Friday, November 14, 2008

Leadership and the Generation (X,Y) Gap

A ‘perfect storm’? A ‘generation gap’? Or something else? Much is being made of a perceived ‘gap’ evidenced in organizations, between the working population and executive leadership. Many suggest this is the consequence of the growing number of ‘millennials’ entering the workforce whose expectations, values and perspectives on life and their careers differ greatly from their employers.

Generation Y (sometimes referred to as "Millennials" or "Echo Boomers") refers to a specific cohort of individuals born roughly between 1980-94. The group is made up of the generation following “Generation X”, especially people born in the United States, Canada and other parts of the world from the early 1980s to the late 1990. Millennials are defined as being peer oriented and seeking instant gratification. The increasing use of texting and IM, social networking via Facebook and MySpace, exposure via YouTube and other instant communication technologies create insight into their reputation. If it is true that cohorts are shaped by the events, leaders, developments and trends of their time, then Millennials may be uniquely defined from Gen X.

In their recent book, Reynol Junco and Jeanna Mastrodicasa found that in a survey of 7,705 college students in the US:
97% own a computer 94% own a cell phone
76% use Instant Messaging and social networking sites
15% of IM users are logged on 24 hours a day/7 days a week
34% use websites as their primary source of news
28% author a blog and 44% read blogs
97% have downloaded music and other media using peer-to-peer file sharing
49% regularly download music and other media using peer-to-peer file sharing
75% of college students have a Facebook account
60% own some type of portable music and/or video device such as an iPod

Millennials represent more than 70 million consumers in the United States. They earn a total annual income of about $211 billion, spend approximately $172 billion per year, and considerably influence many adult consumer buying choices. They may also face a greater degree of direct corporate marketing than any other generation in history.

A 2008 survey by UK recruitment consultancy FreshMinds Talent in partnership with Management Today suggested that Generation Y are generally more ambitious, brand conscious and tend to move jobs more often than ever before. The survey of over 1,000 people, entitled Work 2.0, also suggests several possible misconceptions about Generation Y, including that they are as loyal as their predecessors and believe that their job says something about them as individuals. This is one clear signal to leaders that their approach and style of management may need some ‘tuning’.

The fact that Millennials are more peer-oriented may be a contributing factor to the premium that these workers place on their workplace culture. For our purposes, an organization culture can be defined as "the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization. This definition continues to explain organizational values as beliefs and ideas about what kinds of goals members of an organization should pursue and ideas about the appropriate kinds or standards of behavior organizational members should use to achieve these goals.

From organizational values develop organizational norms, guidelines or expectations that prescribe appropriate kinds of behavior by employees in particular situations and control the behavior of organizational members towards one another.”[1] The organizational values and culture we reference have trust as a foundational element and key organizational citizenship behavior.

A 2007 episode of the American news magazine 60 Minutes entitled The Age of The Millennials proposed that members of this generation are exceptionally tech-savvy, are especially tuned to their own value in the job market, have limited loyalty to any particular employer, and insist on working in a stimulating job environment. However, these are simply characteristics and attitudes that were previously attributed to Generation X in works such as in the 1999 article "The Hunter-Gatherers of the Knowledge Economy: The Anthropology of Today's Cyberforagers" by David Berreby, so we ask ourselves if these behaviors might be consequences of modern culture or of the modern economy rather than qualities of a particular generation.

We also have to ask ourselves….are we oversimplifying what we see? Are the complacency, low morale and overall dissatisfaction voiced by workers a function of age, generation or a reflection of the state of leadership? Many studies have been done that suggest overall worker morale and job satisfaction are low, and one wonders if this is reflected in low worker productivity. If this is true, could improvements to trust and the basic elements of an organizational culture, result in improved worker satisfaction and higher productivity? Would the ‘bottom line’ improve in a measureable way, if a key element of an organizations culture - trust... was a focus for management behavior and leadership? Simply put, in a trusting environment, can you reduce cost, be more productive and become more profitable?

It would be easy to explain the ‘disconnection’ between workers and their managers as a function of a new class of workers, highly educated/skilled, game centric, whose iPods, MP3, PDA habits defy the email based communication style of their managers. Certainly worth studying, but it may mask the underlying issue plaguing corporations and manifest in low productivity in a struggling economy (a perfect storm).

A fundamental premise for our experiment (42Projects) is grounded in trust as a significant element of organization culture than can influence how workers perceive their work environment and behave/perform within it. We believe it may be less about the ‘gap’ and more about the evidence of trust in the workplace.

[1] Charles W. L Hill, and Gareth R. Jones, (2001) Strategic Management. Houghton Mifflin