Revisiting the Generations

I was asked earlier this year to contribute an article to the IHRIM publication – Workforce Solutions Review.  My topic focused on the reality of the Gen Y population 10 years after their entry into the workforce.  Below is an excerpt from that article:

It seems like yesterday that we were all talking about the entry of the Gen Y'ers into the workforce and what a radical change that would have on how we attract, retain, motivate, reward, and engage this new, younger segment of the workforce.  We all heard and read that these youngsters would be more entrepreneurial than their predecessors – the Gen X'ers – who were said to be more loyal to their profession than their employer. And, we heard that these “youngsters” would certainly be far less loyal to their employers than the Baby Boomers or even earlier Traditionalists.

It was also predicted that – at least for the developed parts of the world – they would be more interested in work/life balance than financial reward; they would need constant and immediate reinforcement and recognition and we would be lucky to have them in our employment for two to three years. And, to keep them longer than that we would need to promote them often so they would be continuously learning since their long-term (10-year) goal would be to own their own business or be an independent consultant. 

Well, it occurred to me recently that the first of the Gen Y'ers are now in their early 30s and it is time to look back on some of these predictions.

Many really believed the Gen Y'ers would enter the workforce with an attitude – expect everything to be easy for them – have their employers meet their demands or move to the next employer, and I believe that we can now say that, generally, has not been the case. Speaking from personal experience, I have mentored a number of Gen Y'ers and initially felt that with a 40-year career in Human Resources and Human Resources Technology – I could share a lot with them. I found out very quickly that I was learning at least as much from them! Some of the amazing attributes I found from these under-30s was their fearlessness, ease of which they were able to multi-task, amazing energy and great technical savvy. They were very comfortable with collaborating with colleagues from both inside the company and peers outside their organization to problem-solve quickly. Most were eager to learn and willing to work hard. 

This brings me to the generation that will follow the Gen Y'ers – the Generation Z'ers – those born after 1998. We have come full circle. If we look at the Silent Generation or Traditionalists, we find a workforce that preceded the television and even very early telephones. We Baby Boomers (as I fall right squarely in this category) remembered the invention of the television and telephone – but laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) were a thing of “StarTrek” and other science fiction movies and publications. Certainly, the Gen X'ers and Gen Y'ers grew up with the comfort of these devices just as we did with calculators. But, what of those under the age of 10 – how will the workplace look in 15 more years and what type of workforce will be required to operate in the mobile, global, virtual world. I spoke to a friend recently who had her four-year-old granddaughter for a visit. She said she found her in the den in front of the TV trying to use her hand to get the screen to move! So, you see – we have come full circle. The under-70 Traditionalist grew up in a world without TV and the Generation Z'er may never remember the TV we knew just a few years ago.

As with every generation – we spend much time generalizing on their characteristics. The most important thing to remember is every generation – just like every individual – is different. The important thing for those of us in Human Resources to remember is that one size doesn’t fit all. What motivates one employee to come to work for you and stay there and be productive is very different than what the next employee is looking for and the organization that can provide this fluidity and flexibility will be the survivor for generations to come. And, finally, just when we think we have it figured out, a multitude of external factors such as the economy, world politics, industries, and technologies we haven’t even thought about will come along and change those predictions.

As I reach retirement age – I do so believing that our organizations are in good hands with the generations to follow – energetic, collaborative and capable of working hard while still understanding the need for balance at work, at home and in the community!


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