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Getting past generation-based conversations

I’ve talked about generations in the workplace, from myths to organizational shapes to moving forward. I’m with Luis Suarez on this one: can we move on from the generation-based conversations?

People are well-meaning, but it’s interesting to look at what we accept when we have these conversations. I think we’re much better off focusing on workplaces that can deal with all sorts of diversity – age, gender, race, lifestyle, and so on.

Take this post from the Harvard Business Review discussion threads:

Create Mutual Mentoring Relationships

Conflicts between Boomers and GenYs may feel inevitable. They have different approaches to getting work done, assumptions about how to do things, and philosophies about what work means. They also have a lot to teach each other. To help bridge the generation gap, pair people of these generations up and ask them to share what they know. This shouldn’t be a "Teach me, Oh Wise Boomer" relationship but one in which the parties exchange knowledge and expertise. Gen Ys can show Boomers different uses for technology and how to integrate it into their work. More experienced Boomers can help Gen Ys better understand the history and culture of the organization. Creating mutually beneficial relationships can demonstrate what these generations have in common: a need to learn.

It’s a good point. I’m a fan of mentoring, and both people grow in the process. But it’s interesting to think about the dialogue we’re having, and the assumptions we accept. If we replaced age with, say, gender:

Conflicts between men and women may feel inevitable. They have different approaches to getting work done, assumptions about how to do things, and philosophies about what work means. They also have a lot to teach each other. To help bridge the gender gap, pair people of these genders up and ask them to share what they know. This shouldn’t be a "Teach me, Oh Wise Man" relationship but one in which the parties exchange knowledge and expertise. Women can show men different uses for ______ and how to integrate it into their work. More experienced men can help women better understand the history and culture of the organization. Creating mutually beneficial relationships can demonstrate what these genders have in common: a need to learn.

… doesn’t that feel weird? What about race or culture?

Conflicts between Caucasians and Asians may feel inevitable. They have different approaches to getting work done, assumptions about how to do things, and philosophies about what work means. They also have a lot to teach each other. To help bridge the racial gap, pair people of these races up and ask them to share what they know. This shouldn’t be a "Teach me, Oh Wise White" relationship but one in which the parties exchange knowledge and expertise. Asians can show Caucasians different uses for ______ and how to integrate it into their work. More experienced Caucasians can help Asians better understand the history and culture of the organization. Creating mutually beneficial relationships can demonstrate what these races have in common: a need to learn.

That just gave me the heebiejeebies. =)

Where’s the line? Where do we let generation-based discussions turn people into “others”? Where do we let age become an excuse? Wouldn’t it be cool to build a workplace where these things just aren’t issues, where we’re used to working with people who aren’t like us?

Talking about this stuff is better than not talking about this stuff. People have stereotypes about age, and those stereotypes affect all generations. (The ageism of the technology industry, the ageism of society in general…)

But we can do better than that, you know. We can treat it as normal that we work with people who are different from us and who have different experiences from what we have, and we can get better at recognizing not only the value other people bring to the organization, but also the value of the diversity of people in an organization.

Gen Y Perspective: Why Gen Y Won’t Stay at Jobs that Suck

In yesterday’s talk by Bea Fields on managing Gen Y, one of the listeners asked how much of a fun circus work would need to become in order to attract and retain younger workers. The well-known and much-criticized Gen Y tendency to job hop makes Gen Y retention a key issue for companies around the world. Here’s my Gen Y perspective on this issue: when work-life balance is important and career plans are chaotic, it just doesn’t pay to work at jobs that suck.

Why do people work at jobs that don’t make them happy? There seem to be three main reasons:

  • They need the money or the health insurance.
  • They don’t care about the sacrifices they have to make.
  • They see it as a stepping-stone towards a bigger opportunity.

Let’s look at those three reasons from a Gen Y perspective.

Do they need the money or the health insurance?

Many Gen Yers still live at home, so they have less financial pressure. Others live on their own or with friends, but aren’t carrying mortgages or supporting families. True, many Gen Yers experience financial pressure from student loans, credit card debt and other obligations, but most can get by.

What about health care? We’re in the prime of our lives, and most don’t need to worry about losing insurance coverage. Life insurance and family insurance needs are low, because we typically don’t have any dependents. That means we can shift jobs without worrying about not being covered in the meantime.

Why else would people take jobs they weren’t happy in? They might not care about the other sacrifices they need to make, such as working long hours and living under high stress.

I know many Gen Yers who work overtime and weekends, but I also know many Gen Yers who prioritize work-life balance and who make time in their lives for other things. If their jobs don’t allow them to have the kind of life they want, they’ll look for other opportunities. They know that for every company that talks about company loyalty and retention but then turns around and expects an unsustainable pace of work, there are also companies that walk the walk and are really interested in improving workplace flexibility–not just for senior employees, but for everyone.

Why would people work so hard, anyway? The answer is related to the third reason why people stay in jobs that don’t make them happy. They see those jobs as stepping-stones to greater opportunities.

It used to be that you would “pay your dues” in a boring, thankless job, eventually rising in the ranks and gaining a cushy position. Not any more. After rampant downsizing (I mean, “right-sizing”, or “resource actions”, as IBM likes to call it), the failure of even supposedly rock-solid institutions (hello, Fannie Mae!), and the un-cushy-izing of formerly cushy positions such as partners in law firms (who are now subject to the threat of de-equitization) is it any wonder why many people–Gen Y, especially, as we’re making these entry-level decisions–no longer believe in long-term career planning and in paying your dues in a thankless position?

Lesson One in Daniel Pink‘s unconventional career guide The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is: “There is no plan.”

There is no plan. If there can be no neat plan from getting from point A to point B, if being the office gopher won’t get you to the corner office, if you can burn yourself out because of overtime and high stress but still be laid off because of unpredictable market conditions, then it makes sense to take a step back, invest in yourself, and do work that creates value and make you happy.

Gen Y knows this: your employer pays you, but you ultimately work for yourself. You are ultimately responsible for developing your own skills, finding your own opportunities, and making the life that you want.

Gen Y challenges for recruiting and retention, such puzzling issues for HR departments all over the world, are really just logical reactions to the realities of the marketplace. It makes sense to pick jobs and organizations where you can create value, learn, and enjoy working. It makes sense to contribute and learn as much as you can, then move before you get moved–whether it’s to another job in the organization, or to another organization entirely. It makes sense to make sure that there’s something in it for you.

Does that mean that Gen Yers are mercenary? No. In fact, money isn’t the biggest reason why Gen Yers leave organizations. Gen Yers are looking for opportunities to make a difference, to grow, to connect, and to work with people they admire. Dot-com-like perks like foosball tables are fun, but they don’t make up for opportunities to make a difference.

The organization that can quickly tap new Gen Yers’ passions and skills, move them into a position where they can contribute in a meaningful way, and help them build the social networks that will make them even more productive–that’s the kind of organization that will be able to easily recruit and retain Gen Y, because that’s the kind of organization that understands what matters.

TLE 2008: I.B.Millennials: The Net Generation and Those Who Recruit, Hire, Work With, Manage, and Sell to Us

Last Tuesday, April 8, I gave a presentation on “I.B.Millennials: The Net Generation and Those Who Recruit, Hire, Work With, Manage, and Sell to Us” to around 60 people at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange in Orlando, Florida.

What did I do well?

  • Revision: I stayed up until 4:00 that morning, revising my presentation to improve the flow and include some of the ideas I got from conversations with people from all over IBM.
  • Energy: Because I stayed up so late, I was tired on Tuesday. I didn’t want to do a lackluster performance, so I napped during the session slot immediately before mine, and I had some tea afterwards. I reasoned that I could always listen to the playback of the session I had wanted to attend, but I wouldn’t have another opportunity to redo my session.
  • Presentation structure: After much thinking, I managed to find a good structure that made the presentation flow well. I used the power of three and alliteration throughout the presentation in order to make the presentation more coherent and memorable. I structured the characteristics as “changing childhoods, changing technologies, and changing workplaces”. I listed the challenges as “recruiting and hiring Millennials”, “working with and managing Millennials”, and “selling to Millennials”. Each challenge had three parts: “reach”, “ramp up”, and “retain”. Because of that structure, I hardly needed to glance at my slides to remember where I was, and I didn’t feel the urge to overload my slides with detail.
  • 30-second summary: I put in a 30-second summary at the beginning and end as a courtesy to people who wanted to attend several presentations or review the slides afterwards. This proved to be handy when some people dropped by to say hi and offer encouragement before my session, as I could give them the gist of my talk before they went to a different session. I think it’s a good practice.
  • Presenter remote: I used Jonathan Young’s Kensington presenter remote during my blogging talk at the Best Practices. I liked being able to step away from the podium, and I didn’t need to refer to my speaker’s notes. I also liked how the Kensington presenter fit my hand neatly. I found the same model at the Airport Wireless store in Newark, along with several other presenter remotes. I chose the Logitech presenter remote because it had a built-in timer with vibration alerts at 5 and 2 minutes, which is great in rooms without clocks. I bought it for $75 or so. If you want to buy it now, Amazon.com has it for $37.24 thanks to a mail-in rebate that ends on Monday, April 14. It looks like there are frequent rebate offers, so you should be able to find it on sale somewhere.
  • Stock images: Several people asked me where I got my illustrations. I got some free ones from Stock Exchange, and I got the rest of the images from Stockxpert.com. The Stockxpert.com images typically cost $1 for a presentation-sized image.
  • Discussion: I knew that I didn’t have the historical perspective or the global perspective to give people the complete picture of Millennials, so I invited people to join the discussion by asking and answering questions. I had chatted with a number of people before the session started, so I knew that people had a lot to contribute. They freely shared their concerns, experiences, and insights. This resulted in a session that was not only more interactive than the jam sessions I attended, but also a lot more educational for all of us–myself included. I think this is a terrific way to do a session, as the speaker gets to learn a lot as well. There, Jim de Piante – I asked for help and I got it! =)

What can I do better?

  • More microphones: It seems my presentation style is highly interactive. Next time, I should request additional microphones so that people can be easily heard and recorded.
  • Better summaries: I need to get better at listening to what people say and quickly summarizing the key points for these recorded presentations.
  • Video recording: I want to save up for a high-definition video camera and a tripod so that I can share the material and improve my presentation skills. Jonathan Young’s setup was pretty good. He aimed the video camera’s LCD forward so that he could make sure he was in frame. Alternatively, I could ask a friend to take care of video recording.
  • Picture: I really should take pictures of my audience so that I can get a better count and so that I can recognize and thank people. Maybe I can ask someone to help me with that next time, so that I’m free to prepare other things I need for my presentation.
  • Audio and screen recording: I have Camtasia on my system, and there’s no reason why I can’t use it to record my non-TLE presentations. Next time!

That was a terrific experience. I’m looking forward to the next presentation!