As much as we like to believe we can all get along, the reality is that conflicts sometimes erupt when different generations collide in the workplace. In fact, just few months back, we wrote about the potential for both conflict and synergies when company veterans find themselves working side by side with the new kids on the block ("hot shots and old codgers," May 2010). But our world isn't really quite that simple.
Frankly, we sometimes enjoy the posturing of "General" Larry Platt singing "Pants on the Ground" on American Idol. And we confess to occasionally fantasizing about a seasoned supply chain professional dressing down some callow youth the way Gordon Ramsay would eviscerate an errant sous-chef. In reality, though, the issue is more nuanced than a confrontation of old fogeys and young whippersnappers.
This generational thing permeates all of business and society. And it has profound implications for how well we plan and execute in the realm of supply chain management.
X and Y
Much of today's management theory focuses on the best ways to motivate and manage the relative newcomers to the workforce: the so-called Generation "X" and Generation "Y" workers. David Javitch wrote an excellent column on the subject for the May issue of Entrepreneur magazine. In it, he described some of the traits of Gen X and Gen Y workers, which we have adapted as follows:
• Generation X: Gen Xers are those born between the mid-1960s until 1980. They were often "latchkey" kids who experienced the first big wave of single-parent rearing.
The children of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers tend to have been disillusioned by their parents' work and life imbalance, and saw firsthand the consequences of eroding corporate loyalty to employees.
What they want out of work is room to grow, goals with some latitude, and a chance to develop new skills and knowledge. They also seek control over task/assignment selection; the freedom to make their own career/project/life choices; and success on their own terms. Though they're eager for mentoring and feedback, what they really want is managerial relationships without micromanagement.
• Generation Y: Gen Yers were born from the mid to late 1970s through the late 1990s. For them, any gratification slower than instant is a letdown. They expect lavish praise and believe that any level of participation entitles an individual to a certificate of appreciation.
Gen Yers have been adept at concurrent activities since early childhood, and their parents are often accused of over-scheduling them. Some say their sense of entitlement runs wide and deep.
What they expect out of work is assigned multi-tasking; projects that involve collaboration (with group, rather than individual, accountability); and structure, with clear guidelines and well-defined/documented processes. They seek access to the latest and greatest technology; challenge, even if accountability is murky; and plenty of positive reinforcement.
Are we watching the right ball?
Effectively managing these two disparate generations within the larger workforce can certainly be a challenge. And that's just the half of it. Oftentimes, there's the added complication of integrating them with the leftover Baby Boomers (for all the hoopla, they've only just begun to retire) and Gen Cs (Codgers), who refuse to quit because they're having too much fun. Full disclosure: Your intrepid authors are both card-carrying members of Gen C and defy generational stereotypes—although it should be noted that one of us believes that Bluetooth is evidence of poor dental hygiene.
Let's take a look at what these two groups bring to the workplace:
• Baby Boomers: Boomers were born from about 1945 into the early 1960s. The offspring of Codgers, they were often "married" to their jobs. They were usually willing to sacrifice family considerations in favor of the demands of bosses, clients, or their own perceptions of duty.
They understood organizational politics better than the preceding generation and tried to follow a progress/advance/win career path. But many were caught off guard by late-career job losses when they discovered corporate/employee loyalty was sometimes a one-way street.
• Generation C: Gen Cers were born from the late 1920s through the mid-1940s. Depression-era kids, their workplace experience was straight out of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and "The Organization Man." (In those days, men worked and women—even those with jobs—were hand-maidens.) These, not the Boomers, were the three-martini-lunch types we enviously watch on Mad Men.
They were generally loyal to employers, often feeling lucky to have any job at all. They took comfort in—and counted on—the stability of lifetime employment, in a single field if not at one company. Orderly progression up the career ladder was virtually guaranteed to those who managed to refrain from taking off all their clothes at the office Christmas party.
The Gen C crowd is tough. The babies of parents from the Jazz Age, they aren't all that far removed from the values of the frontier, the opening of the West, and the rise of great American cities.
They can relate to the Boomers. Not so much to Gen X, and they experience involuntary spasms when encountering Gen Yers and the behaviors that come with the new package. Think texting in church and collecting friends, fans, followers, and frauds on social networking sites. Boy, do the Codgers have a lot to learn. They also have a lot to teach, if succeeding generations are willing to listen.
We talk about Gen X and Gen Y as if they are new phenomena. Wake up! Gen X is aging. Gen Y has been in the workforce for, what, 10 years now? Some are in their 30s, on the cusp of supervisory and management roles if they haven't assumed them already.
So here's where our next game-changing, game-winning challenge lies. Once we figure out how to succeed, organizationally, in this parti-colored world of mixed generations, we've got to get ahead of the wave.
We've got to watch little kids growing up and track them through high school and university. We need to suss out how to motivate, manage, and teach them before they enter the workplace, so we can avoid the confusion and conflict that have delayed the full and effective integration of prior generations into our social and economic engines.
Let's stop "discovering" that change has taken place after the fact. Instead, in this continuum of generational shifts, let's try informed and intelligent anticipation. Whatever the next—as yet unnamed—generation acts and looks like, we must be more ready for it than we were for its predecessors.
What's at stake? How well—or not so well—we compete in the brutal arenas of global supply chains, global economics, and global geopolitical contests. We had best be at our best in this game.