Managing Multiple Generations: Interview with Bruce Tulgan, founder, RainmakerThinking

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Interview by Joseph Coombs, SHRM Workplace Trends and Forecasting Specialist

Many workplaces today include members of four or five different generations. What advantages and potential challenges does this scenario present for HR professionals?

There has always been generational diversity in the workplace. But nowadays, there are three things that are different about generational diversity. Number one: Due to the growing age bubble on one end and the youth bubble on the other end, all of the ordinary human capital management issues that track with life and career stage issues are exaggerated. On the oldest end of the spectrum, the key issues to grapple with are flexible retention, knowledge transfer and succession planning. The advantage is that there is a tremendous amount of skill, knowledge, wisdom, institutional memory, relationships and maybe the last vestiges of the old-fashioned work ethic that organizations can try to mine for value while the older, more experienced people are still active. The disadvantage, of course, is that all that value is going to retire at some point.

On the youngest end of the spectrum the primary issues are attraction, selection, on-boarding, up-to-speed training, performance management and a different kind of retention issue, what we call “the development investment paradox:” An employer must develop new young talent, but the more you invest in developing them, the more you have to worry that they will sell your investment in the free market. Overall, the key advantages in the youth bubble are the energy and perspective of the new, young talent, while the challenge is recruiting, leveraging and retaining them.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the spectrum, hiding below the radar, is the “under-management” problem. So much of the supervisory burden falls on mid-level leaders, who tend to be in the middle of the generational spectrum, and for numerous reasons there is an epidemic of “under-management” coming from mid-level leaders down the chain of command, resulting in a cascade of problems. The key opportunity for HR leaders is to zero in on the “under-management” problem and help mid-level leaders get back to the basics of strong, highly engaged management.

Number two: Since the logic of “seniority” has been on the decline in the workplace, seniority alone has not been sorting out age difference as a cause of interpersonal issues among co-workers and between employees and supervisors. It used to be that the older, more experienced people were typically senior to the younger, less experienced people, and this did a lot of the work of sorting out age difference as a source of issues. Of course, everyone wants a custom deal nowadays. Nobody wants to pay their dues and climb the ladder the old-fashioned way. The advantage is that people of all ages can now work harder, smarter, faster and better, and try to compete for the special rewards they want. The challenge is that the younger, less experienced people often lack context, are in a hurry for responsibility and reward, and impatiently resentful of the older, more experienced people in their way. Meanwhile, the older, more experienced people often resent the young upstarts for not being willing to pay their dues and climb the ladder and wait their turn. This can be particularly challenging when the younger, less experienced people are in positions of greater authority than some of the older, more experienced people. (The military has dealt with this challenge for a long time, with young second lieutenants who outrank older much more experienced NCOs. For this reason, I sometimes call this the “young lieutenant problem.”)

Number three: Because we are living through the most profound changes in our economy, society and workplace since the industrial revolution, all of the ordinary advantages and challenges that normally come along with any diversity issue are intensified and also confused because of the temporal nature of generational issues. Everybody is dealing with tremendous change and uncertainty. Globalization and technology are going through historic iterations multiple times in a decade. Institutions are in a state of constant flux. Information is in a constantly growing tidal wave. Immediacy is accelerating with no end in sight. And individuals are constantly rediscovering the need for self-reliance. The oldest, most experienced people feel over and over again like the rug is being pulled out from under them. The youngest, least experienced people have never known it any other way. Instead of the older folks knowing it all, everything is always new. The obsolescence curve has become so steep that the learning curve for all is constant all the time, thus removing many of the advantages of age and experience. Meanwhile, the old-fashioned basics like poise, judgment and wisdom remain the kind of knowledge on which the learning curve cannot be accelerated, and yet many younger, less experienced people simply cannot be made to appreciate. As a result, it is more important that we address some of the basic diversity issue components of generational difference: We need to help folks better understand where people of different generations are coming from and where they are headed, learn to better appreciate those differences, and learn to leverage them.

Job security and compensation are traditionally among the most frequently cited factors for employees’ job satisfaction. What do workers from different generations value more (or less) when determining their happiness on the job?

Among those of all generations, most workers have in common a growing sense that their employment relationships are primarily transactional in nature. The older Boomers sometimes have an uneasiness admitting that money (as opposed to mission or professional commitment) is the primary quid pro quo in the employment relationship. The younger the person, the less likely they are to manifest that uneasiness.

On the flip side, the younger, less experienced workers--Generation Z and Generation Y--are least likely to believe any claims or offers of job security. Boomers may be the ones who have been burned by offers or claims of longer-term security, but they still want to believe when such offers or claims are made to them. To Gen Yers and Gen Zers, “job security” is not a meaningful concept. What is more, “security” and long-term employment are not part of the same equation. For people of all ages, increasingly, a much more meaningful concept is “career security,” and that comes from cutting-edge technical skills, highly developed transferable skills, relationships with decision makers, and tangible results that prove an individual’s ability to add value.

Beyond that, it should be noted that the older an employee, our research shows, the more likely an individual is to think that financial compensation should align with “seniority” and experience. The younger the employee, the more likely he or she is to think that financial compensation should align with short-term measures of productivity and quality or value of goods/services in the marketplace.

When it comes to rewards determining happiness, outside of compensation and “security,” we find that people of all generations tend to cite most often the same five nonfinancial conditions of work: schedule, relationships, task choice, learning opportunities and location (or work space). Where we see generational differences on this, in our latest research, is as follows:

  • First, the younger the person the more likely he or she is to rank learning opportunities and relationships at work higher. The older the person, the more likely the employee is to rank task choice higher.
  • Second, the younger the person, the more likely he or she is to want variable arrangements in some or all of these factors. The older the person, the more likely the employee is to want fixed arrangements.
  • Third, the younger the person, the more likely he or she is to want greater control of these factors tied to performance measures. The older the person, the more likely the employee is to accept less control of these factors, but control not tied to performance measures.

Financial difficulties connected to the Great Recession are partly to blame for older workers delaying their retirement and remaining in the labor force. Do you think this is a temporary trend, or do you see working longer as the “new normal,” and why?

Of course, economic conditions fluctuate, although the current economic downturn has been deeper and more protracted than any since the 1930s. This comes at a different life and career stage for each generation. This sort of accident of history--and at what life and career stage it hits--is precisely what makes for generational differences. So it is significant that the Great Recession is hitting around “retirement” age for older workers.

Indeed, many older people will work to later ages than they otherwise would for purely financial reasons. This may or may not be temporary in and of itself. If we are at the beginning of a long-term economic decline, it may be that private and public resources are simply not sufficient to support retirement at ages as young as we have come to expect. Add to this presumably increasing life spans, shifting perspective on age as well as protracted timeframes for resource amortization, and the numbers alone could make working longer a longer-term trend.

Beyond the economics, there are two additional factors to consider, both of which suggest a longer-term trend. First, many organizations are expanding flexible part-time employment opportunities as a way to retain older and more experienced employees, especially those with significant skill, knowledge and experience, and most of all, long-time employees with important institutional memory and relationships. As this sort of flexible retention strategy is on the rise, it figures that an increased number of older people will take advantage of these opportunities moving up their retirement ages.

Second, many Boomers in the older (1946-55 birth years) and younger (1956-1964) cohorts talk explicitly or implicitly in our interviews about “reinventing” retirement. There is a significant majority who cite an intention to try to career downshift in their current role in their current organization but continue to work, or to leave their current employer and then begin a part-time or full-time career endeavor or pursue as a career endeavor an interest that has previously been an avocation or interest.

On the other end of the spectrum, young adults today are not only facing limited job opportunities, but lower compensation in many industries compared with the recent past. What advice would you give to younger workers who are trying to break into a new career?

Again, for Generation Z, it will be a generation defining accident of history to live through the Great Recession at the opening stages of their working lives. What makes it particularly challenging for the youngest, least experienced people right now is that by virtue of their life stage, by definition, they have less experience, context and wisdom. These are the elements for which one cannot accelerate the learning curve. On the other hand, they have their whole lives ahead of them. Plenty of time is what they have that their older colleagues, by definition, do not have.

My advice to younger people in particular is to acknowledge and appreciate and take account of those advantages and disadvantages of youth. My advice to anyone of any age trying to break into a new career right now is, first, the first person you have to manage every day is yourself. Get really good at managing yourself. And then, second, be really good at managing complex shifting authority relationships… In other words, get really good at managing your bosses.

Step one: Once you really understand your role in any work context, then your number one responsibility is to play that role to the absolute best of your ability. That means contribute your very best and put in more time and effort no matter how lowly, mundane or repetitive your tasks and responsibilities might seem in relation to the overall mission of your organization.

Attitude matters--a lot. Effort, too, matters--a lot. Be high quality, high integrity and adaptable. Approach every relationship by staying focused on what you have to offer the other person. Take personal responsibility for everything you say and do, hold yourself accountable and never make excuses. Don't take yourself too seriously, but always take your commitments and responsibilities seriously. Extend personal vulnerability, but never undermine your own credibility.

Listen carefully. Exhibit respect and kindness. Celebrate the success of others. Be on time, or a little bit early. Don’t take long breaks. Don’t leave early, and even stay a little late sometimes. Underpromise and overdeliver. Don’t badmouth others and try not to speak of others unless they are present. Keep your word. Keep confidences. Don’t keep other people waiting. Practice old-fashioned good manners.

Get lots of work done very well, very fast, all day long! Be a problem solver, not a complainer. Once you get really good at managing yourself, then step two is to get really good at managing your bosses. That means creating highly engaged relationships with every single manager with whom you need to work for any period of time. That means you need to have an ongoing dialogue with every boss about exactly what that boss needs and expects from you.

What are the concrete actions within your control on which you will be measured and rewarded? You need to know, every step of the way exactly what you are supposed to be doing and how you are supposed to be doing it. Then you need to get regular, honest feedback every step of the way. If you get course-correcting feedback, double and triple check to make sure you know exactly what you are supposed to be doing and exactly how you are supposed to be doing it. Every time you get course correcting feedback, you will need to triple check to make sure you are correcting in the right direction.

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