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Donkin on Work - Leadership

May - 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 a level.

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 term.

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 goose chases.

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]

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