the industrialized world. It is the apprentice-to-master relationship that has been in existence within various crafts and trades since society began. But what happens when a generation enters the workforce, learns how the senior generations define success, and decides that it disagrees with that definition? And is this where we are today?
The younger generations have essentially said to the older generations, "That is your definition of success, not mine. I don’t share it. I’m going to define success differently and pursue something different as a result of my work." This significantly impacts the work environment and the time-honored management structure on which the Boomers have come to rely. The company ladder, which for generations has been the source of employee motivation, becomes irrelevant. The younger generations view their predecessors’ experience as a warning, not a road map. And the traditional rules of management, motivation and reward fly out the window.
Could this be the essence of the change going on in the workplace today? Could it be as simple, and as complicated, as a change in philosophy about the reason for working? Maybe. Time will prove this theory right or wrong. But many employers say that this is precisely what they’re seeing. They describe how this simple change in philosophy is having enormous repercussions in the way they manage, motivate, recruit, and retain employees. To remain competitive, they need to change everything from how they communicate with employees to the reward systems they use to motivate them. To best facilitate that change in management style, it is imperative to understand how the new generations’ change in philosophy came to be.
A Pebble Dropped in Water...
Certainly, many factors converged to bring about this change in attitudes within the new generations. However, three relatively recent developments seem to account for a good bit of the transformation.
- Parenting styles changed in the sixties and continued to change throughout the seventies and eighties. Prior to the sixties, the goal of parenting was to create children who would become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. Children were to be seen but not heard. As the sixties rolled around, divorce rates doubled and both parents began working to put food on the table. Parents began feeling guilty about the lack of time spent with their children and made up for the time missed with high-impact "quality time." It was important for parents and their children to "bond" during this quality time. These were completely new elements to parenting. Prior to the sixties, it was not the goal of the parent to raise a friend; if friendship occurred, it was a beneficial consequence of good parenting that came to fruition later in the child’s life. Now, friendship is a purpose, not an afterthought. As a result, the authority dynamic in the parent-child relationship has changed astronomically, becoming more peer-to-peer in nature. This change in parenting styles exists in our society still today, as do the repercussions.
- The television became a babysitter. With more parents working, Gen Xers and the Millennials were often sat in front of educational programming for a few hours a day. These two generations were taught to count and spell not by paper and rule, but by funny puppets. As a result, education became entertaining. In fact, these generations were the first to demand stimulating and entertaining education from their teachers. They’ve essentially created the phrase "edutainment." Attention spans shortened and they remain short today.
- The world taught the new generations to question authority, not bow to it. Gen Xers and the Millennials were given ample reason to question their leaders to see if they were telling the truth or not. They became skeptical of advertising and media hype. Repeatedly, companies, churches, presidents and military officials were caught in lies. The seed of distrust, once sewn, grows deep roots.
Ironically, the parents and leaders that established these new ground rules are often the same Baby Boomers managing and conflicting with the fruits of these labors.
...Creates Ripples Far Downstream
The generational differences manifest themselves daily in areas as diverse as the definition of “casual Friday clothing” to excusable reasons for missing work. Time and again, however, the most significant change in perspective comes in the generations’ definitions of time and loyalty.
Time has always been a currency. But different generations value this currency in different ways. For Boomers, time has always been something to be invested in the future. By working hard and putting in their time (on average, 55 hours per week), the Boomers expect a payout of some sort in the end. Has that payout come? According to the Boomers themselves, most often not.
Gen Xers and the Millennials view time as something they want to control, just like their money. In fact, to them, time is equal in value to money. Many employers are realizing that when they can’t pay their employees more, they can
give them more time off, and employees will be quite happy with that arrangement. Time is indeed a currency. And the younger generations are not willing to invest it in a career or a job with uncertain dividends. And in these days of layoffs and changing industry, they see that as just about any job.
The legacy of questioning that has been handed to the Generation Xers and the Millennials has made them loyal to individuals, not companies. If they can’t find the right person to work for, they’ll change jobs. The Boomers and Matures didn’t have this luxury. For them, working for a disagreeable person was just a regular part of work. Liking the boss was an unexpected bonus; not liking him certainly wasn’t sufficient reason to quit. For Gen Xers and Millennials, it is.
Loyalty to an individual is the number one reason Xers and Millennials stay in a job, especially during the first three tenuous years. Dissatisfaction with the boss is the number one reason they quit. Like so many other elements of the new generations’ collective upbringing, this is new territory for our nation.
In Search of Pixie Dust
With so many new forces coming into play, the future of the workforce landscape is still uncertain. But rest assured, this is not the first time one generation has looked upon another and been concerned for the future. Aristotle complained about the ethics and behaviors of the younger generations. Barrie’s title character challenged his elders at the turn of the century. Society has been here before. We’ll be here again.
Ultimately, it will all work out. But one thing is for certain: this generational change is a very real phenomenon that is currently underway. Ignoring it will have consequences to your business and its ability to attract and keep not only employees, but customers as well.
There is no magic pixie dust that will make these new generations "grow up and come to their senses." Anyone waiting for that ought to grab a chair and get real comfortable. Yes, some of the generational differences are the result of the reflections and attitudes of youth. However, substantial portions of these differences speak to the heart of the new generations’ personal goals. The challenge is to determine which are which, and to reconcile that with the traditional workforce hierarchy model. In the end, there is no Neverland to escape to. We must all make an effort to understand each generation, how it got here, and determine the best way to define success in the current workforce environment.
Excerpt from the book Motivating the "What’s in it for Me?" Workforce: Managing Across the Generational Divide.