More Millennial Misunderstandings

Raise your hand if you’re sick of hearing about Millennials. Scrutinizing this generation, from their tech habits, work style and buying power to their social attitudes and politics has become something of a national pastime. Are they really such strange creatures?

notebook-1064660_1920Millennials themselves will be the first ones to tell you they aren’t. It’s easy to scratch the surface and use words like “entitled”, “lazy”, “narcissistic”, etc. without thinking about the world today and its influence—or what might be really driving behavior. So before you read another article about how Millennials are so different, consider some of these Millennial stereotypes:

Looks like: Laziness
Really is: Seeking Flexibility

Perhaps more than any generation before them, Millennials are challenging traditional workplace rules. For the generation who grew up with technology, the line between “work” and “life” has always been blurred. To them, work is that which gets done—it’s not a geographic location or a specific time. They’re looking for organizations that support flexible work schedules, remote offices and technology use because that’s what they are accustomed to. For Millennials, these aren’t perks, they’re expectations.

The modern workplace is responding. Many organizations are adopting a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE model) in which employees are given high levels of flexibility and autonomy and employee performance is measured entirely on delivered results. In ROWE organizations, employees work when they want, where they want, and how they want. The ROWE model is fairly new and still evolving, and to do it successfully an organization needs to have a pretty kick-butt performance measurement process.

Looks like: Entitlement
Really is: Desire to Assimilate

I once worked on a team of very high performers, and as such, we were afforded a lot of freedom and autonomy over our schedules. Some of us started early to get out by 4 pm, others came in later to get kids on the bus, some of us took long lunches to exercise. It was understood that we were all in the office during core hours and would do what it took to get the work done.

When we brought a new college grad on to our team, she too started getting very flexible with her schedule right away. Entitled Millennial! was the outcry. Not so. No one told her that the level of flexibility we had was earned through good performance over time. She was just trying to fit in on the team. (PS—she was a rock star and got to our level very quickly.)

Looks like: Neediness
Really is: Collaborative Spirit

To pragmatic and self-sufficient GenX managers, it can look like Millennials struggle to work independently. Many Millennials want a much higher level of feedback than GenX-ers and Boomers are used to. Millennials came of age during a convergence of helicopter parenting styles and technology, and had strong feedback loops for nearly every aspect of their lives.

Raised in an era of team sports and activities, group projects and near-constant online connection reinforced the message to Millennials that collaboration was the best way to achieve a goal. They are used to group brainstorming, consensus building and team culture. For this generation, “teamwork makes the dream work” is how things get done.

We GenX-ers can relate to unfair characterization—remember we were labeled cynical, disengaged slackers. Looking back now, we were doing what every emerging generation did before us and what Millennials are doing now: simply reacting to the world around us (while confounding the generations who came before).

Stop Your Messing Around: Generation X and Money

In the Fall of 2016, Fidelity Investments launched an ad campaign about retirement planning using “A Message to You, Rudy” by The Specials for the music. I remember, because when I saw the commercial my jaw dropped. They’re using a ska band to talk about retirement, I thought. Ska. And retirement.

Even if you didn’t have The Specials on vinyl as a teenager (of course I did), a GenX-er can probably identify that familiar rocksteady horn line as at least a song from the 80s if not “A Message to You, Rudy”. Yep. No question as to the target market for this ad.

Me. Us. Generation X.

As a marketer, I thought it was savvy and successful. As a GenX-er I died a little inside. Growing up in the 80s, I remember ska being popular but certainly not mainstream. It was a close cousin to punk and had something of a dark reputation because of its association with Skinhead subculture. Ska was rebellious and different. Of course GenX loved it.

The thing is, the commercial worked on me. After getting over the shock of hearing edgy 80s music in a retirement commercial, reality set in. Yeah. I should be thinking more about retirement. Welcome to mid-life, Generation X.

Generation X’s relationship with money, generationally speaking, is…complicated. We’re the poster children for economic uncertainty.

time-1558037_640Generation X and debt

We might be the middle children of the workplace, but there’s one area where GenX comes out on top: debt. That’s right: among the three major generations, GenX carries the most debt. Overall, this debt includes everything from student loans and home mortgages to car loans and medical bills, but GenX also has the highest credit card debt of any generation. According to research by Experian, GenX-ers’ average credit card debt is $6,752, about $1,100 more than Baby Boomers and $3,300 more than Millennials.

The Sandwich Generation

GenX is definitely feeling the pinch of competing financial priorities as many care for both their children and aging parents. Managing day-to-day expenses and saving for their children’s educations while still potentially paying down their own student loan debt doesn’t leave a lot left over. It shows: GenX has the least amount of money in savings. The median amount of emergency cash among GenX-ers is $5,000. Financial experts recommend having six months of living expenses on hand for emergencies.

Retirement

Here’s where things get really ugly for Generation X. At about the time GenX-ers entered the workforce, many organizations began moving away from traditional pension retirement plans and toward defined contribution plans like 401(k)s. While participation rates in those plans are high among GenX, a couple of recessions—including a Great One—have done a number on GenX’s retirement funds. According to a study done by Pew Charitable trusts, GenX-ers lost nearly half of their wealth from 2007-2010, an average of about $33,000—more than any other generation.

But don’t count out good old-fashioned GenX pragmatism. In a Transamerica survey from 2016, 55% of GenX-ers believe they’ll work beyond age 65, and most plan to do some form of work during their retirement years. More than half expect their standard of living to decrease in retirement. We’re nothing if not realistic.

So take heed, my GenX brethren. “Stop your messing around. Better think of your future.” I’d love to know how many GenX-ers contacted their financial advisor after that campaign.

GenX Management In Action: Giving Feedback

Giving feedback can be one of the most daunting parts of any supervisor’s job. It’s also the most important. Good leaders know that it’s their responsibility to get the very best out of their people, and in order to do that, employees need to know how they’re performing.

meeting-1702638_1920It’s easy to think that GenX managers would have no trouble giving employee feedback. We’re the pragmatic problem-solvers, right? But for Generation X leaders, it’s important to know how generational perspectives can impact both the giving and receiving of feedback. If you lead a multigenerational team, you can’t take a one-size-fits-all-approach. Communication style (yours) communication preference (theirs) and motivators all come into play. Let’s break it down.

Baby Boomers

Communication Style/Preference: In comparison to other generations, Boomers prefer infrequent, formal feedback (e.g. standing progress meetings, performance evaluations, etc.) They also prefer to communicate face-to-face as well as by phone and see meetings as integral to moving projects along.

Motivated by: recognition—title, rank , etc., leadership roles (projects or teams), productivity, purpose

GenX Feedback Technique: Boomers have lots of life and work experience, and they are less likely to seek feedback. Be proactive. Resist the GenX urge to email and set some meetings on the calendar specifically dedicated to the topic of performance. If improvement is needed, position it as an opportunity for growth and a chance to make a greater impact. For your high-performing Boomer team members, find a way to recognize and publicize their achievements.

Generation X

Communication Style/Preference: Loves email, hates meetings. Texting is for family and friends. (But don’t worry—they’ve got their work email on their phone and check it incessantly.)

Motivated by: challenge, problem solving, empowerment, autonomy

GenX Feedback Technique: They’re GenX. Easy right? Not so fast. The intragenerational differences notwithstanding (we span birth years of 1965-80), there are pitfalls when it comes to similar communication styles and motivators. Performance feedback via email lacks tone, context, non-verbal communication and real-time dialog. Suck it up and set a meeting. It’s doesn’t have to be in the big conference room with the fancy table. Grab a coffee. If there are performance issues, lay out the problem as clearly as possible and give your employee the chance to design a solution that you both agree on. Got a rock star? Look for opportunities to have them lead projects and support them from the sidelines.

Millennials

Communication Style/Preference: Millennials value connectedness, whether in-person or online. Texting and social media are ok for work communication, and immediacy in response expected. They desire high levels of feedback in terms of volume, frequency and performance.

Motivated by: sense of purpose, being a valued member of a team, professional development, making an impact

GenX Feedback Technique: This generation grew up in constant communication with instant access to people and information. But as a boss, it’s ok to set some boundaries. Be clear about your availability to coach and collaborate versus when they are expected (empowered) to work independently. From a performance management perspective, make sure you communicate what they’re doing well in addition to what needs improvement. Demonstrate that you value them as a person and an employee. Taking the time to learn about their passions, interests and expertise—then finding ways to leverage those strengths—will make them feel engaged.

Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback doesn’t mean handing out “compliment sandwiches” (praise, criticism, praise). Constructive feedback is information-specific and based on observations. It’s not personal judgment. Be direct, but express appreciation (positive feedback) and concern (negative feedback). Starting statements with “I” (“I have noticed…”) instead of “you” helps focus on the issues.

Finally, use one of your greatest GenX superpowers: be authentic. Authentic leaders know their strengths, weaknesses and emotions. They care about people and lead with their heart. It’s your job to develop your employees to be the best they can be. Help them rise to the challenge.

The Management in Action series covers a variety of practical management topics that can help GenX managers strengthen their leadership skills. Got a topic you’d like to see explored? Leave a suggestion in the comments. 

Generation X Women and the rise of the She-ro

wwI was born in 1973, at the tail end of feminism’s Second Wave. As a young girl, I was raised to believe that men and women were equal, and that being female wouldn’t hold me back in any way from achieving my goals. Reinforcing that message was the rise of female superheroes on television during that time: the Bionic Woman, Isis, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (I might be the only one who remembers them), and of course—my favorite—Wonder Woman. Young girls everywhere twirled in their living rooms with the belief that they could save the day.

Bolstered by that thought, the girls of Generation X charged through the 80s and 90s. We entered college and earned degrees at a faster rate then our male counterparts. We became breadwinner wives. We deferred having children, if we chose to at all. We were going to have it all.

Those hard-charging GenX women entering the workforce caused a fundamental shift in the American workplace. We continued the fight of second-wave feminists for equal pay, and narrowed the gap from 68% in the late 1970’s to 82% in the early 2000s. We pushed for better work/life integration so we could care for our families and still do great work. We were Wonder Women.

In nearly every superhero story arc, there is a moment where our hero (or she-ro) questions if they are making a difference, if they are truly capable, and thinks about hanging up the cape. Indeed, the swords and shields of Generation X women grew heavy. We were not having it all. We were just doing it all. Our optimism turned to disillusionment. But hey—we’re GenX. That’s our jam.

The late 90s and early 2000s gave us both the Mommy Wars and feminism’s Third Wave (two seemingly opposite reactions) as women struggled to reconcile their belief that women could do anything with the very real barriers that existed. Like an alien who derives great power from a yellow sun, or a woman borne of Zeus, it felt like humanity was not ready for our kind.

As the girls of GenX watched their she-roes on TV, Millennial girls (and boys) watched this play out in real life. Check out what’s happening down the generational line.

According to recent census data, overall college degree attainment is pretty even among women and men, at 30.2% and 29.9% respectively. But in the 25-34 age group, 37.5% of women have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 29.5% of men. In 2015, women earned 83% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. For adults ages 25 to 34, the 2015 wage gap is smaller. Women in this group earned 90 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned.

Generation X female business leaders continue to exert their influence on the modern workplace. Even its critics agree that Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In restarted a stalled conversation about women’s leadership in the workplace. Of the female CEOs of the S&P 500 in 2017, nearly one-quarter are GenX.

While this type of change isn’t faster than a speeding bullet, it is progress. No question that this is a long road and there is more to do. But our younger generations no longer have to rely on works of fiction to find role models who inspire them to greater heights. We’re right in front of them. (Although it would be cool to have some superpowers. C’mon.)

Work/Life Balance is a Myth. Blame Generation X.

Can we all agree that in 2017 work/life balance is not a thing? Let me clarify. The idea of work/life balance is a thing. In fact it’s such a thing that there are books, websites, coaches, apps and basically a whole industry dedicated to seeking that which does not exist and maybe never has. You can thank Generation X for perpetuating the myth.

scale-md

Throw this out the window.

The push for greater work/life balance in the U.S. began in the 1960s and 70s when record numbers of women began entering the workforce. Working mothers managing the demands of their jobs and raising children brought the issue to the forefront. By the 1980s it was no longer simply a women’s issue, and many high-profile companies created policies and programs that addressed work/life balance.

Generation X was witness to this, and entered the workplace pushing hard for greater work/life balance. Of course, the bosses thought. They’re the slacker generation. But GenX was looking to work smarter, not harder. The truth is that GenX has a strong work ethic, even if it looks a little different from that of their Boomer bosses. While it’s important to GenX to have time outside of work to spend with family and friends, that time allows them to return to work refreshed and recharged. GenX saw technology as the solution to work/life balance issues and pushed hard for it.

We know how that story ends. Our access to technology has created an “always on” mentality. A study by Gyro and Forbes Insights found that 63% of workers check their email every one to two hours when they’re out of the office. We’re not working harder or smarter. We’re working longer.

Let’s finally throw the work/life scale out the window and replace it instead with “work/life integration”. Don’t think of it as a term of surrender, as if work in some way won out, but rather a more accurate descriptor of reality. Work/life integration takes a more holistic view of how work fits with other aspects of a person’s life. It accepts the blurred lines that we know already exist. People work from home and home from work.

The modern workplace is evolving and responding, but it’s a long slog. It’s easier for employees to accept and understand work/life integration than organizations themselves. It requires employers to re-define work as that which gets done, not when or where it gets done. That’s an exercise worth doing. When employees feel trusted and supported in this way, they feel a stronger commitment to the organization.

Optimizing work/life integration can still be challenging, but unlike work/life balance, it is at least attainable. And though the lines between “work” and “life” are indeed fuzzy, it’s important to set boundaries for yourself that make sense for your type of work, work style and employer expectations.

Work/life is not a zero-sum game. Let’s stop treating it like it is.

Leading those who led us: GenX managers and Baby Boomer employees

I was 29 when I landed my first director-level position. I had been at my previous employer since I graduated college and now was in a new organization in an industry I knew nothing about. It was the first time I was going to be managing a budget and people. I was the youngest person on my team with the least amount of industry experience and I was the one in charge. Cue the freak-out.

That was nearly 15 years ago. In today’s workplace, career paths are rarely linear–they regularly zig, zag, stop, start and switch. The result is a workforce as diverse as it’s ever been in terms of people’s age, skills and experience.

Rbpost6a

Think managing someone older or more experience is awkward? It doesn’t have to be.

If you’re a GenX manager, this can mean supervising Baby Boomer employees that are older and may be more experienced than yourself. That can be complicated for all involved. Maybe your employee is questioning your ability to lead based on your age or years of experience. Maybe you feel awkward giving feedback to someone who has been with your organization for decades. I sure did.

Though every person is different, there are some generational considerations to keep in mind as you interact with your Boomer employees.

Motivation

The Baby Boomer generation is a very close second to Millennials in terms of size at about 75 million people. Their sheer size bred a spirit of competition that many Boomers learned to thrive on, and which continues to serve them well in a modern workplace that favors a more collaborative approach. Boomers are also motivated by recognition—title, rank , etc. mean something to this group. They love to work hard and they work best when they feel that there is real purpose in the work they do.

GenX managers can leverage these strengths. Invite your Boomers to share their knowledge with your team, even running point on projects that play to their strengths. Asking your seasoned vets to mentor newer team members is a win-win; your less-experienced employees will benefit from additional guidance and your Boomers will feel trusted and valued.

Work style

Boomers and GenX-ers are both known for working hard, but their approaches and work styles can look pretty different. Boomers came of age in a workplace that valued seat/face time, throughput and productivity. Generation X turned that on its ear as they sought greater flexibility and work/life integration—both realized through advances in technology.

For GenX managers of Boomer employees, you may want to add a little more structure and consistency to the way you run your team. Standing meetings and regular reporting work well for this group.

Also, don’t assume that your Boomers scoff at, or even fear technology. Give your Boomer team members opportunities to get exposed to new tools and skills that can make them more efficient and effective.

Communication

Unlike Millennials, Generation Z and even some of Generation X, Baby Boomers do not require frequent feedback. In comparison to other generations, Boomer prefer infrequent, formal feedback (e.g. standing progress meetings, performance evaluations, etc.) They also prefer to communicate face-to-face as well as by phone.

Advice for GenX bosses: adjust your style. That’s not just for your Boomer employees, that’s for any member of your team. It’s your job as a leader to get the best out of your employees and set them up for success. So if that means talking on the telephone even though you’d much rather email, or having more meetings than you’d like because that’s what your people are responding to, that’s what you do.

Don’t make it weird

Boomers get it. You’re the boss. Org charts matter to this generation. They understand hierarchy. You don’t have to have an awkward conversation about age differences or years of experience. Don’t feel you have to show off or have to prove something. Just be a good boss.

Good leadership isn’t generation-specific. The characteristics of Generation X and Baby Boomers are pretty complementary, and it’s up to you as a leader to allow your team members to play to their strengths. Enjoy and encourage the diverse perspectives, knowledge and skills of your multi-generational team.

Fellow GenX managers, what’s been your experience managing Boomers? Awkward or awesome? Boomers–what’s it like on the other side of the table? Share your feedback in the comments.

Next man up: Generation Z will save the world but probably kill television.

If you are tired of society’s obsession with Millennials (no more so than Millennials
themselves, I assure you), then Generation Z is here to rescue you. Born between 1996 and 2010, postmillennial Generation Z has more in common with their GenX parents than with their Millennial counterparts, though it can be tempting to lump them together.

I work in Higher Education marketing, and our industry has been tracking Generation Z for quite some time. I also happen to be the parent of a GenZ-er who turns 16 today. Although about half of GenZ (including mine) still has some growing up to do, here’s what we know about this generation so far:

  • They are their parents’ children. Generation Z shares many of the characteristics of their GenX parents. They are often described as pragmatic, self-aware and resourceful. Their childhood included a Great Recession and near constant war. Just like Mom and Dad, there are no rose-colored glasses on this crew.
  • GenZThey are special snowflakes (in a good way). If Millennials are known for their collaboration, the pendulum swings back with GenZ. This generation is highly individualistic and competitive, so put those participation trophies away. They want recognition for their specific achievements.
  • They want to change the world. There is a reason why the “The Hunger Games”’ and “Divergent” series were such a hit with this crowd: that’s pretty much how Generation Z feels. Like the generations that came before, they feel they’re inheriting a world full of problems created by others and that it’s up to them to fix it. Sixty percent of Generation Z wants to have jobs that have a social impact the world, and 26% of 16- to 19-year olds currently volunteer.
  • They’ll be the most educated generation. Or they won’t. As college became more accessible in the last half of the 20th century, each generation has been more educated than the one before. The trend could break with GenZ. This generation got a front row seat to the student loan debt crisis, and it’s got them (and their parents) questioning the value of college. Seventy-five percent of Generation Z believes there are other ways of getting a good education besides going to college.
  • They want to work for themselves. GenZ-ers are true digital natives. This access to technology has allowed them to produce and create from a young age and has stoked a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Moreover, they are not afraid to fail, and view failure as an opportunity to learn and try again.
  • They are brand influencers. Generation Z doesn’t remember a time when social media didn’t exist. Their networks are established and highly engaged. And with $44 billion in buying power, it’s no wonder brands are desperate to make inroads with this generation. For many brands, this means a shift in strategy to appeal to a generation who values authenticity, transparency and personal interaction—and who doesn’t really respond to traditional marketing and advertising.
  • They’ll kill television. Not television as in the-device-that-sits-in-your-living-room-plugged-into-the-wall. That’s been dying for years. I mean television as in content, Netflix included. This generation is not watching it. To them, it’s content from old people who think they know how to talk to young people. It feels fake and forced and GenZ isn’t having it. They’re watching real people do real things on YouTube. According to a Defy Media study, YouTube is the must-have service for 67% of consumers 13-24, while only 36% feel that way about pay TV.

Generation Z at Work

As the first wave of GenZ enters the workplace, it may be easy to confuse them with Millennials. They too want a sense of purpose to their work, favorable work/life integration and flexible office arrangements. But the similarities fade when it comes to communication styles (short and visual for 8-second GenZ attention spans), salaries (GenZ highly focused on earning and saving) and job-hopping (only 16% of high school seniors say they anticipate frequent moves throughout their career).

And perhaps the biggest surprise from the generation who is growing up with a smart device within reach at all times? They prefer face-to-face communication.

So Boomers, GenX and Millennials: consider yourself on notice. Get ready for the next complex generation to enter the workplace. And enjoy Game of Thrones while you still can.

The Open Office Concept is Dead. Thank a Millennial.

I began my career as a technical writer for a software company at the end of the 1990’s. This was right before the dot com bubble burst, and everyone was in love with the tech industry. Much was being made about the office spaces and employee perks of various tech startup companies. Jeans everyday. Free food and coffee. Nap rooms. Foosball tables and arcade games. Tech companies were pulling out the stops in order to keep their employees in the office and working. I’d see pictures of cool people in converted warehouses with no walls and ultra-modern minimalist furniture and I’d feel so envious. I worked in a suburban office park. You couldn’t tell my software company from the insurance office down the hall. I had a regular old office with walls that went all the way up to the ceiling and a door. How lame.

openoffice2The tech bubble might have burst but the open office trend only got stronger in the early 2000s. When management found out it was way cheaper to just have a bunch of desks in the middle of an empty room rather than build out offices for everyone, the office configuration that made its mark in tech companies and advertising agencies began appearing in more traditional sectors such as accounting, engineering and even law.

We don’t have to waste valuable time listing all the problems that an open office creates, though several come to mind immediately. Lack of privacy is probably at top of the list. Cube farms aren’t much better in that regard–anyone in that configuration can tell you there are no secrets among cube mates. The open office is supposed to encourage collaboration—and it certainly can, especially if employees are doing the same or similar work. The problems start when collaboration stops and focused work begins. Open offices allow for constant interruptions, and recent studies show that productivity actually declines in an open office environment.

Beyond the open office’s negative effect on actual work output is the emotional impact that it can have on employees. The violation of psychological privacy erodes productivity, lowers morale and breeds distrust. Employees in cubicles are interrupted 29% more than employees in private offices, creating stress and exhaustion. Earbuds have become the universal “don’t-even-think-about-talking-to- me” signal, whether people are actually listening to music or not.

The open office concept is dead. Millennials killed it. We should thank them.

Rising up in place of the open office are flex offices (also known as hybrid offices) and remote offices. Flex offices might have a variety of workspaces: private offices, open workstations, conference/collaborative spaces and soundproof work areas. There is no assigned seating; your work environment is dictated by the type of work you are doing at any particular time.

Additionally, the number of remote workers continues to grow in the U.S. In 1995, just 9% of the population telecommuted. Today, that number is closer to 40% and continues to climb. Employers have a lot to love in this arrangement: in addition to reduced overhead, employees who telecommute are more productive, have higher morale and are less likely to leave their position or organization.

In order for both of these models to be effective, it requires a workforce that is comfortable with technology and sees less of a separation between “work time” and “home time”. For the Millennials who grew up on the technology that keeps us in constant connection, those lines have always been blurred. Millennials don’t view remote working as a perk. It’s an expectation. It’s life.

Employers are responding, for several reasons. One is that many companies are very focused on attracting and retaining Millennials and are completely changing their workforce cultures in order to do so. Another is that, for many employers, remote set-ups are cheaper. What’s better than low overhead? Lower overhead!

A third reason, and perhaps the most compelling one for organizations considering doing away with cube farms once and for all, is that the company will usually get the better end of the deal. Studies show workers in a remote environment are more productive and work 5-7 more hours per week then their in-office counterparts.

Much data exists to prove the economic benefits of both flex and remote offices. I encourage you to reach out to your organizational leaders to explore the possibilities.

LesNessman

Boomers and early GenX-ers don’t have to Google this.

Or, you can use the Les Nessman approach. Don’t forget to air-knock.

Something To Believe In: Employee Engagement Across the Generations

Some facts and figures for your consideration:

  • 33% of Americans are actively engaged at work
  • 16% are actively disengaged, ergo
  • 51% of employees are not engaged at work, and haven’t been for some time

Workplaces where employees are “highly engaged”:

  • have 59% lower turnover and a 17% increased productivity
  • have 10% growth in customer metrics and 20% increase in sales
  • are 21% more profitable than organizations with low employee engagement

Employee engagement seems like a new and buzzy workplace jargon term, but it’s actually been around since the early 1990’s (which for us GenX-ers still seems like only 10 years ago). With numbers like those above, it’s no wonder why employee engagement has become something of a holy grail for organizations. Leadership launches initiative after initiative, workers roll their eyes and the needle doesn’t move. Engaging a workforce that is comprised of three (or more) generations—each with varying levels of engagement–seems pretty daunting. How do you do it?

Most Engaged: Boomers

According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, Baby Boomers are the most engaged generation at work. But before you start handing out high-fives, they are also the most actively disengaged. Active disengagement means that not only are these folks unhappy at work, but they go out of their way to express that unhappiness through words, attitudes and actions. Why the extremes? One theory is that with the massive changes that organizations have been through due to technology and an influx of younger workers, Boomers are less secure about their future in the workplace. At the same time, they are the least likely group to be seeking new employment (a measure of engagement) as they value stability and security at this late stage of their careers. They’re going to stick around as long as they can.

Least Engaged: Millennials

Oh, those selfish, entitled, job-hopping Millennials. Of course they are the least engaged, you are thinking. However, they also happen to be the least actively disengaged. They may not be happy, but at least they’re not undermining. And truthfully, they kinda have a legit beef: Millennials have the highest unemployment rate (40%) and underemployment rates (51%) of any generation, meaning that if they are fortunate enough to be employed at all, it may be at a job that isn’t helping them move all that far forward in life. Many have one foot out the door: two-thirds of Millennials plan to leave their current organization by 2020, and 25% of those hope to leave within one year.

Stuck In The Middle: Generation X

Among the three major generations, Generation X employee engagement levels fall smack dab in the middle. Yawn.

Pop quiz time: Which generation says they “need to have a sense of purpose or meaning” in their work in order to feel fully engaged?

Answer: Baby Boomers.

And Millennials.

And Generation X.

That’s right. Each generation desires the same outcome—to feel that their work matters and that they are contributing to the greater good. For some, it means working for an organization whose mission is to “make the world a better place”. For many others, it means they want to know that the work they do everyday directly impacts the health and success of their workplace—regardless of industry.

The key to increasing engagement isn’t rolling out yet another short-term employee engagement initiative or internal communications campaign. It’s creating a culture of ownership so employees at all levels can feel confident that their work matters. To do this, organizations need to:

  • Have clearly defined values: values are the principles that guide the decisions and behaviors as an organization delivers on its mission and aspires to its vision. To have any hope of increasing engagement, employees have to be on board with the values and employers’ actions need to align with them.
  • Seek input for strategic planning: while it’s not always possible to have employees at all levels in on the ground floor of strategic planning, leaders can routinely seek feedback on the plan in draft form. Lower level employees can help leaders identify blinds spots, and may be more likely to willingly execute the plan if they have a hand in its creation.
  • Involve employees in departmental goal setting: again, your “boots on the ground” folks are well-positioned to make sure departmental/unit goals are specific and achievable.
  • Align personal outcomes with strategic goals: ideally, individual performance goals should trace all the way up to and align with the goals set forth in the strategic plan.

If your organization is looking to improve employee engagement, get involved in the process. Talk about a sense of purpose and meaning—how about being a part of a culture change (large or small, depending on where your workplace is on the points above) that could improve your company’s bottom line? That’s something to believe in.

Pragmatic Leadership and Generation X

Womp Womp.

debbie-downer

GenX: ever feel like this at work?

For those of you who are familiar with Saturday Night Live’s* “Debbie Downer”
character, you know “womp womp” is the sound that’s made after Debbie says something to totally
bring the room down and make the optimistic and enthusiastic people around her
uncomfortable. Relatable?

For many GenX-ers in the workplace, it feels like we’re the ones crushing everybody’s dreams. When Generation X came of age, we were labeled as pessimistic and cynical. But as mentioned in this post, the blinders were off for Generation X. We saw things as they were and it shaped our worldview. We learned how to assess situations and figured out how to accomplish goals within the framework. It made us pragmatic.

It’s easy to mistake good old fashioned GenX pragmatism for negativism in the workplace, especially when we’re sandwiched in between two generations known for their idealism. Boomers have always been idealistic—remember, this was the generation that was going to change the world. They continue to be defined by their sense of purpose. Boomers who are in leadership roles often want to do what’s best for the organization, but may forget (or choose not) to seek input from lower levels of the organization, perhaps because when Boomers came of age in the workplace, nearly all decisions were made top-down.

Millennials (the children of late Boomers, let’s not forget) have a similar mindset. They want a sense of purpose in their work. Their desire for a “flatter” organization structure is tied to the belief that ideas are equal regardless of the source, and that everyone is a major stakeholder. Millennials believe that they themselves can impact sweeping change.

And here comes Generation X, appearing to crap on everyone. We’re the ones telling our Boomer bosses why that decision that was made without proper input from lower levels has some devils in the details and needs to be modified. Our Millennial subordinates (or peers) walk away pissed when we tell them that their proposal for a new product can’t be explored right now because it is off budget cycle and also will need at least six months more development time. Womp womp.

Pragmatists focus on how to get things done. They can see the big picture but also potential barriers that could get in the way of success, and they tend to want to spend energy overcoming the roadblocks. Often times this can look like micromanaging, but in actuality, pragmatic leaders are as goal-focused as idealistic ones.

What can we GenX leaders do to repair our sullied reputations? First, we can sell the idea of pragmatism as a virtue. Pragmatism favors action, and action fuels progress. Hey idealists—we want what you want. We’re not stonewalling or stalling. We’re anticipating. We’re figuring stuff out on the front end so we’re not cleaning up a mess later on.

Second, we can embrace idealism. Wait, what? If there is downside to pragmatism, it is that it tends to exist within a current state. A dose of idealism is necessary to envision that future state. Idealism and pragmatism together fuel innovation.

So the next time a Boomer leader shares the “next big thing” that the senior staff came up with, or when a Millennial on your team presents you with her third new idea of the day, respond in the spirit of collaboration. “This is some great thinking. Let’s put our heads together and see if we can make this happen.”

* Points for you if you understood the Debbie Downer reference without explanation. Knowledge of pop culture is another calling card of Generation X. More about that in a future post.