A Fine Balance: the confluence of generations in the millennial workplace

24 Jan 2013

Demographic variables are changing the way leaders need to approach their employees in the workplace. Is it possible to cater to the needs of Generation Y, Generation X, and Baby Boomers?

We are at an unprecedented demographic state of affairs globally. The old are living longer (according to the UN, the number of people on earth aged 60 plus is likely to grow from 510 million in 2011 to 1.6 billion in 2050 to 2.4 billion in 2100), a sizeable, diverse generation (Y) has come of age and entered the fray and we passed a staggering 7 billion people on Earth in 2011, up from 3 billion in 1960.

Demographic variables inevitably trickle down to the workplace, where Baby Boomers work alongside Generations X and Y and tensions sometimes arise as a result of less traditional, distinctly modern practices and values brought into the workplace by Gen Y-ers and the measures enacted by companies to retain them.

There are a lot of them and they need to be considered more than ever so that their talent can be harnessed to maximum capacity. Generation Y will “comprise more than 40% of the US workforce by 2020…far outnumbering any other generation” (Kwoh, 2012) and they seek the kind of collaborative, meritocratic, unstructured workplace I wrote of in The Meeting of Heart and Head: the imperative of emotional intelligence in 21st century leaders in our last issue.

Gen Y-ers bring a whole set of new skills and approaches to work. They are digital natives, knowledge seekers, collaborative workers, innovative and highly adaptable and understand work and career in a vastly different way from Baby Boomers; a report from Colliers International Inc. for Skanska, ‘Generation Y in the Workplace,’ highlights the following motivators and desires for Gen Y-ers at work:

Routine and hierarchy in particular act as blockades to Gen-Y career contentment. An article in The Wall Street Journal highlights a Silicon Valley online textbook-rental service that, a few years ago, had high turnover of Gen-Y employees, who were repelled by too much red tape and “not enough communication, utilization of their talent or fun.”

The company had to strike a fine balance between the demands of their younger workers and the treatment of their older employees; “too much special treatment, and older workers would feel neglected. Too little, and younger workers would leave” (Kwoh, 2012).

CEO Dan Rosensweig and his team decided to remove some middle-management positions to allow younger talent more access to projects and enacted an unlimited paid vacation scheme, which no one has yet abused. The yearly turnover rate of Gen Y-ers has, as a result, fallen by 50%.

Of course it is ill-advised for companies to focus solely on retaining younger talent at the expense of older employees, including Gen X-ers (who are by no means old, but either already leaders or are set to be once their Baby Boomer superiors retire).

Indeed, Gen X-ers need to be catered to considering they have the experience and expertise necessary for success while Gen Y-ers are still developing their skills and will be needed as leaders over the next two or three decades. However, they are being blockaded by their Baby Boomer superiors, who are overall waiting longer to retire. As such, many Gen X-ers are moving organisations because they “believe their avenues to development and career progression are stalled, often by people who were expected to retire” (Deal, 2012).

As the ageing workforce expands as the millennium offers us even more ways to extend longevity and improve the state of older life, this problem may get worse. Companies will need to work toward nurturing and harnessing the skills and desires of ALL employees both now and into the future, as younger talent grows and eventually comes of leadership age.

For practical suggestions as to how to ápproach Gen Y in the workplace, have a look at this article entitled ‘What Every Manager Should Know About Managing Gen Y.’