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There have been hundreds of books and articles written on the differences between generations. Most of the accusations levelled rely on anecdotal evidence, and as is often the case with such sampling, some are accurate, while many are not.
But different generations did grow up at different times, and this affects how they see the world and their place in it, author and management consultant Avril Henry told the Australian Business Chambers Conference last week.
This matters to leaders for one reason: employee engagement.
“Only 18% of Australians are actively engaged in their work,” she says, citing a recent Gallup poll. “62% are disengaged, and 18% are actively disengaged [and thus likely to purposefully waste work time].”
“This costs Australia $31 billion a year.”
To stem this, leaders and managers have been advised to be different things to different people. As we live and work longer, Australia’s workforce is more generationally varied than ever before. This means understanding the motivations of the different people working for you is important.
Henry has worked with leadership teams at companies including IBM, Optus, BHP Billiton, and across Australian federal and state governments. She’s the author of a new book on managing cross-generational workplaces called Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today.
She says there are three characteristics that leaders need to be able to lead well across all generations.
1) Collaboration and inclusion.
2) Flexibility and an outcome-focused way of evaluating individuals. “Flexibility isn’t just for women with kids,” she says.
3) Authenticity. “It’s important to be able to be yourself,” Harvey says. Younger workers in particular respect and respond well to this.
And finally, it’s important to know what motivates different generations, paying particular attention to how open and welcoming they are likely to be of change.
Veterans (those born before 1946)
Veterans are rarely talked about, but they still comprise 6% of the Australian workforce. They’re likely to be your boss, or on your board or advisory committee.
“They’re the generation most resistant to change,” Henry says. “That’s why it’ll take us 177 years to reach gender parity on boards.”
And yet, she says, veterans are frequently the ones in positions that are meant to drive change, meaning it’s important to bring them along for the ride.
The baby boomers (born 1946 to 1965)
Baby boomers comprise the biggest part of the workforce. And for better or worse, they’re not going anywhere.
“They’re the generation least prepared for retirement,” Henry says. “They haven’t had the benefits of compulsory superannuation most of their working lives, and the GFC has in many cases obliterated the nest eggs they had built.”
Baby boomers, Henry says, are both wary and weary of change.
“They’ve seen cycles of centralisation, decentralisation, and restructure. They’ve seen things overhauled then put back to the way they were.”
Boomers are motivated by financial and career security.
Gen X (1965 to 1980)
Henry calls Gen X “the sceptical generation”. Comprising 40% of the workforce, they tend to be more analytical than others.
Henry says they’re the archetypal “helicopter parents”.
“I used to be called in to help teachers manage Gen Y,” she says. “Now I’m contracted to help teachers manage Gen X parents.”
Gen X often gets overlooked, sandwiched between Gen X and the boomers. But it’s the generation that most welcomes change. “Gen X are the change agents,” Henry says. “They see it as an opportunity to stretch themselves.”
‘Stretching themselves’ is something Gen X does often. “They’re the generation most interested in developing their leadership skills,” Harvey says. To this end, they respect and respond well to effective leaders.
Henry is optimistic about Gen X’s ability to manage Gen Y. She says while many Gen X members hate Gen Y as much as the boomers, they value flexibility as much as their younger co-workers, and are similarly open to change.
Gen Y (1980 to 1995)
Gen Y currently comprises 10% of the workforce, but that figure is likely to hit 30% by 2020.
“We say they have an entitlement mentality and that they haven’t done their time,” Henry says. “But they don’t care. They have way more self-confidence than us anyway.”
As to their ‘entitlement mentality’, Henry says it was created by their parents and the school system. “They got ribbons for coming 7th in school, and for having nice manners. When [boomers] were growing up, we were expected to have nice manners. They get rewarded for it.”
“Then we put them in the workforce and said ‘it’s going to be different here’.”
Henry says unlike many of the generations before them, Gen Y act the same both at home and work. “They call the boomers two-faced,” she says. “For them work is just part of their lives. Don’t expect them to change while they’re there.”
How do they deal with change? Harvey says the preoccupation itself bemuses them.
“They say, ‘Why do old people keep talking about change? Change happens all the time’.”
Henry says she often wants to call them Generation WHY. “It’s their favourite word!” This is often misinterpreted as challenging authority, but they genuinely want to know. “They’re just seeking understanding.”
To motivate Gen Y, it’s important to be an inspirational leader who’s willing to explain why things are the way they are.
Gen Z (1996 to 2010):
Gen Z is not in the workplace yet. “But if you thought Gen Y was hard to manage, wait till you see Gen Z,” Henry says.
“Gen Z are the digital natives. They grew up in the era of globalisation, so they don’t see the same barriers to culture and race that older people do.
“And they grew up in a post 9/11 world. They don’t know the Berlin Wall, or the Cold War.
“They’ve grown up in recession – but they’ve been protected by their parents. They’re the western world’s little emperors. They’ve never been allowed to play outside.”
Henry says this means they’re not used to being criticised, which will make it a challenge for leaders to give them feedback.
“Boomers hate giving and receiving feedback anyway,” Harvey says, meaning it’ll be even more difficult for them to manage Gen Z.