FROM THE ARCHIVE: An Open Letter to Gen Xers and Baby BoomersBy Daniel Debow on October 20, 2010 in @Rypple
Baby Boomers and Xers —
This letter is a wake-up call for my fellow Generation Xers and the esteemed Baby Boomers who came before us. Things are about to change pretty significantly for all of us. There’s a rising threat that will shake up our jobs, careers, and even general lifestyle. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do but welcome it with open arms. You may already have heard this message from other writers. If you’re already on board and find yourself nodding along — well — congratulations! You’ll still have a job in five years. For the rest of you: consider this your call to arms.
Our workplaces are being invaded by the teeming masses of GenYs (a.k.a Millennials), the largest cohort to ever enter the workplace. Right now they make up 36% of the workforce, compared to 22% for my generation and 38% for Boomers. They’ll make up 45% within 5 years. Within 10 years they’ll be at 50% and the next generation, whatever we call it, will be at 7% (source: The 2020 Workplace).
Here’s the most important thing for you to understand: they are not like us. They are not like we were at their age, and they will not be like we are now when they reach our ages. You may have read reports or had first hand experience that has given the impression that they’re entitled, self-indulgent, and lazy, with a poor work ethic and little respect for authority. I can’t stress how wrong this is. Change is scary and we cope with it by being xenophobic. You don’t have the luxury of coping that attitude or you will lose your employees and/or your own job.
Let me repeat that for emphasis. If you don’t figure out how to work with Millennials you will lose your employees and eventually your own job.
Remove head from sand
This is not the time to bury your head in the sand and hope they go away or adapt to work more like you. Neither of those things is going to happen, but allow me to paint a picture of what will:
- Baby Boomers are going to start retiring. Those of you who get out early enough or are senior enough will probably not have to learn out to adapt. By 2020 your generation will be a little over 20% of the workforce from your current high of 38%. The rest of you better get used to the idea of having someone a lot younger than you doing your reviews and judging your performance by a whole new standard.
- Gen Xers are going to get screwed. Experts like Karie Willyerd, former Chief Learning Officer for Sun, believe the leadership reins we’ve been waiting for are going to pass right over our heads. This is known as the “Prince Charles” syndrome: he may never get to be King Charles but the British people will almost certainly have a King William. You better also get used to the idea that your next promotion may well go to someone younger than you.
- The culture of your workplace will be shaped by people who were toddlers in the 80s. The culture of most companies has been the culture of the Baby Boomers for the last 30 years. The structure of the hierarchy, the policies that govern the way we do business, and the criteria upon which we are judged comes directly from their values and beliefs. That’s all about to change. The oldest Millennials were born in 1976. Most of them barely remember the 80s. You might write off their music and scratch your head at their obsession with texting, but this is your future.
- Job tenure will become a thing of the past. Millennials are motivated differently. They will leave a job they don’t find motivating and paying them more won’t make them stay put. Look to Dan Pink’s Drive or this McKinsey & Company study to understand why motivation is the new money. If you don’t figure out how to keep your younger employees engaged, they will leave. And at some point down the path to your company becoming mostly Gen Ys, your boss will replace you with someone who can get them to stay.
Crisis is the flip side of opportunity
You can still be hugely successful if you accept that this is unavoidable and open your mind to making some changes. Here’s what you need to know.
Millennials are different. This isn’t just a question of young vs. old. Every generation is different than what’s come before it, in some subtle and not so subtle ways. The Boomers had Wall Street and greed. My generation was made famous for being a bunch of slackers (thanks Doug). This generation is like the internet: collaborative, meme spreading, link sharing, always on. They broadcast constantly through fluid networks of connections. They are the people who made “facebook” a verb within weeks of its invention. This new generation is different in some very significant ways:
- The need for feedback is constant. Tammy Erikson has written extensively on this topic in HBR. See her Gen Y in the Workforce case study, the Double Meaning of “Feedback”, and Give a Gift: 4 Tips for More Effective Mentoring. Don Tapscott has also written tons on the topic. His advice? “Be a good leader (e.g., coach, mentor, facilitator, enabler), but understand that in some areas, you will be the student and the Net Gen employee will be the teacher. Net Geners need plenty of feedback, but recognition must be authentic. False praise doesn’t work.” (source: interview with Dan Schwabel)
- The workplace is a meritocracy. You get respect because you’ve earned it, not because you’re higher up on an org chart. They’ll think nothing of emailing the CEO on their first day if they think it will get something done. A comprehensive study conducted by Knoll (PDF) found that the belief in meritocracy (defined as “only the talented survive and anyone with talent should be able to succeed”) was one of the top five values held by Gen Ys.
- Collaboration is critical. Karie Willyerd, in a recent webinar, said “Millennials think about getting work done by reaching out to their tribe of trusted friends”. Previous generations were focused on themselves and their need to get ahead, stand out from the crowd, and make a name for themselves. Gen Ys think nothing of reaching out to friends
- Technology is pervasive. Recent research by Forrester has some telling stats about mobile: Gen Y doesn’t remember a social life without a mobile phone. Baby Boomers are approximately half as likely to own a smartphone as Gen X or Y. 85% of Gen Ys send or receive text messages every month (only 53% of Boomers do). According to Nielsen, the average US teenager sends 3,339 texts per month, which is more than 6 texts per waking hour.
- Use the right tools even without permission. Boomers are used to being given tools to use at work. We’re used to corporate IT policies and locked down computers we can’t install software on. According to Josh Bernoff, co-author of Empowered, Millennials don’t care what your IT policy is: 27% of knowledge workers regularly use login-required websites that their employer doesn’t sanction for work purposes. That number is only going to climb as their ranks swell.
I hope this letter got your attention. I hope it pissed you off enough to sit up and take notice. You still have the chance to learn, adapt, and be successful. Take it before it’s too late. I also hope you’ll check in next week, when I’ll write more about what you can actually do to adapt your own career.
It may seem like I’m making some big generalizations about Millennials. They’re backed up by extensive research, but I understand: how can anyone authoritatively categorize a group of 90 million people? “Millennial” is a psychographic more than it is a demographic – many people in the Gen X age bracket have a very Gen Y approach to life. Some Baby Boomers will as well. The point is that you need to understand the Millennial psychographic if you’re going to succeed today and in the future.