- 2004 - Generational attitudes
Are we producing a younger generation
of managers capable of passing on their expertise
to others? I’m not so sure after looking
at some new research that is attempting to classify
the different attitudes to work among various
generations of employees.
The differences between generations
are highlighted constantly in news stories such
as one last week, headlined “too posh to
wash”, suggesting that trainee nurses in
the UK were less willing than their predecessors
to give patients bed baths.
We have become conditioned, therefore,
to believe that each generation is different than
its predecessor. But a new and extensive body
of research looking at cross-generational attitudes
in the workforce appears to be finding more similarities
than differences between the generations. In fact
the only real differences between the young of
today and their counterparts fifty years ago may
be time and circumstance. This is not to ignore,
however, the significant impact of changing circumstances.
The first stage of the research,
launched by the Centre for Creative Leadership,
looked at the responses of 3,417 people, mostly
in the US, questioned in an internet survey. A
second survey, starting this week, will concentrate
on European respondents.
Since the aim of the research
is to shed light on different approaches to leadership
and development most of the first sample were
managers: 17 per cent filled high level executive
posts, 21 per cent occupied the layer beneath
this and 27 per cent were in middle management.
About a quarter – 24 per cent – had
professional jobs, eight per cent were in hourly
paid jobs and three per cent did not identify
The respondents included solid
samples from the baby boomers (early boomers born
between 1946 and 1954 and late boomers born between
1955 and 1963) and Generation Xers born after
1964. There were fewer however in the pre-1945
age group, named by the researchers the “silent
generation”, and fewer still in the late
Generation X group born between 1977 and 1982.
Using a series of questions designed
to test suppositions, the research has sifted
out some revealing responses that should help
to inform retention policies. When asked if they
saw themselves staying with their employer for
more than three years, less than 40 per cent of
the late Xers said yes, compared with almost 70
per cent of the early boomers – the most
long-term-looking group in the sample. Fewer of
the older generation were thinking this way because
some would be looking at retirement in the short
Comments made when asked what
they wanted from employers often differed in nuance
between adjoining generations but markedly between
the oldest and the youngest. The silent generation,
for example, says: “Give me interesting
work to do, recognise my efforts and pay me fairly.”
The late Xers, on the other hand, want advancement
options with flexibility around work schedules,
mentoring and merit money for good work rather
than extra pay for seniority.
The late boomers want more responsibilities,
challenges, big money and the opportunity to influence
the direction of an enterprise. Early boomers
want a little less than that but appear to be
heading in the same direction. Early Xers want
to learn and advance themselves, earn a competitive
salary, get some recognition and have fun.
None of this is very surprising.
But training departments might be surprised to
find that only the older generation showed any
interest in computer-based training for learning
technical skills. On-the-job training was valued
by all the generations but most strongly by the
younger generations who rejected workbooks, manuals
and classroom instruction.
Jennifer Deal who has been leading
the research says that one of the most striking
aspects of the findings is the similarities among
the generations, rather than their differences.
“All have a strong desire to learn on the
job and all tend to be strongly focussed on their
careers,” she said.
The need for challenges, learning
and development opportunities featured strongly
across most of the generations. Some of the younger
generations complained that they felt underutilised.
“We kept seeing the comment: “No-one
really cares if we show up on a morning,”
said Ms Deal.
This might explain why so many
people these days feel it is acceptable to take
a day’s sickness absence. For this reason
a Tesco experiment among some of its stores where
staff will not be paid for the first three days
they take off sick might be a winner. It shows
that managers do care that people turn up.
In contrast with younger workers,
the oldest generation of employees stressed the
need for respect and recognition. This is the
“been there, done that” generation
that wants some respect for its abilities but
does not want to be sent charging off on wild
This is likely to present issues
for younger managers setting assignments for older
workers. I suspect that too many young managers
are ducking these tasks because they are poorly
equipped to handle an old stager.
One reason for these deficiencies
– and this could relate to differing circumstances,
mentioned earlier - is that the younger generation
are leaving it later to have families. Few experiences
prepare you for management better than rearing
a family. If you can handle a stubborn three-year-old
you can handle anyone.
While it is understandable that
young people want to learn, the workplace needs
teachers as well as learners and there are things
that older workers need to learn, often from their
younger colleagues. But the younger generation
has yet to develop a strong sense of giving back.
Too often they fail to recognise that they know
things their elders do not know, and too often
when they do learn this lesson, their response
is to elbow the older professionals aside.
Are these comments valid or
should we recognised that inevitably they too
are framed in the biased perspective of one generation?
It is difficult to avoid the
influence of relativity: that generational differences
are most probably a matter of differing perspectives
relative to the prevailing values and economic
standards of each generation.
The most obvious manifestation
of these differences is generational envy. The
problem is that each generation envies the other
for different reasons. The younger generation
envy their parents because of the ease at which
they found a place on the housing ladder, the
comparative security of their careers and the
possibility of solid pensions giving them the
ability to enjoy retirement. This older generation,
on the other hand, envies the choice of education
and careers available to young people today.
The answer to this problem is
to be found in the recognition that generations
cannot exist in a vacuum. Each one needs the experiences,
learning and perspectives of those in front and
those behind. So why does every new generation
appear so bloody selfish to the rest? I have no
answer to that one.
Anyone interested in participating
in the latest research should e-mail: [email protected]
as a pdf file