Cuckoo Bird

Cuckoo Millennials in a Generation X Nest

How the changing workforce means a change in management strategy

By Jonathan Raine & Barry Stainthorp

With the binary workforce divisions of ‘old hands’ versus ‘bright young things’ being a thing of the past, most companies now have staff that bridge four generational groups. Frequently characterised, and stereotyped, these groups span from the post-war Baby Boomers through to the 1965-1980 Generation X-ers, on to the Millennials and then to Generation Z, those who are just beginning to enter the labour market. And in terms of feet on the ground, the landscape is changing too. In America, Millennials make up 37% of the workforce (compared to baby boomers at 34%) and by 2020 Millennials will form 50% of the global workforce.

How can this change in workforce dynamics play out in the office? Well, picture the scene, your team has gathered in the canteen area to celebrate a birthday. After 10 minutes of polite congratulations and small talk, you notice the group starts to fragment. And the segmentation is clear, the younger team members have their phones in their faces or have drifted back to their workstations keen to makes progress on the mountain of emails; the older ones are swapping stories and catching up with colleagues.

Is this the intergenerational workplace in a microcosm, and if so, does it matter?

To the first part of that question, some might question whether working styles are so clearly delineated across the generations? Probably not, but with the advent of modern communication technologies, the workplace environment is unrecognisable today to what it was 20 years ago. And, with the Millennials being Net Natives to this environment, they claim ownership of it and are territorial over it to the older Generation X Migrants. In fact, the Millennials are the first generation to enter the workplace having a better understanding than their seniors of key business tools.

Importantly, technology is coming to dominate today. In a recent PWC report ‘Millennials at work: reshaping the workplace’, 41% of Millennials report that they prefer to communicate electronically rather than face-to-face or even over the telephone; with three-quarters believing that technology makes them more effective at work. It is this devotion to technology more than any other issue that causes intergenerational angst. Those schooled in the traditional business environment are challenged by this new paradigm. The reverse is also true. In the same report, over half of Millennials reported dismay that their managers did not always understand the way that they use technology.

And, to the second point; does it matter? “Yes, it matters”.

In 2011, a study by Future of Work Research Consortium (FoW) found that almost a quarter of polled companies rated a lack of ‘intergenerational cohesion’ as the most significant risk their company faced, and many more rated it as one of the top three risks.

Such a threat can manifest in two ways: first the challenge of retaining Millennials; secondly, how to develop management capabilities in Millennials. Retention of the ‘loyalty-lite’ Millennials is made problematic by their witnessing Generation X-ers working longer and retiring later and thus blocking promotion pathways. This challenges a company’s HR and talent management.

The second issue, which arises as a result of the noted demographic shift, the natural attrition of staff, and the ever increasing attraction of the cross-functional team paradigm, is of Millennials managing multigenerational teams. The management challenge is how to equip Millennials with the leadership skills to succeed.

So, what is to be done? The world is changed. And crucially, the Millennials really are the cuckoo in the nest.

Recognition and acknowledgement of this generational change, coupled with a defined HR strategy can set your company on track to minimise the threats and maximise the benefits of this new world. Tactics to consider are:

Segment data to manage your talent pipeline
Develop the data across generations to establish what motivates your workforce. Find out what the specific key performance drivers are for each generation. Note, evidence tells us one size does not fit all.

Reward creatively and customise
Millennials state that it is flexibility and work/life balance that attracts and retains; traditional cash bonuses have been supplanted by non-financial incentives related to working environment; to access to rotate across geographies, to working hours. Given this, consider creating incentive schemes that will appeal – offer more holidays rather than more pay!

Don’t sweat on the ‘How?’ and ‘Where?’ the work is done
But remember whilst Millennials like flexibility and cherish empowerment of task the companies that are most successful at managing Millennials are those who negotiate tasks, targets and goals, set deadlines, and establish clear reporting lines.

Appeal to the age of instant gratification Give feedback: which is instantaneous, bite-sized, but make it meaningful. Unlike Generation X-ers who like annual reviews, Millennials seek out appraisals in real time. And, make it honest. Millennials reject ‘Management Speak’. If this is by text or Social Media, so be it, try becoming a Native.

Harness Reverse Mentoring
Pair your seasoned Generations X-ers with your Millennials and allow the latter to do the mentoring. This closes the knowledge gap for both parties; it empowers emerging and established leaders; and it bridges generational gaps, reducing the ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ mentality.

And remember, Millennials grow so fast. They will spread their wings and leave – accept this. But by developing an environment that embraces this new world, you will be better placed to win the departed talent back once they are ready to return home.
10 MAY 2021