By Emilia van Hauen, cultural sociologist, TEDx speaker & Board Member. First published in Børsen (the biggest business newspaper in Denmark)
The corona crisis has caused a generational war to flare up. But each generation has its special contribution to offer, and the skilled leader knows how to combine all ages and experiences to strengthen the community.
But what actually drives the four generations on the labor market? Get the insights here.
Were you one of those people who loved Karate Kid when it came out in 1984? Did you enjoy watching Johnny get kicked around like a ball by Daniel in the final tournament? And did you just think that you should enjoy your day without being reminded of Mr. Miyagi’s true and simple (but also really annoying) wisdom and all the ugly headbands?
Well, now it’s too late.
This chronicle is about how to create a community containing all of the four generations which are on the labor market today. And for that purpose, I’ll throw the Netflix series, Cobra Kai, in the mix. Built on Karate Kid and featuring the same actors, it has become a kitschy, charming, liberating self-ironic, and surprisingly woke TV series that has viewers across generations; generation X who were young when the film came out and therefore can revel in nostalgia, and generations Y&Z because many of them have the wildest crush on the 80s. The series follows Johnny and Daniel, now with teen children, and provides a fine picture of the challenges of the times in all generations. But most of all, it shows something elementary about generations, namely that we as humans have far more that unites us than age separates us. This can be difficult to recognize now that corona-restrictions have created divisions and accusations between the older and the younger generations.
For many years I have given talks about the young generations and have unfortunately all too often encountered an “us-them” attitude towards the them, where the subtitle has been that the youngsters are on a wrong path, but luckily soon will get wiser (read: just like the adults). While the young have expressed that the adults are developmentally resistant and arrogant. Besides the fact that the us-them attitude does not exactly support the community in the organization, it is also a bad business strategy. This article, therefore, provides an overview of the differences between the generations and at the same time suggests how to apply the differences strategically. For the benefit of people and the bottom line. I also have a disclaimer: No one is ever as square as described here, but it helps to understand the differences.
1: That which unites all generations
In the research for my latest book ‘The tyranny of success – and the way out’, it became quite clear that the two factors which create a happy and meaningful life are:
- Good relationships (love and belonging)
- To be allowed to contribute with something meaningful to the community
Simple and very action-oriented, because if this is made the starting point of all strategies and management to create a well-functioning organization, you have a greater chance of bringing together all employees across generations (and professions, positions, gender, race etc.). However, it requires that the management constantly and very explicitly articulates and works with the different relationships (and thus the healthy dependence on each other) and that all contributions are crucial for success. Unfortunately, the conflict-creating ones are more often noticed than the resource-creating differences, while the similarities are most of all too allowed to disappear in the equation. So therefore, you now get an overview of the differences between the generations, because understanding each other’s situation and starting point is often the way to bridging.
2: Yes, the young are more pressured and the older ones can remedy it
The objection I most often get when I say that the young generations of today are far more pressured than before, is that they are probably just a little delicate (and therefore should take care of themselves). But that is factually incorrect. The conditions of young people are very different and much more complex from previous generations of young people and this naturally affects them.
First the baby boomers and generation X were able to follow their parents, providing a basic psychological feeling of security as to how they could live their lives in order to get success. Second the school focused more on learning than mere performance. Third the number of relationships was limited: Family, friends, free time. And fourth going abroad was for the few very ambitious people. So the number of areas in life that they should take care of were manageable.
It’s a whole other ball game for the Ys and especially the Zs! They have far more life areas to keep track of:
1. They cannot follow their parents. It is said that 50 percent of their jobs do not exist yet, and according to Deloitte’s Millenial Survey 2019 Denmark, only 62 percent believe that they have the necessary skills for the future. It creates a basic feeling of insecurity.
2. The educational institutions have placed greater focus on grades and performance than before (Center for Youth Research at Aalborg University shows this in, among other things, the report The Grade Book).
3. They need to maintain far more relationships. Family (of which about 40 percent are children with divorced parents, and thus have several family members to relate to) friends, free time and virtual relationships.
4. Social media must be nurtured.
5. Body awareness, including gender awareness.
6. Diet awareness.
7. Activism (research show that we have the most democratic engaged generation ever)
8. Global citizen (they are brought up with Youtube, computer games across national borders, and internet shopping all over the world).
The complexity of life has thus become much greater for the younger generations, and a mutual understanding of the different conditions can make room for the differences and create a fruitful dynamic.
3: What drives the four generations
The four working generations are driven by four different ambitions and you are invited to guess which generation focus on what statement:
- Work-life balance
- Freedom & flexibility
- Job security
- Safety & stability
The baby boomers seek job security (c), generation X seeks work-life balance (a), generation Y seeks freedom and flexibility (b) and generation Z seeks security and stability (d). The latter in particular surprises many, but is a natural and healthy reaction to gaining so much freedom that it can be difficult to place oneself in a meaningful context. However, it gives the older generations a fantastic opportunity to create exactly the framework that gives the young people enough freedom to unfold their creativity and at the same time enough security to make them feel at home. A concrete method to get it implemented is by creating a program for mutual mentoring, where the older and the younger can unite their exploration and create mutual greater understanding.
Together, the four different focuses form a strong culture for development in an organization because it provides the perfect balance between stability and development. But this can only happen if all parties know each other’s preferences and focus – and it is the management’s task to make it explicit.
4: Attitude towards a career
A work environment is very dependent on how the employees each relate to their own working life and these four differences are often seen across the generations:
- Loyal to the organization
- Loyal to their profession
- Works with (not for) the organization
The baby boomers are loyal to the organization (hence the many anniversaries), while the Xs are loyal to their profession (i.e., they are less oriented towards changing careers than the young ones). The Ys work with an organization and see more of themselves as a self-employed company that rents out jobs, while the Zs are what is called multitaskers: They do not feel bound by either profession, workplace, or career form; instead, they like to flow freely between the opportunities that arise.
Of course, none of the working methods is the right one. Although it is often the conviction that is struggled internally with. The management’s task is therefore to make the different expectations explicit and then jointly create some guidelines that everyone can thrive on.
5: The strengths and weaknesses of the four generations
Here I present an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the four generations – which of course lacks nuances so please read them with some indulgence.
|Know the story||Also repeats the useless part of the story|
|Gen X:||Is in its prime time||I-know-best arrogance|
|The bridge between the analogue and the digital (both strengths and weaknesses)|
|Culture carrier||Lack of openness|
|Risk of disappointment over unfulfilled ambitions
|Gen Y:||Young experience||Does not know own limitations|
|The bridge between the digital and the analog (both strengths and weaknesses)|
|Creates new culture||Lack of respect for history|
|Development-oriented||Own ambitions can overshadow the community|
|Lacks respects for authorities
|Gen Z:||Young||Youthful Greatness Madness|
|Liberating inexperienced||Unrealistic solutions|
|Closer to new trends||Volatile, superficial, confused|
Mutual understanding is always based on knowledge about the other party’s situation. And in most workplaces, the prevailing culture is not articulated. It just dominates. So, if the generational differences are a challenge for you, two things are important to do:
- Make the prevailing culture explicit and get everyone to contribute their experiences. It provides insights, understanding, and hopefully tolerance towards each other. If necessary, use the list above for recognition.
- Create a culture of curiosity. Make it a common behaviour to always ask in-depth questions about what you disagree with before expressing your disagreement. And always try to understand the other before you are understood.
These very simple rules of living always help to create a greater community of understanding. If you also keep in mind that everyone just wants to feel that they are contributing something to the community and want to feel like an important part of the group, you have the best conditions to create a workplace that makes everyone do their best.
The four working generations are:
Generation X: 1961-1980
Generation Y: 1981-1995
Generation Z: 1996-2010