My late father use to observe, ‘you know you are getting old when the police start to look young.’ I have not got to an age, yet, where the police are looking young, but as each year passes they are looking increasingly youthful. The same goes for people I manage and work with more broadly. Never mind Millennials, increasingly I am getting resumes from Zoomers (those born after 1997). One recent hire, rather imprudently, asked of a colleague ‘how old are you?’ I retorted, ‘let me put it this way, his career began last century.’ Queue look of amazement from the dimple cheeked employee.
One does not have to be cantankerous and old to have an anecdote or two similar to the above in your repertoire. Nor to experience a knowing smile when you read in the popular press that younger generations tend toward increased levels of narcissism, greater entitlement, and a reduced work ethic. Little wonder given they are often referred to as the ‘selfie’ generation. As one pundit put it, ‘it is a generation who only cares about work so long as they can post about it online’.
Yet in the same breath, you will also hear younger generations described as more creative, as having greater concern for social values, as being more inclusive, and as having more advanced technical abilities than their predecessors. Certainly, we live in an increasingly technical world. Gone are the days when being able to ‘work a computer’ was a skill set to be listed on a CV. Nowadays you will invariably see a slew of technologies or programming languages listed among the accomplishments of the newest entrants to the workforce.
However, while advanced technical abilities tend to tilt more heavily in favour of the young, the other aspects – creativity, social values, inclusivity – are not as generational as the young or even the popular press would have us believe. Nor, seeing how committed and hard working many young people are, are the journals of record correct in typifying Millennials or Zoomers as entitled and narcissistic.
Because of this, I think it prudent to not talk about generations, in the sense of when someone was born. Few will rival Noam Chomsky for his commitment to radical and revolutionary change in the social justice space, and he is 94. Thus, when talking about conflicting viewpoints between generations, we are on better ground when talking about generations as an attitude rather than a birth date. Full disclosure, there is some special pleading of this case on my part, given it is not uncommon for people to observe I should have been born in the nineteenth century. But I digress.
Conceptualising the generational divide as attitudinal is arguably contrary to what one might ordinarily expect from an article, for it complicates an already complicated landscape and far from offering neat five words or less answers requires deep engagement with topic. But it is a process which repays the effort as it enables managers to better understand, and by virtue of this lead, their teams who may be of diverse age groups yet also display very uniform values and attitudes to work. A status quo which is a direct outcome of recent shifts in the employment landscape as a result of Covid. Much as politics is becoming increasingly bipolar, loosing much of its former nuance, so to are workforce attitudes which can loosely be divided into ‘GenMe’ and ‘GenWe’.
Examples of these changes come in the shape of a demand for greater ‘work-life balance’ — shorthand for work needs to fit around lifestyle choices. A strong demand for individualism — which should be read as ‘corporate dress’ and ‘corporate conduct’ are out as people increasingly wish to make whatever sartorial choice they like, say what they like, and demand respect for any viewpoint they hold. And an ever growing insistence on support from managers — an expectation that if a person cannot cope in their role, it is their managers job to ensure they can.
This latter issue is, I would argue, the inevitable by product of an educational system in which the notion of students failing courses has become almost anathema in most institutions. The insistence being that professors MUST act as enablers so that students can gracefully progress from enrolment to graduation.
How the theory of management must evolve to accommodate these tectonic shifts in organisational behaviour is not new. Go back twenty years and you can see studies (e.g., Harvey & Buckley, 2002) which have argued that paradigm shifts necessitate the continual evaluation of management practice. So much so academic, but for daily exponents of the practice of management this means that notions of having ‘line employees’ or that as a manager you exercise a ‘span-of-control’ is now obsolete at least, anathema more generally.
This is not to say that some servant-leadership revolution has happened with managers the world over relinquishing their former authority and instead acting as servants to their employees — though this does go on in some places. Indeed, there are many signs the pendulum has swung far too far for many, and not just managers with a self-interest in the status quo ante. Listen to the water cooler crowd – for those who still frequent the office – and conversations are abuzz with talk of a counter movement in which managers are the prime movers of organisational outcomes.
Even for those of a less reactionary nature, that managers have a major impact on team performance, employee motivation, and job satisfaction is a seldom contested reality of organisational life. For those interested in the literature, academic studies have shown causal links between higher employee retention rates, organisational trust, and the manager-employee relationship (for example Han and Jekel, 2011).
GenMe and GenWe
While much of the literature, and anecdotal evidence, has historically pointed to some kind of Millennial / Boomer divide, my thesis here is that this divide is better personified as between GenerationMe and GenerationWe. This is because traits, such as high or low diligence, are a result of individual differences rather than group identity. A conceptualisation that repositions notions of group identity, making them a result of individual actions rather than the misconception that individual actions are the result of group identity.
In its most basic form, these ‘generations’ can be defined in the following ways:
- More likely to value managers they like.
- More likely to quit in difficult circumstances.
- More likely to see a disproportionate relationship between effort and reward (i.e. be paid highly and receive rapid promotions).
- Prefer extrinsic to intrinsic rewards.
- Preference leisure activities over work obligations.
- More likely to challenge authority figures while simultaneously needing rewards and praise from those same figures.
- More likely to value managers with ability, even if they do not find them personable.
- More likely to persist in adverse work environments.
- See reward as the result of effort, not as an entitlement.
- Prefer intrinsic to extrinsic rewards.
- See the working week as the responsibility for a wage.
- More likely to follow leaders because of their authoritativeness rather than because they dole out praise and rewards.
Given the obvious dichotomy in this approach to work generations, the practical implications for management are that the leadership theories many have encountered — e.g., transformational, authentic, ethical, leader-member exchange (LMX) — will struggle to provide solutions when it comes to developing effective teams.
Unfortunately, I do not have any easy answers to this problem, but I do have a series of propositions or challenges which can be used as a lens through which to view organisational behaviour. These will be explored in the next article — Challenges for Leadership when Managing GenMe — and can help managers to deal with the excessive individualism of GenMe, strengthen team cohesion, and develop greater employee trust in organisations.
Good night, and good luck.
Bass, Bernard M. “From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning to Share the Vision.”Organizational Dynamics 18, no. 3 (1990): 19–31.
Han, Guohong Helen, and Marc Jekel. “The Mediating Role of Job Satisfaction Between Leader-Member Exchange and Turnover Intentions: LMX, Job Satisfaction and Turnover Intentions.”Journal of Nursing Management 19, no. 1 (2011): 41–49.
Harvey, Michael, and M.Ronald Buckley. “Assessing the ‘Conventional Wisdoms’ of Management for the 21st Century Organization.”Organizational Dynamics 30, no. 4 (June 2002): 368–378.
Ng, Eddy S. W., Linda Schweitzer, and Sean T. Lyons. “New Generation, Great Expectations: A Field Study of the Millennial Generation.”Journal of Business and Psychology 25, no. 2 (2010): 281–292.
Twenge, Jean M. “A Review of the Empirical Evidence on Generational Differences in Work Attitudes.”Journal of Business and Psychology 25, no. 2 (2010): 201–210.
Twenge, Jean M., and W. Keith Campbell. “Increases in Positive Self-Views Among High School Students: Birth-Cohort Changes in Anticipated Performance, Self-Satisfaction, Self-Liking, and Self-Competence.”Psychological Science 19, no. 11 (2008): 1082–1086.